At first, I didn't notice the flag. Actually, it wasn't there when we first arrived at our favorite campground just outside Lanesboro, MN. Our only worry was trying to beat the rains as we hurried to setup our Coleman camper. After we finished we ate a quick meal, snuggled into our beds and listened to the intermittent rain showers as we fell asleep.
The next morning the sky had cleared. Mother Nature urged me to visit the main building. As I walked, I noticed the campground was nearly filled; RV's, 5th wheels and pop-ups blanketed the 200-acre estate with a few tent campers scattered among the metal monsters. Along the way, I passed a few campsites, the pool house and the playground, but I hardly noticed them because I had other pressing matters on my mind. It wasn't until I was on my way back that I began to take note of my surroundings.
Two campsites from the playground, a solo camper was setting up. He was a middle age white man unloading a rather strange camping vehicle -- a dark blue panel truck with no windows on its sides or back. It resembled a utility truck or a delivery truck; however, it had no markings on it. Through the front windshield, I could see the truck did not have typical camping paraphernalia such as a bed or a stove. Instead, protruding through the roof was a 20-foot tall telescoping flagpole with two flags raised. Seeing the insignia on the flags was difficult because the air was still and the sun was in my eyes. However, I assumed one flag was the US flag, and I had my suspicions about the other one. Those suspicions were confirmed when Mike came back from escorting Jaden to the same bathroom. He burst into the camper and blurted out, "Someone's flying a Confederate flag!"
For the most part, we fell into our normal camping routine. Mike combed the woods for dead, dry branches to use for firewood. Once we got the campfire started, Mike made us sandwiches with his iron cookers. We carried on with our day and tried not to let the racist freak spoil our trip. But, how could we not when his campsite was within eyeshot. Each time I glanced in that direction, I saw the flag. My emotions ranged from disgust thinking about the unmitigated gall he had to fly that flag on union soil, to confusion about how the other campers felt about the flag -- especially his closest neighbors, to anger at management for allowing the flag to remain, to fear of what he might say to me if we crossed each others path.
My biggest fears arose that night. It was after midnight and I needed to use the bathroom. The one thing I hate about camping is late night bathroom runs -- it's the only time I wish I was a man. However, since I'm not, I play a mental game with myself called, "Can I make it till morning?" Sometimes I win, but this particular night I lost. After over an hour of trying to ignore the urge, I finally surrendered and rushed to the main building.
Heading back to the camper, I again noticed the blue panel truck. It was now dark and quiet. The flags were both still up. Empty beer cans littered the ground nearby. I noticed the proximity of the truck to the playground. I hurried back to the camper and locked the door. I lay back in bed but I couldn't sleep. My mind raced. I stared at Mike. He slept. I looked at Jaden. He too slept. However, I couldn't sleep -- too much was on my mind. I thought about how close the truck was to the playground. I thought about how his truck had no windows. I thought about how he was camping alone. Finally I thought what could happen to Jaden if he was playing alone at the playground and this man approached him. Then I remembered how Mike, though loving and sensitive, doesn't always catch things -- like in the Chinese restaurant. Finally, a primal maternal instinct to protect my son overcame me and I needed to know my husband felt the same way. I woke him up.
"Mike, wake up. Mike, wake up…I need to talk to you."
"Mike, are you awake? I really need to talk to you."
"Yeah I'm awake," he mumbled, raking his beard with his hand. "What is it?"
"I need to talk to you about that camper."
"I thought so. He really got to you."
"Yeah. Mike, I'm scared for Jaden. What if that man tries to hurt him? Promise me you won't let him go to the playground alone."
"Are you kidding? There is absolutely no way I'll let him near that playground without me. No way! I'm not letting Jaden out of my sight."
"I'm so glad…I was afraid you might think I was overreacting."
"No way! That guy's nuts and I don't want him anywhere near Jaden. Who knows what he's capable of?"
"God, you don't know how relieved I am to know you feel the same way I do."
Then I slept.
The remainder of the trip was spent biking and having fun with our friends Marco, Melissa and their son Matteo, who drove down to spend part of the weekend with us. Together, we made jokes about the flake with the flag while the boys built forts and let their kid minds run wild. With his best friend nearby, there was never any need for Jaden to go to the playground.
That late fall camping trip led me to wonder whether I was right not to tell Jaden about the flagman. I want so much to protect him from all things harmful and that includes racism. Like MLK, I too want my son to grow up believing he won't be judged by the color of his skin but by the content of his character. In some ways, I can see this is happening. His childhood is very different from the one I had. He was the only black child in his classroom last school year, but to his peers, he was no different. Quite a change from what I experienced nearly forty years earlier.
Watching Jaden bounding across the floor, he clearly doesn't carry the same weight on his shoulders I did at his age. Nor should he; born in the year of the millennium; many of the traumas I experienced as a child are shadows of the past. His charismatic smile and endless energy conveys to the world a self-confidence I never had. I do all I can to nurture that self-confidence. I rarely draw attention to his skin color except to tell him his toasty brown skin is beautiful. Yet, I know he will likely experience derision or perhaps even physical harm because of it. I know some people will discount his opinions because they don't consider him important. I even know that as my son gets older some of his friends (especially the girls) will pull away from him because he doesn't fit their parents' image of the boy next door.
I've tried to keep these harsh realities from my son; however, in retrospect, I wonder if that is that wise? As his mother and primary link to black history, culture, pride and pain, I worry I am making a grave mistake. My biggest fear is I'm not fully preparing him to cope in a racist society and thus he may walk straight into harm's way. And if that does happen, then I have failed him. Jaden is seven, the same age I was when I learned the world could be a cruel to me for no reason other than the color of my skin. If not under our protective eye, Jaden too may have learned there are people who'd rather spit in his face than say hello. Perhaps I should view this camping trip as a wake up call and spend more time educating him about our country's ugly side. I know I can't shield him forever…I just hoped he could get past seven.
MMO : DECEMBER 2007