Hitler in the Age of Trump

There is something empowering in watching my five-year-old daughter pick flowers on Hitler’s mountain.

Her eyes light on the weedy purple blooms that emerge from the crevices of rocks, from patches of gravel at the edge of the walking path. Her little brown hands consider them and pluck her favorites.

“Mom? Can you put these in my backpack? Somewhere safe.” She gingerly hands her treasure to me.

I zip them in a pocket on her pack, which is harnessed across her chest and has a handle for me to grab on the back. An intentional choice for today, seeing as the Kelsteinhaus, Hitler’s mountaintop home, the Eagle’s Nest, rises an abrupt 4000 feet from the city below, from Berchtesgaden, Germany. A fortunate choice as well, I realize now that we are here, since there are few guardrails between myself, my husband, our two children, and the one step too far that would send us plummeting to the invisible ground below.

This is surely why the Nazi’s loved this place, I think to myself. It is impossible to stand on this summit and not feel God-like, as if from this vantage you can survey all of creation. Here even the clouds are beneath you. And yet, you are simultaneously only one lunge away from meeting death.

How many times did some Nazi official plant his feet here on the edge and feel the precarity of his life? I wonder, did he then walk three steps back and apprehend the defeat of death, the rush, as I do now? For men who loved power, this seems to me the only place in the world they would ever want to be. Aloft. Defiant of mortality, at the top of the world.

And now they are all dead, and my daughter picks their flowers.

There is some triumph in this. But it also feels, like life itself here, precarious. I see it in the faces of another mother and father who rode up with us on the bus. They stand fifteen feet away from me now, their young son at their side, his almond eyes preoccupied with the birds of prey that fly in the distance. He has Downs Syndrome. He is maybe nine years old.

I think to her, the mother, silently, “You feel it too, don’t you?” I see it in the tightness of her mouth. This place was not built to welcome us. And yet here we are standing. Standing like bulwarks between the past and the present, a generation between the horrors of those who preceded us, and what comes next in the generation that proceeds from us. Here at the top of the world, it feels like a heavy burden. It feels like weight.

She looks like she might speak English. She might even be an American tourist, like I am. I wish I could run over and ask her, as well as, “Were you expecting the Neo-Nazis today? I wasn’t expecting them. Did they also catch you off guard?”

Did she lose her breath for a moment, when she parked her car at the base of the mountain, walked to buy a ticket up, and saw the somber men mulling on the sidewalks? I did.

They weren’t organized. I bet they can’t organize. I’m certain some law prevents it. Germany bans all glorification of the Third Reich—displays of swastikas, yelling “Sieg Heil!” or making the Hitler salute—they can’t engage in these displays. It would also seem that they aren’t allowed to stand together either, or even to stand still. There are about twenty of them, all men dressed similarly in black paramilitary style clothing, with closely shaven heads. They keep seemingly intentional distances apart, and they never ever stop moving, mulling, pacing.

The abnormality of it feels vaguely threatening. As did the young man who paced around me in an erratic circle, though never closer to me than five feet, as I stood looking at an oversized “You Are Here” map.

“Mom?” my small son had asked, slinking against my legs. “What is he doing?” Faced with the impossibility of explaining to my five-year-old why the composition of our family makes a Neo-Nazi angry, I eventually just breathed out a whisper. “I don’t know.”

But I do know.

I know that I was born blonde and blue-eyed, and I grew to be tall and attractive. I married a man whose eyes are as piercingly light as my own, whose skin is a similar shade of white. We are both intelligent. We could probably make beautiful Arian babies. But we brought home our beautiful brown children instead, and so every move we make in this space is a defiance of the worldview of these men dressed in black. We are here and we declare that love is thicker than blood. Better than blood. That identity is ultimately defined by a higher calling than race.

I know these things. I just don’t know how to now explain them to my five-year-old child, as we stand on a sidewalk, surrounded by the enemy.

None of the paramilitary stalkers rode up the mountain with us on the bus, and I was grateful for that. Still, I can’t quite place the politics of everyone who is here with us at the summit. If appearances are any indication, it seems we are split, maybe ninety-percent to ten. Nine in ten of us being tour groupers, or history buffs, or just simply tourists checking off sites along the way. One in ten of us, though, look like something more, sound like something more in the snippets of conversation that I catch.

