Guest columnist Nina Mankin: ‘How do Black Lives Matter signs speak to my son?’

  • A Black Lives Matter sign in Shutesbury. file photo

Published: 8/10/2020 9:51:45 AM

This morning my 8-year-old son crept into my bed to snuggle, as he does every morning, and said “Mommy, I had a weird dream.”

And he told me his dream: he was at a house, he didn’t know if it was our house or not but it was strange, and there was a sign out front that said “Black Lives Do Not Matter.” And two boys, who he did not know, had a hose and they were spraying him. And it was scary.

As we were driving later up in the hilltowns toward Lake Wyola, a drive we take often, I was struck by what appeared to be an overnight explosion of Black Lives Matter signs. Over the past couple of months these signs have been popping up more and more. Most are the black and white signs you can buy on the Internet and, increasingly, there are ones that are painted or written with markers on wood and cardboard.

Today, they appeared like seeds that had hit their moment of germination or mushrooms after a rainstorm; they lined parts of the road in front of people’s houses like flags in some towns on July 4th.

My son is Black and I am white. We are a conspicuous pair. Ours is an experience of conspicuousness that’s shared by all American families with a multi-colored array. When he was little, strangers felt compelled to ask me, with no concept that this might be threatening to my little boy, “Is he yours?” Children stare at us with deep questions in their eyes. As he has gotten older I am aware of people in stores taking special note of us as we come in.

We have a lot of humor about this. One of our favorite stories is about the woman at Berkshire East whose granddaughter, 5 or 6 years old, stared at us with total fascination, trying to understand how we could have come to be. I had turned to this curious child and, smiling, said “Isn’t it funny that I am his mother and I have such light skin and he has such dark skin?!” to which the woman snapped “She doesn’t see color. She has been raised to not see color.”

My son and I laugh about this. Everyone sees color! We are a walking story that interests people, a book for which people want to know the blurb on the back — to have instant explanation. We love stories and we are happy to contribute to the world’s good ones. We are extroverts and we like to laugh. We love our story and we know that we don’t have to share it with everyone, even as we are amused and sometimes moved by people’s interest. And sometimes we are offended. We recognize that as well. And that becomes a part of our story.

But something is different now. I have explained to my son as best I can that Black Lives Matter is about history. It’s about an opportunity right now to positively affect hundreds of years of injustice and damage. I have explained that this is a damage that cannot be undone but perhaps it can be changed, in this amazing moment, so that maybe he will live in a different world than the one I grew up in.

My son was born in Africa and I am a first and third generation American — we have our own personal relationship to this history and, yet, I try to explain, it is something we all collectively carry. But beyond the stories I tell, are the signs. And no matter how I spin and intellectualize, there is the reality of his black skin.

Today, as we passed this explosion of signs I asked him how they made him feel. He said: they make me feel like I’m a thing, not a person. This is the language we use to talk about behavior that causes someone harm, like bullying and mistreating animals.

I asked him to explain more but that was all he wanted to say. He went back to listening to an audio book about a girl who has found a treasure that could change her and her mother’s life; far more interesting. I spent the rest of the drive thinking about how the signs made him feel, wondering if he would feel different if he lived in a Black family, how to encourage his innate resilience, and how to support him in cultivating and navigating his Black identity (all things I think about a lot.)

We live in a predominantly white area and Black Lives Matter signs are mostly in the yards of white families. I remember a conversation I had with a Black friend years ago who told me he was done teaching white people about racism. Change, he said, would only really happen when white people started teaching themselves.

I think this might be that moment: so much of the Black Lives Matter movement is a movement of white people — people who, finally, have reached a point where it is no longer acceptable for them to live in a world of disproportionate justice. This burden is finally too much to carry, too much for their children to carry.

We put these signs in our yards so that, possibly, our children do not have to carry this burden any longer, so that, possibly, they can look back at this moment and see it as a pivot point for a better world.

I spent the rest of the ride thinking about how Black Lives Matter signs speak to me about the possibility of positive change and wondering how they might speak differently to my son. What could they say? “Change can happen”? “We can change history”? “Together we can change the world”? “History is not destiny”? “There is hope”?

I have hope.

Nina Mankin lives in North Amherst.

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