“When di pickney dem growed.” This was my grandmother’s (rest her soul) response to being asked if children should be told about something heavy happening in the family. Translation: “When they get older.” She was a firm believer that you loved and cherished children, but they were in no way “lickle adults.” She set the tone in our family that kids were only informed about serious subjects when she thought they were ready. Death? Between 10 and 11 years old. Uncle Grenville’s male roommate being more than just a roommate? Thirteen. And I’m still waiting for the sex talk.
This was the conundrum I found myself in—how to broach serious topics with my daughter—until a set of situations made the decision for me.
It was a beautiful day. My daughter and I were getting along amazingly. We were both dressed fly; bills were paid and there was extra money in my pocket. I was really feeling my Huxtable. A homeless person approached us with heartbreaking humility and asked for some money. I gave her some and we continued walking.
“Daddy? Why did that woman ask us for money?”
“She was homeless.”
“What does that mean?”
“She does not have a home to live in, or money to get what she needs?”
“Why is she homeless? Does she not have family to love her? Can she come and live with us?
I was stuck as to how I should answer, but my grandmother’s voice in my head told me, “Bwoy, she nuh ready. When di lickle pickney growed…”
About 10 minutes later, a group of Black and brown teenagers were wilding out at a bus stop. They were play fighting and then getting angry, being very loud, cursing one another—there were far too many “niggas” being thrown around. The scene looked chaotic and violent. My daughter turns up her nose and asked, “Why do they always act like that?”
I asked her to explain. “People who have brown skin. Why are they always so loud and angry?” Part of me was happy she didn’t say, “Why do we always act like that?” I was proud she could differentiate her behavior from others. On the flip, she’d already developed some negative connotations regarding people who share the beautiful variations of her skin color. (Cue the Neptunes’ sound.)
On our way home, it took a lot of effort to not listen to my grandmother’s voice attempting to persuade me not to engage my daughter around something so serious. Hell, I thought. If she’s old enough to ask, she’s old enough to receive an answer.
As soon as we got into the house, I asked her to sit on the floor as I gathered some of her toys. I arranged them by which looked the most similar, then thought long and hard about how I was going to explain internalized and externalized oppression, racism, economic warfare and other social ills. (She is 6.) I’ve taken a firm stance against teaching my daughter anything from a deficit model as the first point of discussion. I don’t want her to always feel like she’s crawling out of a hole, but I also don’t want to shield her from any facts or truths.
I made a big circle with one set of toys and then placed some toys in the center, with two away from the main cluster. I had the outer circle say mean things to the toys in the center, and then the toys in the center started saying mean things to each other. I told her that this was how people become trapped. I then had the two leftover toys speak out about how the toys in the center needed to stop repeating the bad things being said about them and how they were beautiful and how they deserved to be treated with love. The two outlier toys then led their friends through the outer circle, breaking it.
“And this is how we get free,” I told my daughter. “We let nothing hold us down or hold us back. But there are still some of us who have not yet learned how to get free.”
It took her a moment, but I could see that she was trying to assimilate the information. “Those kids at the bus stop were not free, daddy?” Not as free as they could be, I answered. “Maybe we could go back there and we could be those two toys and let them know how to be free?” I smiled and kissed her. Hopefully we can do that, I said. My grandmother’s voice was happily silent.
Shawn Taylor is the author of Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity, and People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter, and can be found sporadically on Twitter @reallovepunk.