I think they might be pilgrims. I think they might be devout men and a few women beside them, visiting their Mecca.

I hadn’t expected it. I hadn’t expected there to be so many of them either. Maybe one. Maybe two. But not twenty. Not thirty. From the wary look on the other mother’s face, she with the other child who is seen as an aberration to these aberrant men, I think she hadn’t expected it either.

“Are you also worried that they might grab your baby and throw him off the mountain?” I want to ask her. “Is it an irrational thought at the back of your mind, that you wish didn’t feel more rational when you look at these cold hard faces?”

But I don’t ask her. I only continue to watch my daughter pick flowers, and my son marvel at the clouds beneath him, and her son point out the distant hawks.

At the time we are at Berchtesgaden, we are nearing the end of our trip. Weeks ago, when we’d first arrived in Europe, I casually flipped on BBC International and was greeted, surprisingly, with news from the hometown I’d just left. From Atlanta, Georgia.

There on the screen were the faces of Karen Handel and Jon Ossoff, the Republican and Democratic contenders, respectively, who were vying to become the next representative in Georgia’s 6th congressional district. My district.

It was just a single congress seat, in a usually less-than-important district in Georgia, and yet here was the whole world, watching. A total of fifty million dollars were spent between the two campaigns, making it the most expensive House race in the history of the United States of America. Contributions came in from across the nation as the election took on mythological proportions and symbolic meaning.

This was one of the first special elections since Donald Trump had been elected leader of the free world. If a Democratic Contender could here win, if a deep red Congressional district in the Deep South could turn blue, this would be a referendum. This would be a rejection of the nationalism that put Trump in office. This could point the way forward for America, out of a confusing time. And so many people gave their money, and the whole world watched. What would we in the 6th district do? Would we lead, and how? What history would we little people make?

I thought of this, when I first staked a Jon Ossoff sign in my front yard, that it might end up in the history books.

I cast my absentee ballot the day before I, my husband, and my children boarded our Air France flight to Paris, then went on to catch our connection, a tin can of a commercial plane, on to Central Europe. The crowd on the flight to Paris had been overwhelmingly multicultural, polished, sleek. The crowd on the next flight was paler, more disheveled, as we moved away from the cosmopolitan centers of Western Europe and crept closer to the edges of the former Soviet empire.

The election closed a couple of weeks later, on a Tuesday night, at 7pm—which for me, watching a world away, was 1am on a Wednesday morning. Europe slept. My husband had already acclimated to the time change, and my children had thus far been so overstimulated that they slumbered easily no matter what time it was.

But I found myself wide awake at 1am, wrapped in a blanket on a balcony. I had in mind my plans for the upcoming day, to go visit the Hofburg Palace, to go stand in the Heldenplatz in Vienna’s city centre.

Many important historical events transpired in the Heldenplatz, but in my mind they are most all eclipsed by the most recent drama to unfold there—Hitler’s ceremonial announcement of the Austrian annexation, the Anschluss, the joining of the nation to Nazi Germany on the 15th of March, 1938.

It was not until 2006 that Austria publicly owned up to what happened on that early Spring day. And even then, as President Heinz Fischer bravely picked holes in the nation’s 1955 declaration of independence—what had become the official retelling of the history, and which helped paint the nation’s false memories—even then, there was still vociferous resistance from the public. Surveys from 2006 show that a majority of Austrian citizens continued to deny what happened in the Heldenplatz. Many of them still do today.

But the pictures prove it.

The pictures show 200,000 citizens welcoming Hitler’s troops with euphoria. The pictures show the ecstatic crowds gathered at the Heldenplatz to hear the führer deliver a rousing speech. The pictures show the masses waving Nazi flags, sticking their hands out in salute. They cheer.

There are no Jews in the pictures, even though Vienna had the largest Jewish population in all of Austria. It is impossible that, if you look at the photographs, if you search among the smiling faces on the Heldenplatz, it is impossible that you do not see neighbors of Jews. Classmates of Jews. Friends of Jews. And they smile. And they probably do not know that they are welcoming the death of their neighbors.

If you ask an old man in Austria what happened on March 15th, 1938, he will tell you that the annexation was forced upon his people. He will tell you that they reluctantly accepted a political situation over which they had no control.

