“I’m not your nigger-nanny,” my mom used to say when I was growing up. This was her stock response to me asking her to get me or do something for me that I was perfectly capable of getting or doing myself.
My mother was raised in a time and a place where she saw first-hand black women raising the children of affluent white families. Like me, she was born in a small, southern town where dropping the n-bomb was part of the everyday vocabulary. My father had a friend who he often went ‘coon hunting with called “Nigger Bobby.” This was the name he used to the man’s face.
Even as a child their way of speaking made me cringe. I grew up watching Sesame Street and the Electric Company. The world I came of age in was a politically correct one where everyone was equal, and where people went out of their way to not offend other people. Not that racism didn’t still exist. At home, my family still liberally used the n-word, and at school all the black kids were put in special-ed classes, and my aunt would lock the car doors as we drove through certain neighborhoods.
When I pointed out to my family as a teenager how racist they were, they were genuinely offended. My dad said in his defense, “I’m not racist. There are a lot of niggers that I like!”
Thankfully times have changed. Not only is the president of the United States a black man, but my racist, redneck family actually voted for him. They no longer use the “N” word. My mom, now a pre-school teacher, has adopted the term African-American when she feels that such distinctions need be made. My dad still has a lot of room for progress.
On my last visit home, my mom had me watch the movie, The Help, with her. If you’re somehow unfamiliar with the film, or the book that it was based on, it’s about a young, white protagonist who sees the injustice in how the black servants raising the spoiled children of wealthy, white families are treated, and swoops in to rescue the poor, beleaguered colored folk who couldn’t possibly save themselves, thus ending institutionalized racism once and for all. Aside for the performances of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, the film wasn’t much to write home about. My mom and I were both disappointed in it for different reasons.
I flew back to New York City, relieved to leave the South behind me. The small town where I grew up where people still hang confederate flags in their windows, where my cousin proudly brags that he’s a member of the KKK, where I know first-hand what it’s like to be discriminated against.
NYC is a haven of diversity just like Sesame Street promised, where people of every color walk down the busy streets in suits with briefcases, getting in and out of taxis. I feel more comfortable riding the A train where I’m often the only white rider than I do in the small town where I’m from that’s comprised almost entirely of white people. In New York it’s easy to pretend that the divide between white and black is a thing of the past.
When Carlos got a job in TriBeCa, I found myself spending a lot of time in this affluent neighborhood near the World Trade Center. It is full of children and women with strollers, so much so, that we’ve nick-named it Stroller-Town. Walking around Battery Park, I began to notice a strange phenomenon. I kept seeing black women pushing strollers with white babies. My first thought was that white babies must be the Must Have Accessory for rich, black women this season. There were so many of them, walking down the streets, sitting in the parks, coming in and out of the expensive apartment buildings I could only dream of living in. Then it dawned on me. The women were not the parents, they were just taking care of the white babies of other people. As I watched more closely, I heard the women with Jamaican accents chasing down white toddlers with blond curls, being ordered around by petulant youngsters, demanding to be given ice cream. My stomach sank.
The Help made me believe that the world had changed since the early 60s, but the reality is that even in a diverse, progressive city like New York, certain institutions remain intact. I wonder about these children with their black nannies. Do they grow up to be more tolerant, more blind of something as ridiculous as skin color, or do they just get the idea reinforced that they are the ones who’ll grow up to be the movers and shakers, and black people will forever be their servants?
Last week in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, where everyone is poor, and therefore equal by default, I saw a little black girl walking down the street with her mom, wearing a Wonder Woman outfit, and was hopeful. I hope this little girl grows up knowing that she can be the super hero without needing some great white hope to swoop in and save her. I hope that she grows up never knowing what it’s like to be discriminated against for her color, or her sex, or her sexual preference (whatever that might turn out to be.) I hope that she grows up believing in herself and teaches the rest of her generation to do the same.