During the long weekend, we were walking to Starbucks (yes, that is the destination of many a family jaunt), and Mike asked if I’d brought tissues to wipe Teddy’s nose. I confirmed that I had, but since our future track star was busy jumping over a sewer cover (the boy can clear three feet from standing!), I said we could wait until we had coffees in hand before attending to Teddy’s runny nose. Then I remembered that the Starbucks we were headed to is staffed by all black baristas. I quickly decided I wanted my boy to be as snot-free as possible before we reached the warmth of the coffee shop, as I’d already been kindly offered tissues once that week by a concerned black woman.
And in that moment, it occurred to me that a lot of decisions I make and actions I take now are inspired by the fact that my son comes from a different culture. As in the above example, some of those are to avert anticipated criticism from members of that culture, like taking care to bundle him appropriately for the weather, no matter how long we’ll actually be outside.
But it’s not always a defense mechanism. For example, Mike and I want Teddy to look good as a little black boy, even though this involves things we’ve personally never had to think about. When we’re going to be in predominantly black company, we moisturize and pick out Teddy’s curls beforehand, because we know it’s more culturally appropriate to have a mini fro than just a mass of tight locks. We lotion up his hands and face a bit more carefully so he doesn’t look ashy (dried black skin looks like ash next to well moisturized black skin). I suppose these actions also come from the desire to ward off judgement, but mostly we just want him to look good amongst his black peers.
Teddy’s culture of origin also informs more substantive decisions. For one thing, I strive to find books that my dark-skinned boy can relate to. When we first brought Teddy home, friends were wonderful about gifting us books that featured either diverse or predominantly black characters. And since then, I’ve purposely sought out the same. We were at the library a few weeks ago, and one of the books set out on top of the bookshelves featured African characters dressed in brightly colored clothes. I picked it up and was delighted to find it was the African version of the Twelve Days of Christmas. I immediately checked the author, found more books by her on the shelf, and was pleased to see that they all starred black characters, some set in Africa and some not. We’re fortunate to live walking distance from the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Library, which has an impressive collection not only of children’s books, but specifically books featuring black children (and not books that are talking about race; regular stories that happen to have black protagonists alongside or instead of white ones). So it’s not difficult to find books that my boy can see himself in. Ezra Jack Keats and Rachel Isadora are favorite authors now.
We also do our best to take advantage of random opportunities to learn something about African culture. Teddy and I visited the American Museum of Natural History recently and while meandering through the “Oceans” exhibit, I noticed out of my peripheral vision an exhibit titled “African Voices” and immediately determined to walk through with Teddy. Without him, I might’ve thought, huh, interesting, and continued on my merry way. But my African-American sidekick was along for the ride, and I wanted to expose him to his cultural heritage—and learn something myself. Teddy of course didn’t get much out of it—besides yet another venue to dash around and burn off energy—but I learned a bit about a particular cultural phenomenon in Mali and, while eating his snack, Teddy watched a video that featured children that look like him.
Before the holidays, Mike was browsing Amazon and stumbled upon a collection of DVDs covering the history of jazz. Now, he does like jazz, but he was even more apt to put it on his wish list now because he knows jazz originated in the African-American communities in the South, and he wants to be able to converse knowledgeably about a variety of topics within African-American culture. He actually received the set for Christmas—thanks, Mom!
We’re enjoying this educational aspect of our journey with our black son is. In my day-to-day, I’ll still be hyper-aware of the little things—snotty noses, ashy hands—and will do my best to prevent any criticism from concerned black mamas and grandmamas, but keeping the long game in mind, I look forward to seeing what else we’re going to learn while raising a boy from another culture.