A few weeks ago, I started writing an essay about the pandemic gifting me “the chance to shield my children just a bit from the terror of living in this world.”
I was so naive.
I’m not a parent who feels their children should know all truths. I was raised by two conservative Trinidadian immigrants and my ability to dodge anything pertaining to sex or violence, is expert, perhaps even genetic. I grew up in Baltimore, in a neighborhood called Northwood, where children rode bikes, played dodgeball and fell over each other on Twister mats in basements. Though my childhood wasn’t perfect, it was filled with lots of carefree days and laughter. I’ve made it my business to shield my two daughters from as much ugly as possible. Protector-in-chief, I am. Don’t mess with my children and we’re cool. So over the years I’ve found lots of ways to convince myself that I’m in control of the media they consume. I have content filters on our Netflix and cable accounts, I’ve set up parental controls on their phones and iPads, I screen all movies before my 13-year-old can watch them, sometimes sneaking off to see a flick before deciding if I should take her on the weekend.
But even with my meticulous planning, the world sometimes slips through.
My oldest was 11-years-old when she attended her first dance. It was the same night the video of Walter Scott’s murder was released in 2015. She wore her hair out and curly and begged to wear a dress I felt was a bit too short. As we drove toward the venue, she worried that no one would ask her to dance. It seemed like a pretty silly thing for a little girl to worry about, but I remembered feeling the same as a preteen. Before unlocking the door in the parking lot of the dance hall, I went over, again, the details around pickup.
“And you don’t have to stay anywhere you don’t want to be,” I added. “Just text if you need me to pick you up early.”
She hurried out of the car and when I returned home, I stared at my phone as if the intensity of my glare could make her call to let me know she was okay.
Finally, the phone dinged.
Mom, after the dance, can I go with X and her mom to the McDonald’s across the street?
I didn’t usually allow my kids to eat at McDonald’s. This was going to be a big night for her.
I texted the other mom to check the details of the meetup. When I arrived at the McDonald’s, I immediately noticed that something was wrong. My daughter’s friends sat nearby, laughing and teasing one another, but there, in a booth alone with her milkshake, sat my daughter, eyes wide and glazed. I looked up at the television screen she was staring at only to realize that McDonald’s, along with fries, was serving up a continual news loop of Mr. Scott’s death. A slow motion horror film. Again and again, my child watched Walter Scott die.
“None of my white friends cared,” she said on the way home.
I did my best that night to explain “police brutality,” a term whose very existence suggests acquiescence. And as my beautiful child slept, I fumed at the carelessness of McDonald’s, fumed at the disregard Michael Slager had for Walter Scott, fumed at how little control I seemed to have over my child’s diet of American terror.
That same child, only two years earlier, was in the fourth grade the first time she heard the n-word. She was at school.
In class, they were reading a book about racial discrimination in the early 1960s. I’m sure the school thought a book with a black boy on its cover would be a fine “diversity” reading choice, though I would learn later that no one had bothered to screen its content.
When I arrived at the end of the school day, my child appeared ready to burst.
“We read a word in a book today,” she said.
Her phrasing was odd, so I braced myself. “Oh yeah?”
“It started with n.”
She was only 9. But how could I, a black woman born and raised in America, not be ready to answer her questions that day?
And yet I was not ready.
But I was mad.
Mad that an institution I’d entrusted with the care of my child had chosen the precise time to introduce her to what I believed was the most vile word in America.
In the essay I’d been writing before this one, I lamented the “callous manner that our government had responded to the disproportionate number of black people who have succumbed to the virus.” I edited that essay for days and was ready to submit it when Memorial Day arrived, and with it another televised murder.
Silly me to think the quarantine might have a silver lining. Silly me for being secretly excited that here in my home, my girls would be protected. Silly me for believing that my inability, my unwillingness, my refusal to watch George Floyd’s killing would somehow transfer to my children. Silly me for believing the ugliest part of America wouldn’t try to have its way with my babies.
My youngest daughter, who is now 13, knelt at the side of the bed, when she admitted she’d watched George Floyd’s murder. We were folding clothes. Her little cotton T-shirts felt plush beneath my fingertips as I watched her eyelids close.
“It was more than disturbing, Mom. It just popped up,” she said. “When I started the video, I didn’t know he was going to die.”
“And then after that one, all the others popped up,” she added.
“What? Did you watch those too?”
Her big eyes widened and she nodded.
All those years I’d managed to keep them from the impact of watching the killings of Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Eric Garner. It was gone in an instant. One moment of parental media negligence.
“Where is God?” she whispered.
On Saturday, I broke an 11-week self-quarantine to take my 15-year-old to a protest in Washington, D.C. I was scared, but my daughter needed hope. She marched alongside other young people, and she shouted George Floyd’s name as if it were a mantra. She listened as the names of others who had been murdered by police officers were read aloud by a young person not much older than her.
Raising a black child sure of her place in the world isn’t a given and yet that’s exactly what I’ve intended for my children every waking hour since giving birth to them. I want them to ride hard into their futures, curly bushes on their heads, their beauty and brilliance aglow.
That day at the protest, my child who, like many teenagers, prefers her room to my company, looked over at me as I held her gloved hand in mine.
“I needed this,” she said, through the bandanna that covered half her face.
It was the first light I’d seen in her eyes in many days. I knew then that, though tired, we were both going to have to keep rewriting her story, despite what America keeps insisting she and her sister, and all their peers, bear witness to.
Lauren Francis-Sharma is the author of the critically acclaimed novel “’Til the Well Runs Dry.” She resides near Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children and is the assistant director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Her second novel, “Book of the Little Axe,” was published by Grove Atlantic in May.