Carol A. Hand
“It all depends on how you look at things”
(Ben Ross Berenberg, 1946)
I remember when my daughter, Jnana, was not yet two years old, she was playing in her little plastic pool on a warm summer day. My neighbor brought her daughter over to join in the fun, and I watched with concern as her daughter began pushing and hitting Jnana, trying to claim ownership of all of Jnana’s toys. Of course, my neighbor only noticed when Jnana defended herself from the attack and wanted me to discipline my daughter for her response. I looked at my neighbor calmly and observed, “Your daughter started the conflict, and I decided to let Jnana figure out how to deal with it herself. As a multicultural child, it is a skill she will need to learn.” Predictably, my Euro-American neighbor became angry and replied in a tone verging on a snake hissing “Why did you ever have her then?”
This isn’t an easy question to answer, and at the time, I simply stared at my neighbor silently as she grabbed her daughter and went home, never to return to Jnana’s pool again. I must say, it was a blessing. At the time, we were living in an all-white neighborhood on the shore of the Housatonic River in the sleepy village of Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in a drafty, moldy summer cottage that my partner’s mother owned. As a Black professional, she had broken through the color line when she bought a summer cottage and out-classed many of the existing residents as a corporate vice president of Children’s Television Workshop. My neighbor tried to overcome her prejudice for the sake of social status, but a mixed-race couple and child were more than she could bear. Of course, she was not alone in her censure.
As I have mentioned in other posts, I was raised in the space between cultures and consequently was drawn to diversity. It was not a stance my parents could easily accept, nor was it easy for my partner’s mother. And despite the Civil Rights movement, my partner and I had already lived through a series of challenging situations before our daughter was born.
I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, during anti-war and civil rights demonstrations in 1969. Jnana’s father, David, was a senior and a teaching assistant in the history department at the University of Wisconsin. He was a gentle, quiet, good-looking Black man with an Afro, who appeared to be painfully shy. Yet, he was one of the co-founders of the Black People’s Organization on campus. It is amazing to remember the heightened racial tensions in the early years of 1970s. Even in Madison, I would often see people looking at David and me with disapproving stares as we walked down the streets laughing and holding hands. I would often wonder if there was something strange about our appearance – were our jeans unzipped or was snot hanging out of our noses? “Ah,” I remembered – “people are prejudiced.” A funny thing to forget, and sometimes, dangerous.
When I was about four months pregnant, David decided it would be a good idea for me to meet his mother in New York City. He had an old Ford and another mixed-ancestry couple asked if they could share the ride as far as New Jersey. We set off and somewhere on a rural stretch of interstate along the border between Ohio and Pennsylvania, the car developed problems. We pulled off the road in a small town and were relieved to find a garage, at least for a moment. When we pulled into the garage, four large white mechanics surrounded the car, tapping the wrenches they held into their left hands as the owner told us they needed to replace the alternator, which they would do for twice what it normally costs. Of course we agreed although it took almost all of our cash to pay the bill. We were thankful to leave when it was finally done and continued on our way.
All was fine until we reached New Jersey. Just after we dropped off our colleagues and headed north to New York, we were pulled over by a police officer. David was stopped for “looking like a Black Panther.” Unfortunately, despite my warning, he had hidden a small stash of marijuana in the trunk of the car and the officer discovered it during his illegal search. We were driven to the police station and David was arrested and placed in jail. After a lecture on the dangers of associating with someone like David, the police drove me back to David’s car and let me travel on alone to NYC. I had the pleasure of meeting my future mother-in law for the first time and telling her that her son was in jail.
It took several days to get David released. He was a changed person when we picked him up. He had been forced to shave off his hair or face solitary confinement. As he regrew his Afro, we returned to Madison. In the spring of 1970, David, his friend “Nelson” (not his real name), and I rented a house with several others in a “row housing” complex that lined the railroad tracks in an industrial section of town. (I don’t remember all of the ever-shifting housemates.) In August of 1970, David and I decided to get married, although neither of us really felt it was a legitimate social institution. Yet we realized that our child’s life would be difficult enough because of the ignorance, prejudice, and fear of difference that were so pervasive. We were married by a minister of some protestant denomination. (All I remember is that the ceremony took place in a park just west of the campus with two friends of David’s as our witnesses. Fittingly, the white minister’s last name was “Savage.”)
