Oct 29, 201012:00 AM
Living, loving, laughing, and learning in the new New Orleans
A few days ago, Ruby and I were waiting in line at Rouses when she saw the latest issue of New Orleans Magazine on the newsstand. One word in particular caught her eye: “Ruby,” as in Ruby Bridges.
“That’s me!” she yelled.
Well, yes. But also no.
My daughter Ruby was not named after Ruby Bridges; she was named after Ruby Browning, a beloved family friend. But I certainly knew Ruby Bridges’ story; we discussed it in Louisiana history in eighth grade and again in my 20th-century history class in college. I had long been in awe of Bridges’ quiet bravery and strength, and even though she wasn’t named for her, I loved the idea of my daughter sharing a name with this impressive woman.
When I first saw Bridges’ picture in the latest issue of the magazine, I couldn’t believe how young she was. Somehow –– and I know this sounds naïve –– I just assumed that kind of racism had to have happened so long ago that she’d be wizened, frail, old. Instead, she looks young and vibrant; she’s only 56. I know, logically, that racism is still all around us, but the idea that someone would threaten to poison a 6-year-old based on the color of her skin is completely unfathomable to me. Since preschool, I have attended school with a racially mixed group of children –– my first two best friends at McDonogh 15 in 1985 were Kate, who was white, and Tishawna, who was black. I knew, even at the time, that we were different. I was intensely jealous of Tishawna’s hair, which she wore in braids with brightly colored hair ties while my own scraggly blonde hair was too thin to even support a barrette –– but I was also jealous of Kate’s freckles. It’s hard to believe that just 25 years stood between Ruby Bridges walking with U.S. marshals into Frantz and Kate and Tishawna and I holding hands on the playground at McDonogh 15 ... but there’s so much about racism that defies belief in the first place.
And believe me, I’m not trying to say that racism is gone, a relic of the past. I’m actually not trying to say anything about racism –– I don’t think I’m qualified to talk about racism anymore than I’m qualified to talk about homophobia, although I will say that both confound me.
There was a fascinating book that came out recently, NurtureShock, that turned a bunch of parenting conventional wisdom on its head. One chapter looked at the fact that white people in particular do not talk to their children about race. Most parents (I hope) don’t want their children to be racist, and so, believing that kids are innately “colorblind,” they don’t say anything about race at all, thinking that not calling attention to it is the appropriate thing to do. In fact, the book says, children categorize everything, all the time, and they do notice physical differences, just as I noticed –– and envied –– Tishawna’s braids and Kate’s freckles. The book says that parents shouldn’t shy away from talking about race with their kids, and so, when Ruby pointed to Ruby Bridges’ name on the magazine cover, I asked if she wanted to know about that woman.
And I told her the story, told her that black children and white children used to not be allowed to go to school together. She looked confused, which to my mind is the right response. “Can you think of some of the kids at your school who have darker skin, Ruby?” I asked her. “Can you imagine if you didn’t go to school with Miles or Malaysia or Riley?”
“I love them,” she said. “I’d be sad.”
“Well,” I said, warming to my subject, starting to feel like this was a Very Important Parental Conversation. “It used to be that they would have had to go to another school, just because their skin is darker. Isn’t that crazy?”
“Can I have a peanut butter sandwich?” she asked. She was done with the conversation. But at least I tried. And I’ll keep trying.
In the meantime, at her school’s Halloween party yesterday, there was a white Cinderella, a black Snow White and both a white and a black Tiana. And somehow, that gives me hope.