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    Framing the Image

    Like Dr. King, I dream of a world where my child is judged not by the color of her skin but by the content of her character. But I’m not naïve.

    By Elisha James Jones

    January 16, 2023
    • Barbara Lundberg

      She is beautiful. I’m sorry that such a frightening and depressing ‘talk’ is necessary. But her dad knows the King of Kings. Thank God.

    • Lizabeth

      Heart Hugs Thank you. I so enjoy these articles.

    When my daughter was born, I cried deep and joyous tears with my wife as we huddled together as a family for the first time. For hours, I cried every time I looked at her, filled with such gratitude and awe at this small child of less than seven pounds. Any time I think of my daughter’s birth, that instant wave of joy washing over me is the first thing that comes to mind. What a glorious wave it was, crashing over my mind and body, taking away all other thoughts and feelings as new life filled the room.

    As the first weeks of parenthood came and went, my wife and I were shocked to see how quickly our daughter grew and developed. She became more alert, active, and observant by the day, in a progression that showed us both what a miracle a child is. As she grew, her face changed as well – that tiny purplish face covered in vernix transformed into an entirely new and distinctive one. She has her mother’s head shape, a precious cherubic round face. She also has her mother’s beautiful head of hair, long and thick waves of deep brown. Despite these similarities, we began to hear repeatedly that she is indeed my “twin.” To be certain, she has my round cheeks, and a head size that could be kindly described as “notable.” Beyond that, she has many of my facial features, my big nostrils and full lips. That she would have a strong resemblance to either one of us wasn’t a surprise, but one similarity to me did strike me repeatedly in those first few weeks, the thought ringing in my head: Goodness gracious, she’s almost as dark as me.

    a father and baby daughter

    Image courtesy of the author

    I would wager most interracial couples field speculation or speculate themselves about the skin color of their child before the child is born. My own parents certainly heard it before having me, and my wife and I heard it as well. My wife is fair-skinned even for a White woman, and my complexion is not particularly light or dark, owing to my own biracial heritage. Suffice it to say, we expected our daughter to be rather light, and certainly not obviously Black like me. As she grew more into her visage, the thought occurred to me that I would be raising a Black child. Lest I sound naïve, I knew my child would be Black as a matter of lineage and ethnicity. But had her complexion and facial features come out different, perhaps she wouldn’t have been Black socially. I always figured it’d be more likely my daughter would have to convince other people that she was Black, not that it would prove to be as self-evident as my own Blackness.

    Over the past few years, increased cultural attention has been given to “the talk” that is so often had with Black children and teenagers in this country, especially young Black men. “The talk” is not a sit-down discussion about puberty and sex, but instructions and considerations about how to interact with police in a situation where the child may be accosted by a law enforcement officer. I received such a talk when I was sixteen, given to me a few weeks after Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida on my birthday. That talk is still salient and vivid in my mind, but my siblings and I had received a less common sort of talk years prior, which has proven to be far more memorable and impactful.

    I recall being a small child when I was shown my first images of racism. My father was a history teacher, and as the parent of Black children in an overwhelmingly White environment, he was adamant about preserving not only some sense of cultural consciousness but also a sense of our history – degradation and violence included. I remember the day I was shown the photograph of Gordon, the enslaved man whose back was covered in scars from the scourge, cracked like leather. I remember seeing clips of minstrelsy and learning how Disney and Warner Brothers incorporated these caricatures of Black people into characters I saw on television. But the images most seared into my mind from these childhood talks are the pictures of lynchings. I remember the unnatural bend of the necks and the bulged eyes and battered faces of the victims. I remember my father explaining that these photos were taken not to document the violence but for postcards to be sold as souvenirs. Specifically, my father called attention to one lynching photo, which I later learned was of the bodies of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. Shipp and Smith hang centered in the photo, with the tree to the right and the darkness of night in the background. One of the White onlookers is pointing up at the bodies, another is grinning at the camera.