After we were married, I took David and his mother, Evelyn, to meet my parents who were living on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation at the time. I waited to introduce David until after we were married, knowing that my father held strong prejudices regarding African Americans. Evelyn’s presence and status helped keep my father in line. The most interesting outcome was something I only learned about many years later. An Ojibwe relative told me that my father had been trying to organize a group of Whites and Ojibwe from the community to go with him to burn down the minimum security prison that was being built in a neighboring community in order to keep blacks out of the region. His efforts were beginning to succeed, yet when word spread about my marriage to a Black man, my father’s credibility evaporated overnight and nothing ever came of his plans. So the child who had not yet been born was already bridging differences between people and preventing violence. Yet, the threats were not over.
Back in Madison in our row house, the threats continued. David and I shared a room on the second floor, and Nelson’s room was next to ours. It was late in the evening at the beginning of September, 1970. I was trying to sleep but was awakened by a rough-voiced man hassling one of our housemates downstairs. The voices were loud and increasingly excited, and what I could hear of the conversation was becoming more threatening and heated. I tried to wake David, but he was too far gone, so I was on my way to wake Nelson. We arrived at our hallway doors at the same time. Facing us near the top of the stairs was a Madison police officer, with his gun drawn and pointed at us. “Move, and I’ll shoot,” were the first words he yelled at us. I could read the fear in his eyes, and knew he would shoot. We surely looked like pinko hippies – Nelson, a tall handsome black man with an Afro and goatee, and a small 8-month pregnant light-skinned woman with long braided hair. As I looked at the officer calmly, I noticed the phone on the stand in the hallway that was within my reach. I was amused as I wondered who one could call for help and protection in a situation like this. I was so tempted to laugh, but I knew one of us would probably be shot if I did. “WHERE’S THE GUN,” the officer shouted. I can’t remember if it was Nelson or me who softly responded. “What gun? There aren’t any guns here.” We were finally able to convince the officer that we didn’t have a gun, although his grip on the pistol never relaxed as he backed down the steps. We later realized someone had called in a report of gun shots in our neighborhood. The officer went to the wrong address.
Not long after, our tiny daughter was born at the university hospital, on a Sunday morning, October 18, 1970. My daughter was given a special name, Jnana, a concept that held special significance for me. (In a class I took on Buddhism, “jnana” was defined as wisdom-knowledge, the deeper understanding that knowledge without the wisdom of compassion is incomplete.) As a child whose very creation symbolized the joining together of many ancestries, I felt our child should have a name that transcended differences.
The homogeneity and social isolation of Sandy Hook were more than I could bear. Shortly after the encounter with our neighbor, Jnana and I left with to join a commune to begin a new life. Unfortunately, Jnana has needed the skills her little neighbor helped her develop. When singled-out by her kindergarten teacher who told her “You’re bad because you’re Black,” Jnana stood up and replied “Under Massachusetts State Law I’m not required to be in kindergarten, so I’m leaving.” Half of the class walked out with her. Her exceptional abilities were always questioned – a “dark child” couldn’t possibly be in advanced reading, or couldn’t possibly write such creative stories on her own. Yet with tenacity and intelligence, with knowledge tempered by hard-won wisdom, she survived the racism and bullying. I am honored by the thoughtful, courageous woman she is today.
Our family tradition of bridging divides has continued. My grandson, Aadi, has added Korean ancestry to the mix, and Ava, perhaps more Ojibwe or Dakota. I know many purists from all of the ancestries we represent would not approve, and I wonder what box we should check for our “race” on the U.S. Census questionnaire – “human” is not among the options…
Photo Credits: Aadi, me, Ava, and Jnana – 2008
We are proud to represent the colors of the rainbow – to be as Pete Seeger sings — “all mixed up.”