But if you ask him if his parents were at the Heldenplatz—if you ask him how his parents felt about the Anschluss—he may become as quiet as my own grandfather has, when I have asked him about the KKK in Georgia.

“Papa?” I have asked. “I know you were just a boy in 1938. But did you know about the Ku Klux Klan? Do you know if there were any members in your community?”

“Don’t know nothing about that, sweetheart.”

But then there was the day that I found a KKK pamphlet in one of his father’s, my great-grandfather’s, books. It was pressed thin as a leaf inside the pages of a Biblical commentary, a musty old tome that nobody else in the family wanted. But that I had in my home, because I loved old books.

“Papa? What is this? I found it in your father’s book.”

He took the pamphlet in his hands, studied it, then wordlessly turned away and walked to the back of the house, taking it with him. He never returned.

And there was no more mention of the pamphlet. My grandmother fed me homemade biscuits and asked me about my new job, then casually sent me home. In the years since, I have on two occasions asked to have the pamphlet back, and the answer has been the same.

“Don’t know nothing about that, sweetheart.”

“But I’d just like to have it back, please? I found it. It’s mine. We don’t have to talk about it.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about, sweetheart.”

Ask an old man in Austria if his parents were waving flags at the Heldenplatz. Isn’t that them there, in the photograph?

He won’t know what you’re talking about either.

I stared off our balcony, toward the Heldenplatz, as Georgia’s 6th‘s election results rolled in. And I wondered, as I felt the tightness in my chest, the precarity of watching history unfold, if some Austrian woman had ever been here before me.

Maybe seventy-nine years prior, had she too looked towards the Heldenplatz and mourned for her nation? Had she felt powerless against the tide of politics among her neighbors, the pull of nationalism, the fear of the foreigner? The anti-immigration sentiment that wanted to send the Jews back from whence they’d came. That wanted to build a wall.

Did the ladies in her social circle dislike her discussion of the Nazis? Did her family ask her to be less political during Sunday lunch?

What was the 1938 equivalent of an election yard sign? Had hers been pulled up, like mine, by her neighbors, and thrown in the middle of the road? Had her mailbox been spray painted, as those on my street had? Had she ever seen a threatening letter stuck in her front door, telling her that the neighborhood was tired of seeing her politics in the front yard?

How did she feel the night before the nationalists marched onto the Heldenplatz? And was it in any way similar to how I felt, as I watched a nationalist win Georgia’s 6th congressional district election? Or how I felt half-a-year before, on November 8th of 2016, when a nationalist won the nation?

I can never know. But I have imagined.

The elevator operator at the Eagle’s Nest, on the day that we were there, was a stern unsmiling German man who spoke to no one. When we first rode up to the summit, there had barely been room to breathe inside the elevator box. Probably fifty of us strangers had squeezed into the space, then stood perfectly still as it rose hundreds upon hundreds of feet through the center of the mountain. On the ride down though, there was only me, my husband, and my two children. And the elevator operator.

As my lone family boarded into the gilded box, the operator broke from his stoic expression for one brief moment and looked aghast. Did no one else want to ride down? Sticking his head out the elevator doors, he scowled as if this must be some trick. The elevator is always crowded. But upon seeing no one waiting in the queue, he threw up his hands and pressed the button to close the doors. And down we went, alone.

And that is how I found myself inside an experience that is not usually open to the public—riding privately in Hitler’s elevator.

The walls of the box are gilt copper mirrors on the top, plush jade leather padding on the bottom. The once matching leather benches have been removed, but in their day, they sat the likes of Heinrich Himmler, Martin Bormann, the Goebbel’s family with all their young children, and many other notorious namesakes. And of course, none rode the elevator more than Eva Braun.

I peered into the mirrored walls as we descended, breathed a long quiet breath out into the air. What else could you do as you made the long trip down? This must have been a universal experience for all who rode here, in the quiet. To listen to the creaking in the shaft. To stare into your own eyes in the mirror. To exhale.

What world changing thoughts had been contained in these four small walls, as a man was forced into his own head, stared down by his own reflection, as the elevator descended?

