Oliver grabs my hand and we sprint, first to get Zia; and then, each of us holding one of her arms, we fast-walk down the path to my house. We’re rallying “our people,” gathering the elders. Mimi, Pop, and Zia have decided to work together in a grandparent-grand aunt-grandkids-grandnephew co-op. Gives us the stability of a three-legged stool, Zia explained to us a while back. Your grandparents and I are on challenging footing with the raising of you kids. But, if you use a three-legged stool on an uneven surface you don’t wobble. Far superior to a two or four legged stool. It’s math: any three points must always lie in the same plane. I think of this when I spy her milking goats—perched on an ancient, but still sturdy three-legged stool.
When we pull open the sunroom slider, Pop is cutting veggies for supper. The twins are doing spelling homework in the breakfast nook. Mimi is taking clothes off the line, folding as she goes; she takes one look at the three of us and pours orange juice—her remedy for shock.
We sit on the sectional couches with our juice—Pop making an exception to the no food or drinks on the couches rule. He senses we need hugs from both furniture and people right now. His face goes from grim to grimmer as Oliver and I recount the “incident.” (Wrong word, right? What is incidental about a racial “incident?”)
Were you scared? Sam asks me while he pats and kisses my hand.
Not at first; I didn’t even tune in to what they were saying!
Oliver gets very still. Then he swallows and says,That’s part of the problem, Isabel. I’m not blaming you of course; you’d never say that stuff, but most white people don’t have a racial sensitivity station to tune in TO.
Hard to hear, but, Pop frowns, that’s exactly the right analogy, Oliver. Enough of us aren’t tuned in.
Did the rowdies go to your school? asks Zia.
We explain that they’d come from the court and headed to the bus station, so no, they weren’t fellow students.
But even still, we need to rethink our so-called teaching tolerance curriculum, says Oliver.
Teaching tolerance sounds pretty good, says Mimi
Oliver shakes his head. Too timid.
Timid? More words, young man, says Zia as she takes a firm hold of his hand and shakes it.
African-Americans, Asian-American, East Indian, Native American enslavement has happened since the beginning of our country. Slave labor was considered essential to the economy. But, listen, guys, I asked for copies of the curriculum and “frameworks” and searched. The words “tolerance” and “multicultural” are sprinkled on every page, but there is no information on how the history of non-white people in the US will be taught. And these documents do go into detail about other topics. Teaching phonics, for example; it’s spelled out—how’d you like that pun, Isabel?—spelled out for pages and pages.
Mimi protests, But I remember Isabel’s father having to learn Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.”
Spot on, Mimi; the “good parts.” But no requirement to delve into why Dr King had to give the speech in the first place. “Yes” to abolitionists, inventors, civil rights heroes: but “no” to the ugly truths: enslavement, rape, segregation, lynching assassinations, and white-nationalist terrorism.
Pop, Mimi, and Zia look at Oliver with new respect. Pop says, I get what you’re saying. Black History Month focuses on achievements but avoids mention of protests and their aftermath, historical barriers, systemic exploitation and oppression.
In fact, no instruction in the history, agrees Zia. The history that might make us white folks uncomfortable.
Oliver sighs, It’s the same for every non-white group. We learn about a famous Chinese scientist, but don’t learn how mobs massacred 19 Chinese in Chinatown or how Chinese laborers were banned after they were brought here to build the railroads or how Chinese women were banned period. What’s taught in school is window dressing.
The way you describe it, OIiver, I’d say it’s more like lipstick on a pig. Zia shakes her head and squeezes Oliver’s hand harder. He lets her even though he’s blushing. Remember the lynching project we visited?
Right, in Atlanta in Montgomery.
Oliver fills in some background: Before settling in here I took the summer to hike the last part of the Appalachian Trail and walked out of the forest at Doubleheader Gap and there was Zia, right on time!
Oliver and I had it planned, of course, but my car has no GPS. I memorized the route; I can still recite the end of my trip: “from Blue Ridge, take Aska Road 13.5 miles until it dead ends into Newport Road. Turn right, go 4.5 miles until it dead ends into Doublehead Gap.”
Oliver laughs. It was a relief to see you. He turns to us to explain more. Earlier in the summer Judge Welch had said “no” to emancipation and assigned custody of me to Zia. Incredibly, right away she gives me permission to hike solo. To tell you the truth, Zia, part of me worried that you might be too old to know what’s best for me while another part of me thought YES!! But, no matter, there you were, waiting for me, trusting me to show up as arranged. He squeezes her hand now too.
Zia says,You’ve got that mostly right, Oliver. But, I was terrified. At the same time it seemed the only way to start our life together. For the record, you were the skinniest, smelliest kid I’d ever laid eyes on when you walked out of the gap. “Ewee” as the twins like to say.
After Oliver cleaned up in a park shower and ate four double cheeseburgers and inhaled two thick shakes at the Toccoa Riverside Restaurant, they drove to Montgomery Alabama to see 800 steel crosses swaying in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. There’s one cross for each county in the US where racial terror lynchings took place. The names of the victims are engraved on the columns. The hope is that the the community responsible for the lynchings will engage in truth telling about racial injustice and their own local histories. Once historical markers, soil collection ceremonies from the lynching sites, and other programs are held, a monument will be placed in the community indicating that it has engaged in honest reflection and acknowledges their part in racial terrorism.
Pop gives more background, Systemic racism in our country is due to the unresolved history of slavery and white supremacy. As a race, African-Americans have been traumatized throughout their history. Projects like the one in Montgomery have the potential to change things.
Oliver does his slump-shoulder thing. It’s scary being a truth-seeker about our racial history; people seem to think it’s ok to bully someone who doesn’t look like them. Maybe it’s because of the president we had during the pandemic? I don’t know. I was much younger. But I’ve read this might be partly the cause.
We sit around for a while more, pondering. I don’t know what the twins are thinking; but it didn’t seem appropriate to shoo them away. We wide-eye Oliver as he talks, sip OJ, and devour Moravian cake Mimi had made for tomorrow. (We finish it.) With our second helpings, Clyde says in his tired, little boy voice, Ice cream make everything better, don’t you think? And Pop adds a dollop of Canton Creamery mint chocolate chip to each piece.
Zia asks Pop (he used to be a judge, remember?) to see if he can talk to the court and find out who the kids were. She’s worried they’ll come back maybe. Turns out they each have a parole officer who is going to get them into a “program.” I have my doubts if that will help. At least they didn’t physically attack Oliver, like some policemen have done to non-white people they stop for “traffic” violations.
Our People promise to help Oliver and me change the school curriculum; they’ve got ideas, and Mimi already has ties with the Black Lives Matter movement. One thing? I know that the measure of who I am will fall in the gap of what I do about this and what I’ve told you.
Between Mom and Dad getting murdered and witnessing racial harassment first hand, I’ve aged. I furrow my brow and the wrinkles stay.