Published on February 29th, 2016 | by Tamika Thompson4
MISS SICK OF THIS VS. MAMA COOL by Tamika Thompson
My four-year-old so often says, “Mommy, I need to tell you something,” that I almost missed what she had to share that day. I hurried her up the steps and out of her preschool, ensuring that we had enough time for her to eat a snack of cheese and pear, change into her leotard and tutu, and drive the four miles to her ballet class.
Even with my hand on her back in the sweaty space between her shoulder blades, gently nudging her faster, faster, “Let’s see who can make it to the car first,” faster up the stairs and out to the parking lot, I knew that her ongoing declaration was a parenting pop quiz. A way to make certain that her words mattered to me, that she could trust me. So, I accepted her test as I always do, no matter the pressing time constraints.
“Okay, Morgan. I’m listening.”
She was dawdling. To quicken her pace, I snatched up her paint-speckled hand, the yellow sparkling like gold on her brown skin.
“William spit on me, Mommy.” Her boisterous voice shrank to a pained near-whisper. “Not the William in my class. Not my friend William. The other William, in the other class. On my cheek, my hands, and right here.”
She pointed to her blue jeans, as if the spit landing on the denim was the worst of her injuries. The glittery butterflies near the pockets caught the afternoon sunlight.
I stopped. Still holding her hand at the top of the stairs, I peered into her eyes, which widened under my gaze. I felt the sun on my face. My cheek grew hot, as if, somehow, the spit had landed on me.
In her face I saw every African American person who had been spit on by hate-filled white people. I saw Elizabeth Eckford in 1957 outside of Little Rock Central High School. Ruby Bridges in 1960 outside of New Orleans’ William Frantz Elementary School. John Lewis and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee members sitting at those lunch counters. I saw Ferguson protestors. Ferguson!
“What do you mean he ‘spit’ on you?”
She gathered a stream of saliva between her plump, red lips then shot it out of her mouth. “Just like that.”
She’d never spit before, that I know of. My husband and I do not allow her to hit, bite, pinch or kick either. She has to use her words, we tell her. Her words, at all times.
“And how did that make you feel when he spit on you?”
“Very, very angry.”
If anyone were watching the way that I stared down at her, seething, the way that she gazed up at me, hurt, they might have thought that I was chastising her.
Had my husband and I made a mistake by placing our African American daughter in a school that had a lot going for it but where diversity was recklessly lacking? A school where there were only a handful of children of color. Where, as the brownest, curliest of the 200 students, Morgan had been on the receiving end of behavior that was at best confusing and at worst offensive. A school where Black History Month drifted by without so much as a peep until I raised the topic.
Every injury from my past seemed to leap up from the ground and rush into my body. I was a freshman in high school again, in the hallways’ rushing sea of schoolmates getting to the next class. I was one, slow-moving body arrested by some strange thing on the wall. Curious, nervous, inching closer to the poster with my picture in the middle. I’d hung that poster with something splashy across the top like “Tamika for Class President.” But, with books tucked in the crook of my arm, I squinted at what had been scribbled in ink below my carefully penned words. What did those dashed off words say? Holding my breath, the words came into focus. My books fell from my arms to the floor when I saw that the anonymous wretch had scrawled “Just another nigger.” Where did her hate come from?
I was in middle school again at a fair in our gymnasium. Three boys, who had climbed monkey bars and shared cupcakes with me when I was a kindergartener, now shot me a menacing look, shoved me aside, and then sauntered through the double doors, remarking snidely over their shoulders, “White people first.” Where did their hate come from?
I was in second grade again, when my redheaded classmate said to me, “I used to be afraid to touch you because I thought the brown on your skin would get on mine.” In the backseat of our family car that afternoon, I wondered, why would it have been so bad for my brown to get on her? Why wasn’t she also worried about getting her white on me? Where did her hate come from?
“Mommy?” Morgan probably wondered why we were standing frozen on her school’s top step. She couldn’t know that sharing the “Other-William-Spit-On-Me” story had, for several seconds, made me the same age as her with the same injured parts and confusion about how exactly I was injured. The “Other-William-Spit-On-Me” story had activated my racism alarm, strengthening the siren’s blare the longer that I stood there. My inner “Miss Sick of This” competed with my inner “Mama Cool.”
Damn the dance class. I marched Morgan back down the stairs, banging the school’s security gate against its frame. We filed through the concrete courtyard, beyond the now-empty classrooms, and onto the sandy playground where the teachers, who presumably saw the incident during the “after-school picnic,” and who presumably had handled the situation, and who presumably had lost their ever-loving minds for not mentioning this to me during pick-up, were watching Morgan’s schoolmates clamoring up the slide steps and gliding through the air on swings like eagles.
I stomped over to Ms. Wilson, a red-cheeked teacher who had smiles for days.
“Everything okay?” There was concern in her squeezed-together brows.