When the elevator reached the ground, my little family walked off and fifty waiting people climbed on, and then we found ourselves again, suddenly and utterly, alone. I nearly ran to turn the corner in the silent alcove of the arrival tunnel, to look down the long hollow cave that led toward daylight. How had we missed the crowds, the other hordes of tourists? How were we alone? Surely there were at least a hundred people around the corner.

But there weren’t.

“Wow,” my husband whispered, and the word hit the walls of the empty cave, bounced around in the damp dark, disappeared somewhere toward the distant daylight.

“Wow,” I replied, and the word was big and round and hollow in the acoustics of the tunnel.

“Mom? Is it haunted?” followed the timid voice of my daughter.

I considered that in the echoing silence. “Only by memories,” I finally said. And then a moment later I whispered, only to myself, “Don’t fear the dead. Fear the living.”

It was June 27th. We were exactly one week past our congressional election, where the Pro-Trump candidate won, and we were exactly one week away from July 4th, America’s Independence Day.

We would still be in Central Europe for the 4th, and it will be a lonely holiday, as well as a lesson for me in empathy toward any American expat abroad. I will miss my homeland and her people. And I will grieve, alone, over the way I feel different this Independence Day.

Month’s later, a family friend will be seated at our dining room table, eating dinner with our family. I will recount to him the way I felt.

He, a brilliant man, a scientist, an inventor, a mentor who my husband is fond of saying has forgotten more than we will ever know. He, a patriot and an immigrant—he in his accented English, that I still sometimes struggle to understand, he will say, “This was the first Independence Day in thirty years that I did not feel,” he will pat his chest. “This was the first time since escaping the dictatorship of my homeland, that I did not feel,” pat, pat. “The pride.”

My eyes will smart with tears, just for one quick moment, as the weight of how much I understand this settles on me, and settles around the table.

“And I had to ask myself,” he will continue, “Have I been naïve, in the way I have so loved this nation.”

I don’t yet know it in the tunnel in Berchtesgaden, but things are forcefully barreling ahead in the world. Things are arriving. They will come.

In America, white nationalists will rally in Charlottesville. In Germany, there will be a spike in Holocaust memorial desecration. In Austria, there will be an election of an anti-immigrant prime minister, and he will only be elected because he has allied with the OVP, the political party that the Nazi’s morphed into. For the first time since World War II, Austria will re-elect her nationalists. Poland, who knows so much of death from the previous era, will have fascists march in Warsaw. They are marching as I type, now.

My own mother will ask me if I want to go visit my Trump-voting extended family. She will ask me if I can find it in myself to break bread with them. And I will tell my mother the only truth that I know, in light of the things that are. It is a difficult truth that won’t leave me.

I will say something that is the modern equivalent of an Austrian woman in 1938 telling her own people, “I cannot sit quietly around a dinner table, and smile, as my loved one’s support the Anschluss.”

And my mother will say that she understands. But I will wonder if she really does.

The far right is on the march.

“You should sing Edelweiss,” says my husband in the empty tunnel, in Germany, as we slowly make our way toward daylight. I gingerly touch the cold wet walls of the cave as we go, like they are an artifact in a museum, like someone might catch me and demand that I stop.

I hum a few bars of the song. The cave acoustics catch them and amplify them like the voices of a thousand ghosts.

But it is wrong. It doesn’t feel right. It isn’t the song for this. Not for this era and not for this moment that I walk in.

Perhaps it is the upcoming holiday, the 4th, that prompts me into the verse that I do sing in the tunnel. I quietly find the opening notes of the song, but I shift them down to a minor key. This tunnel is haunted. This song should be too.

O beautiful

Small haunted words.

for patriot’s dream,

They nervously fill the hollow space.

that sees beyond these years,

an alabaster city gleams, undimmed by human tears.

And then the swell.

America! America!

Like a prayer.

God mend thine every flaw,

Like a plea.

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

Thy liberty in law.

A beggar’s prayer in Nazi-haunted Germany. In Hitler’s mountain. In the age of Trump.

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

Thy liberty in law!

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Mother of a Black Child

Through the heart of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is a straight line of stamped concrete—a road wide enough to park a bus on—labeled the “Free Speech Zone.” I know this because a non-profit organization with which I volunteered parked a bus there, and I was leaning out of the bus door curiously when the demonstrators marched by.

