This past weekend
Harry and I took the kids to this really amazing restaurant in Savannah over the weekend. I don't mean amazing as in "ah-maaaazing" like the foodies say. More in the sense of it being an adventure--like nothing they'd ever experienced.
Anyways. This place was very family friendly and actually had this cool pond built into it where kids could buy a $3 bag of bait and go "fishing" right inside of the restaurant. On this particular evening, we were with a few other families which meant lots and lots of kids having lots and lots of fun.
As the kids fished, the parents enjoyed adult conversation and humor. All of it was wonderful and a great time was surely had by all from the lap babies all the way to the oldest in the group. Laughing out loud and stopping only to occasionally give a kid three more dollars or to take our turns at checking to make sure none of our kids had jumped into that man-made lagoon which, fortunately, no one did.
Finally, we realized that it was getting really late. Even for a Saturday night, we were pushing it for kids this age to be out in a restaurant. We squared up bills and prepared to go and get our respective children.
Zachary was already off and sitting on a bench with some of the other kids as Isaiah and one or two more stragglers held on to their makeshift fishing poles for whatever few seconds they could squeeze out before the bell tolled. Since the other parents were also there preparing to retrieve their own children, Harry focused only on getting Isaiah's attention.
"Isaiah. Let's go."
Harry's voice was firm. Not a yell or even a plea. Just a simple statement with a military man's intonation that said "order" and definitely not "suggestion."
Isaiah and his friends were still in their fishing pole la la land. We'd already given them all several "ten more minute" warnings--probably as much for us and our fun as it was for theirs. But either way, it was late and now, it was time to go.
It really was.
"Okay, okay, okay, Dad. Just let me do this one. . . last. . . thing!" Isaiah quickly grabbed the edge of the line and began to hook another new piece of bait on the end. "Dad, just this one--"
Harry interrupted him before he could even finish. This time his voice was a little more firm than that first time but still very controlled. "Isaiah. Now. It's time to go." The finality in it was clear. I've been at this with him long enough to know that Harry wasn't going to repeat himself--nor would he have to. Isaiah immediately laid the pole down where he found it, said, "Yes, Dad," and began walking toward Harry.
And that was that.
Isaiah scuffled ahead to join the rest of the kids all of whom were now crammed together on a swinging bench, cackling out loud and probably a few seconds away from costing all of us some money, some embarrassment and maybe even an emergency department trip. Harry turned to walk toward the front of the restaurant and just as he did, an older man who'd been watching the entire exchange spoke to him.
"I don't envy anyone who has to get kids away from all of this fun. Especially boys!" His tone was friendly and genuine. He had twinkling blue eyes and the warm, patient body language of a grandfather, which I'm willing to bet money he was. His skin was a sun kissed olive tone with deep crows' feet bursting like fireworks from the corners of those same happy eyes.
Harry chuckled and nodded to him in response. All of it amicable and easy. And that was that.
The man stepped a bit closer and spoke to Harry again, this time more directly. His voice became serious. That said, you could tell it was still well-meaning and non-threatening, especially because of the sparkle that remained in his grandfatherly eyes.
"Mind if an old man gives you a little bit of advice? I mean, just from an old guy who's been around the parenting block a few times to a younger guy?"
Harry noted his age--I could tell--and paused deferentially. He raised his eyebrows and faced the gentleman to let him know he was listening.
I silently cringed and hoped this wouldn't take a wrong turn.
And so the Grandfather-man spoke:
"You know? If you say 'please' to them now, they'll respect you a lot more when they grow up to be men. Take it from me." When Harry didn't say anything, the Grandfather-man added this, "Just some advice coming from the heart from an older man who's raised up some sons of his own." He smiled at Harry again to make sure that it was clear that this was all goodnatured kindness and nothing more.
And, thank goodness, Harry received as such. No ripple in his forehead or clenching of his masseter; all tell-tale signs of when my husband is offended or annoyed. Nope. There was none of that. Just this inexplicable facial expression and searing eye contact.
Then Harry said this:
"Do you mind if I share something with you, sir?" The Grandfather-man turned his head a bit to the side to let Harry know his ear was bent. And so Harry went on. "I appreciate your advice, but I'm raising my two sons in a world that won't say 'please' to them. Unfortunately, this world just doesn't say 'please' to black boys and it definitely doesn't say 'please' to black men. My sons need to understand that. And they will understand that."
I wish you could have seen the complexity of the look on the Grandfather-man's face. His blue eyes became sad in acknowledgement of this very obvious difference in the worlds his sons (and likely grandsons) face and that of this younger man before him. His lips pressed together and his brow furrowed; the Grandfather-man's eyes were still trained on Harry's. And you already know that Harry kept holding that man's gaze as if it were some kind of staring contest.
The Grandfather-man finally closed his eyes and sighed, his entire chest rising and collapsing dramatically. Then he looked back up at Harry and nodded his understanding of the heartbreaking relativity of that lighthearted advice. Heartbreaking, yes, but an inconvenient truth that simply couldn't be ignored.
Especially these days.
And let me be clear:
This was not a negative interaction between a younger black man and an older white man. And this isn't some rant about some uncomfortable conversation laced with racism or any such thing. Quite the contrary, actually. That Grandfather-man came to speak a good word to my husband from the sweetest, dearest place. He did--and my husband (who is usually skeptical of every stranger) would tell you the same.
Without saying very much, you'd better believe that those men had a rich dialogue on race and inequality. Damn, they did.
You see--Harry didn't say it, but he said it:
"If my sons don't learn how to leave when someone says 'let's go', it could cost them their lives. And the chances of someone saying 'please' before beating or shooting them is, unfortunately, low."
And you know what? That's some real talk right there, man.
Messed up, yes. But realer than real.
Now. Do we think our sons deserve to hear pleases and thank yous? Sure we do. Do we also think that, as their parents, we aren't required to spin our rules into requests? You'd better believe it--with all due respect to the Grandfather-man (and to the future respect that could potentially be gained by doing so.)
Harry said he would reflect on that Grandfather-man's advice and remember to be tender at the time-to-be-tender-times with his boys. At which point I reminded him that he is quite tender at those times. Those time-to-be-tender ones, that is.
So you know? It sucks, really. It sucks that a black boy standing in the wrong place at the wrong time--even when he's innocent and doing nothing worth even noticing--needs to recognize that sometimes--no, most times--he needs to move on the first time the order is issued. He needs to get moving with as little protest as possible and with or without the "please" or the cherry on top.
Oh. And have we already been having these conversations with our seven and nine year old black men-children at our kitchen table? You're damn right we have. Not because we want to, but because we have to. And if this is something you will never have to think of for your son? Say a prayer of thanks. And if the thought of us and many other families being required to makes you sad? That's okay because it should.
Our kids pleaded to stay and hang out with their friends up until the last second when we loaded them into the car.
"That's not fair," one of the boys mumbled from the back seat.
"Nor is life," Harry replied.
Nor is life.
Now playing on my mental iPod. . . . as poignant now as it was when he recorded it. If not more. Listen and reflect on what is happening in the world right now. I'm too sad to specifically address it but know that, like Harry, I just did.