Thursday, March 22, 2012

Suspicious Minds

These are two two of my nephews:

Nic is six years old. He looks up to his oldest brother in a way that it would be fair to call a form of hero-worship. Derrick is 15. He's good natured, goofy, and funny. He's a really sweet big brother to Nic - very affectionate, always looking to do something nice for the baby of the house, and very protective of the little guy who always wants to tag along. If Derrick gets interested in something, Nic follows suit. Derrick loves to skateboard and is very good at it. Nic is frustrated because, at 6, he can't really do much with the skateboard he convinced his mother to get him. When Derrick gets new sneakers, Nic wants the same kind. Nic, who has naturally curly, fleecy hair, demands his hair be kept short, because that's how Derrick, who has course, African hair, wears his. 

One day, Nic was talking to his mom - my sister - and said, "I can't wait until I get older, so I can turn black, the way Derrick is. When is that going to happen?"

My sister was filled with a mixture of joy and sadness. How wonderful that her sons shared such love for one another! But, how sad for Nic that, try as he might, he couldn't will himself to be more black. Nic and Derrick have different biological fathers and, while our side of the family is of mixed race, we tend to come out with light skin and silky hair. It's the same with Nic's biological father. Derrick's biological father, on the other hand, is 100% African American, and Derrick takes after him, physically.  Nic is too young to understand that being black or African is not just about the color of a person's skin. He's too young to understand that, yes, he's also part African, but his European traits seem to have emerged triumphant in the genetic lottery. All he knows is that his idol is his handsome, good-natured, dark-skinned, nappy-headed brother. He wants to be everything that Derrick is, in every way. 

Why am I thinking about this? Because of another handsome, dark-skinned, nappy-headed boy named Trayvon Martin.  

You see, my nephews live in Florida. In a predominantly white, gated community. Derrick is 15. In the last few years, he's come to enjoy some of the independence that comes with being a teenager. He can, for instance, get on his bike and ride off to the candy store alone. He does this often, because he's got a thing for Red Bull and chewing gum. The kid is just crazy for Red Bull and chewing gum. He's old enough to usually have pocket money, and this is often what he spends it on. 

He is a black boy, living in a white community. In Florida.
He bikes or walks back and forth from home to the candy store all the time.
He's immersed in skateboarding culture and can usually be found wearing a hooded sweatshirt.

Trayvon Martin could easily have been my nephew.
What happened to Trayvon Martin could easily happen to Derrick.

And just look at him. Doesn't he look suspicious? Do you trust that face? 

My nephews are not disposable. Their lives mean something. Children of color should not be treated as so much collateral damage.  Trayvon Martin was a human being. Somebody's son. Somebody's friend. He mattered. He had a future. I wonder if there's some younger sibling or cousin or friend who looked up to Trayvon Martin the way Nic looks up to Derrick? Where does this tragedy leave that child? How does one explain to a little kid how unjust the world can be? It's impossible, because we adults haven't fully come to terms with it, ourselves.  

Because he mattered. Because he could have been your son, your nephew, your big brother. 

Sunday, March 4, 2012

What are words worth?

Tom Tom Club said it best: Words are stupid, words are fun, words can put you on the run.

Rush Limbaugh used the word "slut" to describe a young woman who had the audacity to speak up about the healthcare needs of women with gynecological conditions requiring hormone therapy, and the walls came tumbling down.

Consider it a clarion call, I say. Words have power, but human beings have more power. Isn't it high time women reclaimed and re-appropriated this word? The LGBT community has successfully re-appropriated "dyke," "queer," and, to an extent, "fag." Feminists took back "spinster." Why can't American women do the same with "Slut"? How about we start owning the word, and not shy away from it? How about we take it on as our own, so it can never be used against us? How about a million of us wear t-shirts that say "SLUT" and show up outside of Rush Limbaugh's workplace? Or maybe just wear them around our own corners of the world to make a statement.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Peace Train

Last Saturday, I woke up to a truly sad private message on Facebook. My good friend, Cheryl, wrote to tell me that her boyfriend, the love of her life, David, had died suddenly. One minute he was there, playfully asking her if she loved him...the next, he was gone. Just like that. A cough, a loss of breath, and that was it.

David, Cheryl and I all went to the same small, elite high school, where we we all knew one another and formed tighter bonds than anyone from any other school I know. Maybe, as Cheryl has said, it's because we were considered "special" kids - square pegs who'd finally found others like us. Maybe it was because, unlike most high schools, Hunter ran from 7th grade until 12th: six years of togetherness.  Or maybe it was because most of us had been uprooted from our bridge-and-tunnel neighborhood friends and forced to take long rides on the subway, every day, to the upper east side of Manhattan, for the privilege of attending what many consider the finest school in America. For whatever reason, Hunter College High School alums are a rare breed. We stick together. We have school spirit. Most of us remember those years with great fondness.

I didn't know David very well in high school, but I liked him. That he and Cheryl -who is one of my favorite people: smart, funny, original, genuinely good and generous - found each other and fell in love, 20+ years after high school was over, made me like him more. He made her happy. They made each other happy. And they deserved it. Thanks to Cheryl, I got to know David a little better during the last two years or so. He made me laugh.

This is what I do know about David:

He was gentle
He was kind
He loved music
He was a teacher and a librarian
He had a sense of fairness that made him fight for the underdog: kids, union members, the LGBT community, the poor....
He was funny
He was a single father who clearly devoted himself to his daughter
He was very much in love with my friend, and showed her the respect and admiration she deserved

David was only 44. He and Cheryl only had a few years together. It's not fair. But the one good thing to come out of this, if that's the right way to phrase it, is the revelation that he and Cheryl didn't waste time. They didn't leave things unsaid. Two years may not sound like a lot of time, but it's clear they made the most of it, and never missed an opportunity to appreciate one another, to enjoy each other not just as partners, but as friends, to be kind to one another. They laughed a lot, and didn't waste time on pettiness. And, thank God, they were together when he died.

He died too soon, but he died in the presence of the person who changed his life, who he loved more than anything, who made him happy.

Few of us will experience the kind of relationship David and Cheryl had. Few of us are open to that kind of taking that much of a chance on life. Time slips by, and we find we've missed the boat. I'm so glad David and Cheryl did take the chance and didn't miss the boat. I only wish it had been a longer trip.

So long, David.  I don't know if you liked Cat Stevens, but this song is joyous, and makes me think of how happy Cheryl has been since you entered her life, and of the journey you've embarked on. Peace, brother.