It’s happened twice, both times when my children were babies.
In both cases, I had a squirmy toddler and was rushing to get somewhere, but the words tripped me.
An older African-American man would look at me and at my antsy son, and then say, “Look at that fine boy. You raisin’ him to be a strong black man? ‘Cause that’s what we need, more strong black men.”
Both times, I mumbled something non-committal and kept going. Not because I didn’t want to chat with the men, although I was pressed for time. Mostly, it was because I didn’t know what to say back to them.
Maybe it’s lingering annoyance from all the times I was asked—always by African-American women—if the café-au-lait colored, auburn-haired baby I was with was mine. And it was never a polite, “What a beautiful child. Does he have your eyes or your husband’s?” I’d get the accusatory, “That your baby?” followed by a disbelieving, “He yours?” or the skeptical “Hmm!”
I’ve been mistaken for a nanny at the playground, and a baby sitter at one of those inflatable jumpy places. One friend tried to put a nice spin on it—it was a good thing, she said, because it meant people thought I looked too young to be my son’s mommy.
No. They think I look too brown to be his mommy.
But in truth, I never said anything to those men because I don’t know how to raise a strong black man. Yes, my dad was black. But race was never something he dwelled on, or even brought up. He was a responsible son, doting yet strict father and kind husband. He paid off his cars, voted and worked far too hard for far too less money. There was never talk about “the man” or the “the system,” although as a child of the South in the late ‘30s and ‘40s he certainly lived it.
What my brother and I learned from him goes to the real core of a person—humility, self-sacrifice, kindness. He’s the reason my closest friends are black, Asian, Irish and Guatemalan—prompting the minister at my wedding to remark that the wedding party looked like a Benneton ad.
That’s what I know. And that’s what I know how to raise.
My two sons may never become strong black men. They will instead be men with their Eastern European grandmother’s red hair, their Persian grandfather’s features, and be a shade lighter than their mother.
But they will know, from my husband and others, that being a man is more than seeing a brown face in the mirror. It’s about seeing confidence, humility, respect and love.