Miss Sick of This: Was everything okay? Was everything okay? Hell no, everything wasn’t okay! What the hell kind of after-school picnic program are you running where a kid can spit on another kid and you all don’t say boo to the parent about it at pick-up?
Mama Cool: Morgan says that a very upsetting thing happened to her during picnic today.
Ms. Wilson: Oh, yes. Three boys were near Morgan and her other friends. One of the boys spit on her. She came and told us right away. And we didn’t know which one of them did the actual spitting, so we asked all three to apologize.
Miss Sick of This: Three boys? THREE?! BOYS?! Of all of the kids present, WHY HER? Point out these ruffians! Because I need to have a word with their parents. Those parents need to know what kind of hooligans they are raising!
Mama Cool: Oh. So they apologized to Morgan? Did you accept their apology Morgan?
Ms. Wilson: Yes. It was all taken care of. And Morgan continued to play.
Miss Sick of This: DOESN’T MATTER THAT SHE CONTINUED TO PLAY! Why are the boys still on the playground? Have their parents been notified? WHY THE HELL DIDN’T THIS INFORMATION COME FROM YOU?
Mama Cool: Well, I was surprised when SHE told me because none of the TEACHERS mentioned it to me when I picked her up.
Ms. Wilson’s cheeks grew redder. Her smile, forced and wider.
I eyed the yard looking for Other William. His folks would be hearing from me just as soon as I figured out who he was. I searched, but the children were a blur of running, swinging, shouting. There were girls splashing one another at the water table. Boys dragging toy trucks through the sand. Where was he, dammit? I’d know the hellion just by looking at him. Because Other William would, no doubt, look like a hellion.
“Are we going to class, Mommy?”
I glanced down at Morgan, who was drinking from her water bottle, and, frankly, seemed over it. For a moment I had forgotten that she was there.
Surveying the yard again, it occurred to me that I wasn’t really searching for Other William. I was searching for the faceless monster who had scrawled “nigger” on my poster, for the budding neo-Nazi who had shoved me and said, “White people first,” for the redheaded heifer who feared being marked by my brown skin. Where had my hate come from?
Peering into every precious and innocent, and un-malicious boy’s face on the playground of my daughter’s school, a dam within me broke, and the hate flooded out. There were no hellions. No hooligans. No wretches. These were the cherubic faces of babies. How could Other William know, how could Morgan know, how could these babies know the history of racism that I carried? How could they know the hate that had been foisted on me by violent white people? How could they know that to be a person of color in America is to be a person terrorized by the state at will, that I refuse to be a victim though I am victimized?
Mama Cool: Thank you. I’ll talk to Morgan about this at home.
Ms. Wilson’s smile relaxed. Not that I or Miss Sick of This cared about Ms. Wilson’s comfort. Ms. Wilson waved to Morgan, who waved back and then skipped to the car singing I Wanna Walk Like Jesus, a song she’d learned at her school’s chapel.
Later that night, after my husband tired from his fulminations about the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin and how everything begins at this age and how the precious hooligans’ parents needed to teach those boys about skin color and race and how to treat girls, we told Morgan that she did the right thing by letting her teachers know what had happened to her on the playground.
After careful reflection, I told my husband – and later my mother – that this incident had nothing to do with race. It was probably just silly boys figuring out what happens when you load drinking fountain water into bulging cheeks and let ’er rip. My mind had come to that conclusion, and my mouth spoke the words. My heart had doubt.
“Oh, it has EVERYTHING to do with race,” my mother said, reminding me of her difficulties growing up on the Eastside of Detroit, and my late father’s challenges living in Southern Alabama in the 1950s and ’60s. She continued, “Of all the kids on the playground, he chose the one who looks different. That same boy will call her a nigger when he gets older.”
I am not convinced of that fact, but I share my mother’s concerns. When my grade-school friends were calling me nigger by high school, how could I not worry that this current incident of singling Morgan out isn’t the start of something?
It was bedtime. In her striped pajamas, Morgan curled onto my lap as I sat on the floor at the foot of her bed.
“It was very sad, wasn’t it, Mommy?” She rubbed my arm. Was I comforting her or she me?
“Yes, Morgan. It was very, very sad. It makes Mommy very unhappy.”
“They said they were sorry, Mommy. And I said okay.”
I wondered whether she could feel my heart pounding against her ribs. Could she know that if I kept talking about this, I might end up sobbing the way that she does when she’s having a meltdown? Racism hurts. And I hoped she’d never find that out.
Mama Cool: “Yes, Morgan. You did the right thing. When someone hurts you, even if they don’t apologize, you have to forgive them.”
I kissed Morgan. My husband put her to bed. All was well again.
But as I descended the stairs of my home to begin my nighttime cleaning of toys, dishes, and loads of clothes, deep down, in the pit of my stomach, Miss Sick of This was not satisfied. You are soft, Mama Cool. You can go on and keep your sweet, mercy talk. Those mofos got one time to cross me. Just one time. ‘Cause I ain’t forgiving shit!