“It’s about PEACE,” intoned a young black woman into a megaphone. “It’s about JUSTice,” replied the small crowd walking with her, maybe ten, maybe fifteen, all of them students, all of them black. All of them with grave expressions on their faces.

“It’s about PEEEACE!”

“It’s about JUSTice!”

I didn’t know who Trayvon Martin was at the time, but I saw his face and his name on the posters around the students’ necks. I saw it lifted up by their arms into the air—enlarged photocopied images of a young black boy in a contrasting white hoodie.

“It’s about PEACE!”

I knit my brows together. Tilted my head. What was?

“Do you know what this is about?” I asked the woman volunteering on the bus with me. She was fair skinned, white haired, small boned, at least thirty years my senior, with myself in my mid-twenties at the time. Her voice was usually apologetic and breathless when she spoke, and now was no exception.

“Oh,” she breathed. “Something about a robbery? Sorry. I don’t know about all—” she waved her hand toward the demonstrators, “this.” The word, this, a breath, and that appeared to be the end of it for her.

I suppose it could have been the end of it for me too. But then it wasn’t. I pulled up the notepad app in my phone and typed hastily, “Trayvon Martin.” For later.

I couldn’t Google it right away, because this was 2012 and mobile Internet was still often unreliable and painfully slow. The Free Speech Zone, at the time, turned out to be mostly a data dead zone, unless I was lucky enough to catch a wifi signal from the neighboring library. I usually brought along a book to read, to pass the time between the waves of students that ambled by between classes. When I got home later, I would Google the name.

I guess I Googled it. I guess I learned who Trayvon Martin was. But I can’t recall what I felt. Did I feel anything? I don’t remember. I fear that I didn’t feel a thing. Not a damn thing. I probably didn’t. What I do recall, though, is the face of the girl with the megaphone. She made a dent in my memory. I see her even now, vividly.

“It’s about PEACE!” she declares, her eyes narrowed in intensity, pinched at the corners, her white teeth bared against the word, white against her dark skin.

“It’s about JUSTice.”

That was February. In August we brought the twins home. I didn’t know what their race was when we accepted the foster care placement, but I made a guess from the names contained in the email that Department of Family Services sent me, and that was after I’d already said yes. The email actually said we’d be picking up twin boys, 7 months old. That was lesson number one, I suppose, in never trusting anything that DFS says.

When the nursery worker at the shelter turned the corner with the baby that is now my daughter in his arms, I exclaimed, “It’s a girl?”

The man looked skeptically at the child in his hands and declared, “Looks like a girl to me.”

The child was then plopped into my husband’s arms, and James became a father, for the very first time. My son was dumped into my arms a moment thereafter, and I became a mother. All the ensuing chaos that accompanies parenthood for the very first time followed. We didn’t miss a lick, including us nervously strapping them into our car for the very first time, and driving home at a snail’s pace.

The baby girl bonded almost instantly. She batted her chubby little hands at her father’s face and grinned, and she wound her way into our hearts so tightly that I couldn’t even understand it at first. We loved her with something fierce that would have driven back a bear, or a tidal wave, or all the mud of a landslide. We loved her quickly.

We loved her twin brother too, with all the same intensity. But even in infancy, he was a more cautious child. He reserved himself. Deidre, all the past and present trauma be damned, seemed mostly delighted by us. Devon, her brother, seemed more concerned. He cried incessantly. In his screams, in the pitch of his wails, I sometimes wondered if I heard the words, “I hate you.”

“I hate you,” as he rejected a bottle. “I hate you,” as I touched a washcloth to his back and tried to bathe him. “I hate you,” as I bounced him in my arms and tried to soothe him. Scream after scream after scream. And because of that, our bond was harder won.

“Don’t get too attached,” I heard those words ringing in my ears, from the licensing worker, from the other experienced foster mothers, from the mouths of my skeptical friends. “Don’t get too attached, Heather.”

Don’t be stupid. Don’t do something ridiculous, like fall in love with these children. Don’t you know? Don’t you realize? Your job here is to keep them alive—not love them. Why would you waste your time on loving them? They’re just going to leave. Don’t work too hard at this loving thing.