    To show children imagery of horrific violence and brutality may seem shocking to an outside observer, but the internal logic of such a decision is clearer to those who rear Black children. The purpose of the talks I received was to make it clear to me that there were people who considered me disposable, threatening, or deserving of arbitrary and cruel punishment. These images showed that there was a cultural current in this country that stated I was not made in the image of God, that my lips, my nose, and above all my dark skin were marks of some lesser creator, a perversion of the purity of the majority. Questions of the timing and necessity of these discussions, their sheer weight and unpleasantness, now hung over me as I looked down at my innocent baby daughter and saw a face that looked so much like mine.

    Questions now hung over me as I looked down at my innocent baby daughter and saw a face that looked so much like mine.

    The idea that parenting involves uncomfortable discussions with your child is not news to anyone. All parents expect to navigate questions about puberty with their children. But unlike the shifts of puberty, the impact of race in your child’s life is dependent on exterior forces. And unlike puberty, where you have a general window of time in which you know the changes will come, race can become a force to be explained on a moment’s notice, based on little more than an ugly confrontation you see in public or a particularly bad news cycle.

    For this reason alone, perhaps, Black Americans tend to spring particularly bleak and ugly realities of history onto our children early. Perhaps better to be shocked and maybe scarred a little inside the home in a contained environment than outside the home where variables can’t be controlled. Better to be overly fearful or distrustful of a police officer than victimized by one. I remember once being in the car in high school when a White friend of mine was pulled over for spinning his tires in front of the officer’s car. My friend was indignant and annoyed with the officer as I sat completely still and stared straight ahead, dumbfounded and afraid. That was the first time it really occurred to me that other children didn’t require the same sort of home training I had received.

    This lack of need for such training is precisely what I wish for my daughter. I want her to get to be a teen who acts foolishly and then gets to be annoyed when an authority figure steps in. I want her to be afraid of tickets when she sees a squad car, and not a beating, or something worse. I want her to get to be a child, free and uninhibited by images of murder and brutality aimed at people who look like her. I want nothing more than for her to only come across these things as historical artifacts, and to see them all as part of a distant and shuttered past. I suppose it could be said that I dream, like that oft-misquoted dream of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to live in a world where my child is judged not by the color of her skin but by the content of her character.

    But still, there remains my duty as a parent to do the sometimes unpleasant work of readying my child to live in the world. If that world is one where how my daughter looks can lead to her mistreatment, or even to danger, then I must help her stare it in the face and be prepared to deal with the challenges that may come. I mourn the fact that my daughter’s upbringing will not be as simplistic as I wish all children’s were. But while I have to share these moments with her, and we may feel sad, angry, or dejected, I will always ensure that she knows the joy and triumph of the Lord. That she is made in God’s image, a beautiful and triumphant thing that no law or history, no matter how sordid, can sully. She will know that we are descendants of those who endured slavery, but are also children of the king of kings. She will know, as her enslaved ancestors preached in pulpits across the South, that even when we weep, it only endures for a night, because joy comes in the morning (Ps. 30:5).

    I don’t mean to make it seem as though grappling with racism is a cross only Black parents and children have to bear. We should all collectively endeavor to teach our children to overcome the racial division and bigotry in our world, and much can be gained from helping White children navigate the history of race in a pointed but loving way. But Black children do bear an outsized weight of this history for the time being, and my teaching my daughter how to handle that reality, as my father did with me, is both necessary and important.

    I think often of the tears my wife and I cried the day our daughter was born. We could not fathom the joy and excitement of staring at this new baby. A baby who was a new person, a baby who was crying, a baby who was experiencing the world for the first time. The wonder of these things in this moment shut out any consideration of the outside world with its social problems and racial issues. I expect we will share some tears over the years in discussing racism with my daughter. But even as we dread the necessity of those days, I take solace in knowing we’ll always point her toward what gave us those simple tears of joy on her first day – the blessing that is life on this earth.

    Contributed By ElishaJamesJones Elisha James Jones

    Elisha James Jones is an attorney and writer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and daughter.

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