When I was growing up if I heard this phrase once, I heard it a million times, “Jews don’t buy retail.” And yet, there I was a Jewish woman who hated bargain basement stores be that Marshall’s or Filene’s with a passion. I loved to see things on display and have nice fitting rooms.
Last night, at dinner, I was speaking with friends about Tin’s swimming lesson ordeal* and they both leaned in close and said, “Black folks don’t swim, Rachel.” They also said Black folks don’t play baseball. This appeared to be known in the African American community so well they informed me that if a Black woman says she’s dating a Black baseball player, she might as well be saying she’s dating a white man.
So I was curious about this because there is something about starting any sentence of a cultural group with “we don’t” “they don’t” that makes you wonder about its veracity. So indeed, I found many interesting commentary around the notion of Black folks don’t swim, but it was usually in the form of urban myth as it relates to the individual – sort of like Jews don’t buy retail. And I loved Gerald Early’s take on why Black folks don’t play baseball, he said, because they don’t want to. And I even found a website, with a New Orleans flair, about all the things that Black folks don’t do (supposedly).
Then I was lying in bed this morning, thinking of John Howard Griffin who wrote Black Like Me and how he had been temporarily blinded in the Army helping Jews in France escape during the Nazi occupation in WWII. He used what he learned from his blindness to help others with their blindness with regards to other.
While we were finishing up dinner last night, one of my friends was speaking about a man she had dated whose skin was ebony and how he wore a copper bracelet and how she loved to see the color contrast. I had said when Tin was swimming with the African American instructor, whose skin matched his, I felt even though I had put Tin through an ordeal trying to get it right, that it had to be right to have some opportunities in his young life to touch people with skin the same color as his. Yet, this morning as I lay in bed thinking of all of these things, I wondered if with my eyes closed I would be able to tell if Tin was Black and me white and of course I wouldn’t discern a difference, no more than I discern a difference anytime we are in our mother/child bond, my concerns about our color line come from when my pale arms no longer circle his brown body.
Tin is going to grow up in and out of Black culture by default. His identity is already tied up in Africa, Croatia, Spain, Turkey, New Orleans, Gary Indiana, and he isn’t yet four years old. By the time he is sitting with his friends at a dinner table, I doubt anyone would even begin a sentence with, “Black men who were born blocks from where Michael Jackson was born, who were adopted by white gay parents, who speak Croatian and Spanish, who were raised in New Orleans, don’t (*). I’m not hoping that his world makes differences blend, but rather that they don’t divide or hold any individual back from doing what they want to do.
*Tin’s swimming lesson ordeal:
An old neighbor of mine used to teach swimming at Southern University. When I adopted Tin, he said he would teach him to swim for free. I liked the idea that Tin would learn how to swim from an African American man and so I didn’t enroll him in other swimming lessons even though we lived on the bayou and I was always very aware that a body of water was nearby. Then the guy could never schedule Tin in and Tin proved to be fearless around water so I had to get him into lessons. We took baby swim lessons with a friend down the street and later I enrolled him in a lesson that some of his classmates were in. One of the instructors was African American and the other had been adopted, so it was a perfect tag team for him. When I went to re-enroll him I specifically asked for the African American instructor but she had changed the day she taught on, so I changed Tin from the lesson time with his friends to the one where she taught. When we arrived for the lesson, I learned she was no longer working there as she had contract meningitis. But the good news was that a Nigerian family had their son in Tin’s class, so I kept him in that time slot. Then when it came time to re-enroll him, the Nigerian family couldn’t get all their children into the time slot they needed so they weren’t returning and I specifically asked for the other African American instructor, which meant changing Tin’s time slot again. Meanwhile, each time we have gone for class and he has had to get used to new kids, new instructors, I’ve wondered if I made the right or wrong decision, but I forgive myself, because I’m trying and sometimes I’m succeeding.