Charlie isn’t stupid.
He is seven years old. He is kind of goofy. He loves Legos and “Phineas and Ferb”. He loves pizza. He is African-American.
He is not stupid. He knew why the lady in the cloak room at the museum stopped her children from entering when she saw him. He understood that the color of his skin made him part of the “them” that their Dad said that they shouldn’t talk to. He isn’t stupid.
The boys and I are on spring break. I took them to the museum at the University of Alaska Fairbanks this morning. The boys were stoked when we got there because they were going to see moose and bears and dinosaurs. We paid admission and went to the cloak room to hang up our coats.
Charlie was standing in the middle of the room while I hung up Eli’s coat. A boy and a girl walked into the room followed by Mom and Dad. Mom saw Charlie and grabbed her kids. She pulled them to her and backed away from Charlie. Charlie blinked. “Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” said the boy. He was shushed by his mom.
“Hewwo!”, said three-year-old Eli, all happy about seeing bears and walruses.
“Hello, cutie,” the lady said. She smiled at Eli while keeping an eye on Charlie.
I picked Eli up and walked up to Charlie. I took him by the hand. “Let’s go, son,” I said.
“He’s with you?” the Dad said from under his “Skoal Bandits” hat.
“Amazing, isn’t it?”, I said on our way out.
One of the kids asked a question, but was cut off by Dad. “We don’t talk to them.“
Besides not being stupid, Charlie has pretty good hearing. He stared at the ground and his shoulders sagged a little as we walked out. I stopped.
I put Eli down and pulled Charlie’s chin up. I looked into an amazing set of sad brown eyes. “Who’s my man?”, I asked.
He smiled a little. “Me,” he said.
Great. So we get to deal with this again. I am not saying that every day for my family is an exercise in battling bigotry, but it happens enough to be a real pain ass. The worst part is now Charlie understands. Now he is getting hurt.
I have learned a lot about people in the almost eight years I have been Charlie’s dad. I learned you never know what the person standing next to you thinks or feels. Our family draws second looks. I have no problem with that because we don’t look like other families. Sometimes we get smiles. Usually we get no reaction at all.
However, sometimes a man will remove his Confederate flag head scarf and wave it at my wife while she is holding our son. That happened once. Sometimes two young men will see a brown baby in the store in a grocery cart and remark under their breath that somebody lost their “monkey” and maybe they should give it a banana.
Last summer I took the boys to a park and playground. Charlie and Eli were running around and playing. A man brought his daughter to the playground. He sat on the park bench next to me and we watched the kids play. After several minutes the little girl started playing with Charlie. That is not unusual. Little girls like Charlie.
The man saw his little caucasian girl talking to Charlie. “Oh hell no,” he said. He got up and brought his daughter over to the bench. “I’m stopping this right now,” he said to me conspiratorily. “I’m not having her bring home any half-breed grandbabies.”
I sat for a few moments fully digesting what I had heard. After a while, Charlie came over to the bench for hugs and a juice box. The man next to me was actually trying to become part of the bench. I gave Charlie a kiss on his head and he ran off. The man got up to leave.
“You could have told me he was your son.”
“That’s really tricky,” I said. I explained that he had it easy because he hated Charlie based on the color of his skin, but it was harder for me. “I didn’t know you were an asshole until you started talking.”
Prejudice comes from everywhere. It even comes from unexpected sources. The social worker in the hospital where Charlie was born initially refused to facilitate the adoption because the adoptive family was white.
Sometimes those things happen. Most of the issues we have are more subtle. At Disney World last year an employee asked Charlie where his parents were. He was holding my wife’s hand at the time.
This situation at the museum was different because for the first time, at least as far as I know, Charlie was fully aware that somebody thought differently of him because of his color. It was also the first time that somebody had reacted one way to Charlie and another way to Eli. Eli is bi-racial. He is very light skinned and has blue eyes and curly brown hair. Actually, he looks kind of like me. A few strangers have looked at us together and remarked that he has his Daddy’s eyes. Charlie doesn’t have my eyes. He and Eli were treated differently based on their appearance. This is going to be tricky, not sure how to handle this one. I am sure that hugs will be involved.
We actually had a good visit to the museum. The boys ooohed and ahhhhed at the walruses. Eli screamed and ran when he saw the gigantic brown bear in the entrance to the exhibit. Both boys were very well behaved and respectful when we were in the Native Alaskan History section. They were a bit sad after watching the whale hunting documentary, but understood that the whale would be used completely. Eli said he would eat a whale “sammitch”. Our acquaintances were always close, ironically enough.
The man in the Skoal Bandits hat was very vocal on how gross the process was as we watched the whale processing video. He asked nobody and everybody at the same time, why on earth anybody would eat whale fat.
“I wonder how he would feel if somebody came into his house and heckled him while he was opening a can of SPAM and a can of pork and beans,” I thought in my internal dialogue. At least I thought it was internal dialogue.
“SPAM?” Charlie asked. “What about SPAM?”
“Nothing. We have to go.” I fell into the trap and I was upset as soon as I had the thought. One of the key points to being Charlie’s Dad, in my opinion, is to never, ever let him see me react in this situation in a way that I would not allow him to react. I pushed the limit that day in the park. I crossed the line here. Stupid internal dialogue.
We left the history exhibit and went to the art gallery. Charlie’s eye’s lit up. He loves art. He looked at each painting and sculpture. He examined every article. He giggled and covered his eyes when we came to a nude photo.
“Boobies!” said Eli as he pointed at the photo. “Boobies, boobies, boobies.” He then broke into his favorite song, aptly entitled “Boobies” and sung to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” Every word in this song is “boobies”.
While Eli sang his tribute to breasts, Charlie was looking at some Native Alaskan items. There was a beautifully beaded caribou skin dress, a knife and some other items. “Why are those here Dad?” Charlie asked. “We saw those in the other area.”
“We did,” I said. “But sometimes items like this are so well done and such a beautiful example of workmanship that they can be considered art.”
He looked up at me and nodded. “So art can be different things?”
I nodded. “Absolutely. Remember how we talked about how art is an expression of what is inside you?”
He nodded. We encourage Charlie to express himself through art.
“Well, sometimes people who make ordinary items express themselves through those objects,” I said. “When that happens they become art.”
As we were talking our friends walked by. “Why do they put dresses and baskets in the art section?” asked the Dad. “They belong in the native history section. That’s not art.”
Charlie looked at an ordinary-looking knife in the display. “I think that is art,” he said after awhile. “I’ll bet the person who made it thought it was art because he needed a knife.” He smiled his impossibly bright smile.
“It’s really cool,” I said. “It’s just not real pretty.”
Charlie thought for a long time then looked at me. “How something looks doesn’t really have anything to do with how valuable it can be,” he said.
Thanks for reading folks. I’ll see you soon on This Side of the Diaper.