It was probably around October of 2012, three months later. Devon was probably ten months old. I was soaking in the tub, trying to forget the pain of the day, trying to forget all the horrors that accompany a childless woman trying to mother two motherless children. All the impossible needs. All my endless failures. The wailing. The wailing that never ended.

“Can you bring him to me?” I asked my husband, as the baby screamed.

“Now?” James asked. “But you’re in the tub. And isn’t he supposed to be sleeping?”

“But he isn’t sleeping,” I noted, as we both listened to him shrieking from his room and through the baby monitor, piercing, angry, relentless.

My husband brought the tiny little boy to me, and I in the tub took him, extended him, hovered him over the tile of the bathroom floor. I zipped off his footed pajamas with one hand, managing to balance him in the other, and I tossed the clothes away. I unsnapped his diaper and tossed it too. Then I pulled the small naked lump of child onto my chest. He was solid and heavy, like a big rock.

I let the warm water cover his legs and his little round rump and his smooth little baby back, dark and silky as the silt in a riverbed. I let him sink into my abdomen and into the water. He seemed unsure at first. He squirmed. But then finally he relaxed, and eventually, finally, he nestled his small cheek against my damp breast, just above the surface line of the water, and he settled into a deep and even slumber.

“I love you,” I whispered to him, “whether you want me to or not.”

“And I will not stop.”

It was some weeks after that, in the growing sunlight that was seeping through the bathroom window, that my husband asked, “What is that?”

We each stood in front of the bathroom sinks, bleary eyed, both still a little resentful from being pulled away from much needed sleep. Both a little cranky. We tried our best to brush and wash and whatever anyway.

I was staring down at my breasts, chin flattened against my sternum, the straps of a tired and worn and terribly uncomfortable bra hanging loosely between my fingertips. I had fallen asleep with it on again. Again. Again.

I stared puzzled at the over-worn and pilled cup lining, there at the whitish liquid pooled. My nipples hung free of it and swollen.

Could it be? Is that even possible?

“It’s…” said James. “It looks like…”

“Is it?” I breathed.


Adoptive induced lactation, actually. It’s a thing, apparently. It sometimes happens to non-postpartum women (and even men! on extremely rare occasions) in seasons of extreme baby-induced stress.

Find yourself a baby. Sit alone with it for thousands of hours, and at all hours of the day and night. Be unable to comfort it. And your body might just give you a hand. Or actually, not a hand but—milk.

During those early days, when Devon was still screaming inconsolably for no reason, when he would just sit in the floor and look at me with an expression that I can only describe as baby-hate. The look a baby gives you when you are not the woman it was expecting. You are not the woman it knew, even if he only ever knew her imperfectly. It was during those days that I would pull my shirt and my bra over my head, toss them unenthusiastically and dejectedly towards the floor, and I would pull the tiny little boy child towards me.

“You don’t have to love me,” I would say, positioning his small frame against my chest, “but I am going to rock you regardless.”

And so he would scream at me for a good half hour.

“I don’t even know you!” his screams would say. But eventually his screaming would subside, and he would nuzzle up against a breast, and he would fall into a deep, unequivocally succumbed, sleep—the meaning of rest settling on him.

I would watch him there, his dark cheek squished against my pink skin, and I would think how much I loved him and how much I didn’t even know why. This made no sense. It was despite the fact that my ears were still ringing, despite the fact that his face was still creased from his fading outburst. Despite it, his cheek was now tucked into my skin, on the softest part of my body, and he snored.

I was tired. And apathetic. And done. And that’s exactly what he was too. Just done with it. We were both so tired. And there we both found ourselves still in the quiet together. Skin on skin. Night after night. Finally resting.

In the wake of all that, in the wake of the angry baby, so inconsolable—in the wake of the child that didn’t know what to think about me, but was nevertheless tucked tightly against my mammary glands—in the wake of all that, my body did what felt right for the occasion.

It made milk.

The next summer, on July 13, 2013, almost a year after bringing my babies home, a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of the murder of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin.

It is some other thing, to hear this news when you have no son. It is another thing when you have no black son. It is some other thing entirely to hear this news when you have a small black boy in your highchair, eating green peas and drinking from a sippy-cup.

