By Misty Sol @mamamistysol
I was a ghost. I can tell you what I saw. In the stairwell of the large school building, Black children, small, mostly silent. They move past each other like highway lanes. A white woman, a school administrator, stops before one of the lines. She gasps and coos. All the children stop.
“I love your hair!” She drips and draws out the ’o’.
She places her hands in the little girl’s hair. It is shiny and black. The loose curls of her afro are puffy and falling free around her face. She is the fairest skinned girl amongst the children. The white woman tugs her ringlet playfully.
“Where did you get this hair?” She continues.
The other darker children look on. The stairwell is silent. This bitch has stopped time so that she can publicly fetishize a Black child. Not one of us moves or breathes.
“From her mother”, says the Black teacher’s aid. “She gets it from her mother.” Her voice is usually mothering and authoritative. But now, she speaks to this white woman so cautiously, too gently. Her reply attempts to be offhand and casual with her hands up. Her best attempt at humility. I know she feels this violation as keenly as I do. I can hear her defense of this child in her voice. I can feel the sista trying to steal back this moment from the hell it’s dropped into, but this white woman is like a dog with a bone.
“I’ve seen her mother. She doesn’t have this hair.” The administrator’s words echo carelessly off the high ceiling and narrow walls. We wince when the words bounce into our faces like fists.
This moment is thick like smoke filling up the stairwell. I burst through the double doors into the classroom corridor. It was over my shoulder I heard the children begin to move again.
“Gorgeous!” I hear the white administrator as the doors close behind me.
I want to burst back through those doors and break into a rendition of Four Women by Nina Simone. The acoustics are fucking perfect for it. I’d end it screaming, “My name is Peaches!”
But I don’t do it. Because I don’t have words for what I feel, somewhere between shame, anger, indignation and vulnerability. I could show her the burn scars on my ears from straightening combs, but she wouldn’t ever understand the pain of dark skinned girls reaching for a beauty ideal they’ll never achieve. She wouldn’t understand how she’s complicating this light skinned girl’s relationship to her classmates, her relationship to her own image, and what’s valuable about it.
I’m reminded of what I felt when, I was a young mother, a white women who approached me in the supermarket, reached out and touched my baby. I was wearing him on my body. On my chest. She violated my child, my body, and my motherhood space. I thought to slap her in that public place. And in my vivid imagination, I could see myself labeled the angry black woman. I could see myself arrested like Ms. Sofia from The Color Purple. I turned and hurried away with furious tears in my eyes then. I am doing the same now.
It’s later in the day. I sit in a class where an even younger group of children is being tasked with choosing a team name that they will cheer every morning in the auditorium in front of the rest of the school. The students, who clearly love their teacher, want to be called his stars. Their blond haired blued eyed teacher looks at all of us and says something ridiculous.
“How about monkeys! Mr. Smith’s monkeys.”
The other black woman in the room inhales sharply. The children consider his suggestion. Again, time stops as if by the evil magic of racism. No one breathes.
Thank God they decide to call themselves something else, unlike those poor students in Texas who got stuck shouting out I’m a jiggaboo in school every morning. In that case, a white father complained when his child came home with questions. The teacher, also white, apologized when confronted and she claims she didn’t know.
“Ignorance is not a defense.” The father says to the Fox news reporter and I agree.
I grab Mr. Smith in the hall. I stare into his blue eyes and I think I see compassion. I also think I see a kind of dangerous aloofness, a kind of privileged blindness and I wonder if he even sees these Black children. To him, are they unicorns?
I speak quickly and discretely. Our heads are close together. We walk and the children follow in a line.
“They’re my favorite animal.” He says. I am incredulous.
“Dude, you teach Black children. There are certain things you should know.”
We are almost back at that stairwell. He has to direct his students, herd them out to soccer. I speak desperately. I don’t have much time.
“There was a man, an African man, in the monkey cage of the Bronx zoo in 1909. In 2009, there was a picture of President Obama depicted as a monkey in the New Yorker. 1994, a book called the Bell Curve that compared black people's’ intelligence to that of monkeys hit the NY Times Bestseller list. In 2015, a media personality in Latin America was fired for saying that Michelle Obama looked like a monkey. In 2016, a monkey was shot to protect the life of a young Black child who had fallen into a habitat at the zoo and the white public was outraged. Monkey is what white people historically have called us when they want to place us outside the circle of humanity, in order to justify their inhumanity toward us. Haven’t you read Kafka? These children love you. They believe what you tell them. You can not call them monkeys ever”.
“I didn’t know.” He says.
“You can’t afford to not know them and their history.”
“I’m sorry?” He says.
What’s an apology to a Black child already experiencing the many dehumanizing effects of racism and living in the ghetto, and all that comes with those experiences?
Mr. Smith walks away and I think at least he doesn’t openly show contempt for our children in the way that some of the other white teachers do. I have seen them look at Black children like they have shit smeared on their little foreheads. I hope he didn’t do it on purpose. I pray he didn’t call them his monkeys just because he could get away with it. It still remains that whether his racism is overt or unconscious, it affects them.
Black children are particularly sensitive to racism, and its notions, images, and structures. They notice who has power and who doesn’t. They notice who gets rewarded and who doesn’t. They notice who gets valued and who doesn’t. What happens to our children under the gaze of racist teachers and authority figures? What figments of their racist imaginations do they project upon our children? Do they internalize the colorism and racial preferences of whites? What happens to their sense of self and community under the influence of such poison? How many affronts to their humanity are they forced to endure on a daily basis?
I was there specifically to create art programs in the interest of restorative justice; to help shift the paradigm toward recognizing our own and each other’s humanity. I was just a butterfly on the wall. And I hope the fluttering around I did made a little difference. I have since flown away and hope that the school, like a butterfly, has transformed.
Misty Sol is a writer, story illustrator, and sometimes singer. She loves making meals from scratch, streams, daydreaming, tiny houses, big ideas and Black history.