8:00 AM and I am doing yoga upstairs.
Just as I am moving into the balance poses, there is a knock, and
my four-year-old daughter, Celeste, says, "Mommy? There's someone
at the door."
We clomp downstairs together, where, sure enough, Eric paces on
our front stoop. Sighing internally, I open the door. Eric smiles
anxiously. "Can I mow your yard today?" he asks. "I
really need the money."
Eric looks like he's in his early forties. He must have already
been up a long time, because he doesn't live in this neighborhood,
and is often without a car or a working lawnmower. By 8 am he is
already here, looking like he's been killing time until it's late
enough to ring doorbells on our block.
I should say that I don't particularly believe in lawn mowing,
and that, on moving to this house, I insisted we buy a push mower
to run over the yard once or twice a year if necessary. And I don't
particularly like paying Eric to run a loud power mower over our
sparse quarter acre. Frankly, I think power mowers should be banned
in favor of tall grass and quiet neighborhoods. But I invariably
say yes, and pay Eric to mow our grass. He seems desperate, and
I imagine that, in comparison, it's nothing to us to give him $20
for the work and endure the ten minutes of noise.
I close the door and consider whether it's worth trying to finish
my yoga this morning. "Mommy," says Celeste. "I'm
scaredy of Eric"
"Why are you scared of Eric, sweetie? He mows our grass. Last
year he painted our house purple."
"Did Eric go to jail because he is a mean person?"
Eric disappeared for a while last winter. No offers to shovel a
quarter inch of sleet, no requests to borrow our shovel for the
afternoon. My husband, Ben, guessed that he was in jail. This happened
around the exact same time Celeste was becoming intrigued by the
idea of jail. Lyle the Crocodile gets forcibly interned behind bars
in the city zoo; Lyle's mother, Felicity, winds up in jail because
she misunderstands and shoplifts a bunch of perfume samples in a
department store. Jail is a scary but thrilling place, and the denizens
of it are both intriguing and threatening to her.
"No, sweetie. If Eric went to jail, it was probably because
he is poor. Poor people go to jail a lot, not because they're mean,
but because they don't have things. Sometimes they don't have enough
food, or warm clothes, and they get in trouble trying to get those
things." I skip over Ben's other theories, about Eric's not-so-distant
past as a substance abuser. And I don't, though in retrospect maybe
I should have, go into the checkered history of our city police
where people of color are concerned.
"Well, I don't like him."
The truth of it is that I don't like Eric either. I don't like
his dependence and manipulation. I don't like having my grass mowed
because I know he needs the money. I hate our relationship and everything
it represents: the social inequality that my family benefits from
and does not fix. My not liking him is petty, given the long history
of injustice our relationship represents. But my guess is that as
long as there has been this towering inequality, it's probably felt
pretty strange on both sides.
There is a certain smugness among the liberal white folks in our
urban, mixed-race neighborhood. The Old West End is one of the few
integrated neighborhoods in Toledo, Ohio, a small, quite segregated
Midwestern city. White people around town invariably act scared
of this neighborhood and predict smugly: "you'll leave that
neighborhood when you have kids."
Those of us who stay -- and there are more and more white, middle
class families drawn by the big old Victorian houses and feeling
of community here -- share a sense that we are cooler than that.
Never mind the fact that it is common to hear these same people
speak of a block that is more Black than white as "that dangerous
block." Never mind that most of us keep our kids out of the
local public schools, which are 99 percent Black and, officially,
"in crisis". We have negotiated a truce with American
apartheid, and we feel self-congratulatory about it. This makes
Eric's presence an awkward reminder.
Like many kids in the Old West End, Celeste started school last
fall at a preschool outside the neighborhood, at a slightly integrated,
private Montessori school. The school has about ten percent children
of color. There is a little scholarship money available, but not
enough. No way would Celeste wind up in a class with Eric's kids
Celeste took to school easily and well. The school extends from
preschool through the eighth grade. Ben and I talked about how we
could afford to keep her there for the duration.
I always thought I'd send my kids to public schools. I went to
them, although that was in a lily-white, upper-middle class suburb.
I felt confined by that place, and I dreamed of an integrated urban
neighborhood, where my kids would go to school with lots of different
kids, have friends of many different backgrounds. Now I lived in
that neighborhood. And here I was, keeping my child out of public
That same fall, Celeste started talking about "brown people."
At first, it was just one of her backseat taxonomies, a way for
her to sort the world into categories that, she was busily discovering,
matter a great deal to adults. Like the time the previous summer
I heard her whispering to herself, sitting at breakfast at her grandfather's
house in Texas. I leaned over, to hear her intoning quietly: "Papa
Ted has a penis. Aunt Grace has a 'gina. Uncle Frank has a penis.
Mommy and I have 'ginas." Like she was practicing the differences,
to make sure she got them right.
Celeste's interest in skin color started off the same way. She
started to talk about people we know, and what color their skin
is. "Lucy is brown, and her mommy is brown, but her daddy is
white. You and daddy and I are white. Uncle Mike is brown, but Auntie
Lisa is white." As I listened to her sorting the world into
racial categories, I thought about Maya Angelou talking about how
she realized one day that a white friend, stymied by the power of
a world divided into "black" and "white" had
no words for the actual color of Angelou's skin. I hoped Celeste
was developing a vocabulary to describe a rich world full of color
and difference. And then one day, she said, "Mommy, I don't
like brown people."
I remember exactly where we were when she said this: in the car
waiting for the light to turn at one of the major avenues that intersect
our neighborhood, leading, on either side, through portions of devastated
central city. There were two African-American women waiting at the
bus stop there, bundled against the bright but chilly fall day and,
I imagined, ongoing affronts from every single white person, four-year-olds
"Why not?" I asked.
"I don't know," she replied. "I just don't."
"You know, sweetie, skin color really doesn't change what
a person is like on the inside."
Five hundred years of lies and history hung in the air at that
moment. I wanted to convey just a fraction of that history to Celeste,
without losing her attention. I wanted to explain to her that race
is something invented to keep us apart as humans. But most of all,
I wanted to avoid shaming her out of talking about race. So many
white people blush at the thought of distinguishing between a light
brown and a deep black person, assuming that any mention of color
is something bad. These same people may harbor deeply racist feelings,
but they can't talk about them, and so they assume they're not racists.
So I didn't say any more just then.