black & white & not-so-blurry

by bam

the day we decided to move here, the day we decided the house that we’d found here was about as good as any we could get, i was, after much gut-wrenching over the weekend, finally driving some big fat check to the real estate office.

we’d just spent an afternoon in the school my then-fourth-grader would be transferring into. and he was in the back seat reading some charts they’d handed him in the school office. actually, they’d handed the charts to me, but he’s a curious kid so he too wanted to read the numbers.

that’s when he piped up: “hey mom, it says ‘caucasian, 98 percent.’”

we both swallowed hard. i could hear his gulp.

that was not a world we’d lived in, not a world we believed in. but we’d been looking in places where the world was colored the way we believed it should be, colored in many colors. not just one. and we couldn’t find a house we could afford there.

not one that didn’t need to be ripped apart from top to bottom. which on top of buying was not something we could afford. we had to buy ready-to-live-in. and a house, when you hear it call your name, as this one did, is hard to walk away from. so we were, yes, moving to a town where the color is 98 percent white.

and that’s when i, squirming in the front seat, made a promise: “sweetheart, more than ever, we are going to have to seek out a world that is not all white.”

and so, we have. and so, when i heard a few years ago about a summer camp where kids from the inner city jumble it up with kids from whitebread land, i got in line. i had to wait, though, ’til my little one was old enough to fit in one of the camp t-shirts.

this summer he got his t-shirt. this summer he went off to twig, a name that stands for together we influence growth.

it’s a camp started 41 years ago, by a black man, married to a white woman, who’d left the city, moved out to where there were few to no black faces. he, a disciple of martin luther king, did not believe in such a world. just found himself living amid it.

he believed, like i do, if you start young, if you start with simple summer games, you too can grow up thinking the world works best when it comes in many colors. when the colors blur, don’t matter, ‘cause you don’t see them anymore.

so he got a bus, filled it with kids from the old neighborhood, drove it out to where he’d moved. he invited white kids to play with black kids, and the other way around, as well. it worked. and it’s been going now for two whole generations. the kids of kids who went there long ago, now sing some of the same silly camp songs. wear halloween costumes one friday in july. splash in the same cold lake, learn to swim in the fancy high school pool.

i was in, mostly. i’d be lying if i didn’t say i had at least a few qualms. the bus ride, for one. there was something out of kilter, i thought, about a plan that had the city kids doing all the riding on the bus.

little ones, as young as 5 and 6, were packed on a bus, rode one hour back and forth each day, to come to where the leafy trees are, and the swimming pool is deep and blue.

i wasn’t sure i liked that the suburban kids got dropped off, from their minivans and SUVs and station wagons, just a hop and skip from their houses. why didn’t the leafy kids get on a bus, ride for one hour each way? why not split the session, half in leafy land, half in inner city?

maybe they were worried there wouldn’t be enough campers to ride the other way.

but then, all summer, i’ve been hearing about my little one’s new best friend. his name is ricky. he lives far away.

and because at 5, a child sees and names what he can see, i heard early on that my little one was friends with all the african-american kids. but his best friend, he told me, was ricky.

i met ricky just the other day, on the last day of camp. my little one had been sick and missed the whole last week. but the last afternoon, his fever had been gone for a day, and we wanted to say goodbye and thank you. so we made a giant thank-you card and off we went.

as we stepped into the auditorium where the camp production of the lion king was just about to begin, there came running down the aisle a little guy with a smile beaming, from his face, yes, but mostly from his eyes.

before i could say a word about not getting too close, what with any stubborn leftover germs or anything, they were tangled up. arm in arm, hand through hair. touching tummies. touching backs. lips to ear, ear to lips. giggling, laughing, rolling, twirling.

they were kids who were, simply, best friends. no colors asked. no colors mentioned.

we sat together through the play that went on forever and ever, despite the fact that i could barely hear a word. but right beside me, the two best friends put on a show i’ll not forget.

for one thing, i now know there is another kid on the planet with as much imp in him as i know is in my little one. between their matching dimples and their pint-sized energy-pack bodies, they could be bookends. they seem to share a delight in making funny noises with their body parts. they know each other’s silly jokes.

as i sat there absorbing the beauty of their wholly blurred little selves, as one giggle morphed into the other, as arms and legs and trunks coiled and bumped and heaped on top of each other, i clearly saw the picture i’d been intent on seeing years ago, back when i made a promise that we would seek out a world that wasn’t only white.

i still don’t like the bus ride business. still think i’m going to raise my hand and ask if we might practice taking turns. how ‘bout three weeks the leafy kids take the bus; the other half, the city kids come to where it’s leafy?

but in the meantime, we’ve got little ricky’s number. and any day now i hope to hear those funny noises they make with body parts. doesn’t matter to me, if it’s our house or his. just so what started this summer never ends.

oh goodness, talking race is not so easy. it is laced with pangs and twinges. guilt. privilege. what’s fair, what’s not? but not to talk of it is worse. if we don’t keep fumbling forward, how do we not settle for the status quo? how do we change a world that seems to keep falling along dividing lines? colors? religions? cultures? i bring this to the table not because i have it figured out, not because there are no soft spots in my thinking. i bring it to the table to hear your thoughts. and to say that, in the end, despite my doubts and misgivings, my uneasiness about what i worried had a tinge of “hoity white kids open arms to poor black kids,” i saw something beautiful. something i want to last. i await your thoughts? how do you live in a world without dividing lines? how do you break down color barriers?