We Wore Masks Long Before the Pandemic
A red-haired white woman jogged down the sidewalk as my 19-year-old daughter descended the front porch steps of our home. My daughter, conscious of the importance of social distancing during the pandemic, stopped near the base of the stairs to offer the runner ample room on the sidewalk.
Panting, the woman eased her stride, then began to jog in place. She looked at my daughter and asked, “How can I reach you?" Then she took a deep impatient breath and declared, "My house is a mess!”
My daughter stretched a tense smile across her face and squinted her glistened eyes against the sun. Then, she tipped her chin down, softly shook her head “no” and waited for the woman to pass. For a while, she stood rooted on the stairs of our home west of Charlottesville, Virginia. I have stood that way many times, as have generations before me—bolted in place by a will to survive.
My daughter is a college student and part-time employee at a local beauty supply store—a young black woman building a life.
The jogger assumed she was a maid.
In the early 1980's, when I was in elementary school, my family moved to a precious middle-class enclave in Chesapeake, Virginia called Taylorwood Estates. It may as well have been 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to me. The neighborhood featured classic brick ramblers and split-level homes perched atop manicured lawns, dotted with tiny signs to remind neighbors to clean up after their dogs.
“Do dogs really poop here?” I imagine my 9-year-old self, musing. “If so, maybe it doesn’t stink.”
I remember wondering what we had done to deserve such good fortune as we pulled up the driveway in my dad’s Dodge Challenger.
My mom was a speech therapist in public schools at that time and my father was a military officer. They did everything right—never cut corners. Mom mapped out the region to find the best schools, the lowest crime rates, the top neighborhoods for families. Dad contemplated home values and opportunities for appreciation.
The first night in our new home, as I lay in my pink canopied bed—sleeping in the American Dream—someone burned a cross in our front yard.
My dad has never slept well. Black folks say sleep is the cousin of death. That’s because we understand an anguish that white people will never know—good, deep, restful sleep may cause our death, so we catch 40 winks with one eye open. If we get too comfortable, if we close both eyes we might wake up in heaven like Breonna Taylor.
My parents thought they had hidden the burning cross from my sister and I. But we saw it in other ways.
“Put a bone in your big BLACK nose—AFRICAN!”
I kept that note passed to me in fourth-grade music class for a long time. At night, when the house was still, I’d slip it out of a shoe box under my bed to contemplate it. Some things hurt worse than sticks and stones.
If I could whisper the truth to my childhood self, I would tell her that to be called an African is the greatest compliment. I would explain to little me that we are the architects of astronomy, mathematics, art, navigation, and engineering. And, that to be an African woman is to be the mother of mankind.
Then, I’d tell my childhood self that she should take that f*cking note, rip it into barely digestible pieces and shove it down that kid’s mouth.
We may not sleep well, but ah, do we dream.
In Austin, Texas, the epicenter of so-called white wokeness, my husband and I welcomed twin sons to our family in 2004. I was 30 years old. We settled into a home in the quiet community of Circle C with our infant boys and 4-year-old daughter in tow. Our presence there quickly became a very big deal.
Whew—the number on knocks on the front door that first week! You wouldn’t believe how many trays of cookies and cupcakes we were awarded simply for moving in. I enjoyed pleasant interactions with a gaggle of stay-at-home moms. Quick conversations about kids and soccer and which church we attended—because certain things are simply understood.
Have you read the poem "Incident" by Countee Cullen? He is riding through Baltimore, Maryland as a child, taking in the sights and sounds, presumably making friends and dancing hopes into existence. Suddenly, a kid calls him, "Nigger." In an instant, the sweet hint of hope escapes him as he swallows the bitter taste of hate.
I don’t remember those women in Austin, Texas—save for the half-dozen or so who smiled broadly when I opened the front door then asked me if the lady of the house was home.
I was born in 1974, 10 years after the Civil Rights Act was passed. There is no house I have ever lived in that my family is assumed to be the rightful homeowners—not the help.
All these years later and the same is true for my daughter. I wonder how many notes she hid under the bed as a child.
Nonetheless, she possesses a titanic spirit, tiny as a teacup and mighty as the sea. Her eyes are almond like her mother’s and her skin is a blend of cocoa and chili powder.
My daughter is not a maid. She will not clean your house for money, though there would be no shame for her if she did. The shame belongs to the woman who looked at the color of my daughter’s skin and assumed she is capable of nothing more.
Their privilege may blind them to our worth. But it also means, they won’t see us coming.