I first felt panic rise up in my chest. I scrolled the news on Facebook. There I saw my black friends be loud. There I saw, in contrast, my white friends and family (and there were many more of them) be silent. In the moment, I realized two truths. I was a white woman, and I would always be a white woman, as long as I ever live. And I was also the mother of a black son, and I would always be the mother of a black son, as long as I ever live. I was part of two worlds now.

The dawn of this realization had been growing in me for some time.

When I think of the woman that I was (can I even write woman? I was just a girl) hanging out of the bus door as a volunteer, at UNLV in Spring of 2012, I can barely recognize her. She was just a girl who knew nothing. A child.

But then maybe I do know her, and maybe she wasn’t as clueless as she could have been. Maybe I can give her some small bit of credit, because she never did get the face of that student out of her mind, that young black female with the megaphone with the clenched face and the white teeth. The face lived on.

“It’s about PEACE!”

Nearly a year after bringing my children home, I had read prolifically in…good gosh…in everything I could. What stone hadn’t I overturned? (I’m sure there are many, but I also turned over a good many others.)

I started with Martin Luther King Jr., because that is where every white person starts when they want to learn about race in America. (I was a cliché in this. I know this.) But then I didn’t stop at “I Have a Dream.” I either read or listened to (and I mean this honestly) every single word that King left behind. I challenge you to find a single speech or sermon of King’s that I haven’t consumed. (Because if you do, I want to know. I want to know what else that man had to say before America killed him.)

I moved onto Malcolm. I spent time with Baldwin. April Sinclair. Ishmael Reed. I found Dr. Elijah Anderson, of Yale, and I soaked him up like a sponge. I found Van Jones. I loved him. I loved many others.

I cautiously approached Ta Nehisi Coates in his very early days at The New Republic, not being sure if I loved him or if I did not love him. Here was a contemporary, and someone whose star was just now rising. Here was someone alive and current and feeling and thinking and writing in the moment, not yet dead like Martin or Malcolm. Coates was a man of today, of this very hour.

And here I am still unsure if I love Coates, even right now as I love him very much. He sometimes feels contradictory to me. Which I think shows how it is sometimes more difficult to love great leaders in the present-tense than it is to love them in the past-tense.

At any rate. I became a well-read white woman in the ways of black folks, Langston Hughes/Lawrence Ross pun very much intended here.

Maybe your response to that is prickly. Maybe it isn’t. But if it is, and you have an assumption that I am a voyeur here, peeking into black culture without an invitation, I want you to know that I hear you. You can judge it if you need to. I know you and I hear your objections now. And I can only respond by inviting you to go ahead and criticize me. I can take it.

You can accuse me of being a white girl who is only dabbling in blackness, perhaps to make herself feel important. To make herself feel complicated. To make herself feel like something most white girls can’t, even now, in 2017. To make herself feel less white.

And dear me, I will hear you say that.

But I will also tell you, if you are umpiring me in this way, that I can probably guarantee that you personally have never been an adoptive mother whose body has made milk for a child. You’ve probably never known what it feels like, to have your breasts ache for a baby that you did not birth. To have your body offer up everything it can, in defiance of biology and race and whatever else might be a barrier between you and the child in your arms. And leak milk.

I sobbed when I heard the verdict in the Trayvon Martin trial.

I had a longsuffering friend, so loved she is, so patient, who is also the mother of a black son, and black herself. She interjected herself to placate me. You can call her my token “black friend” if you want to. But the truth is, she was. She was black and she was my friend that day, and I needed her. “Now you know,” she said to me, in a moment that now feels intensely formative.

Now I know.

Now I know so many things that I did not know before.

Now I know how it feels to have a white friend specifically offer my daughter the one page from a Disney coloring book that features Princess Tiana, as if my child must automatically defer to the only black character available.

Now I know how it feels to be hurriedly trying to gather our belongings from a white friend’s house, and happen across a baby doll of whose origin I can’t quite place, in the exhaustive fog of my motherhood. Does this doll belong to us or not?

“Is this ours?” I ask, holding the doll up by a limb.

“Well it certainly isn’t ours,” with a small laugh, says the friend. It takes me a moment to register that she is saying she would never buy a black doll for her own lily-skinned daughter.

Now I know how it feels to have someone who has never met my children’s biological family and who has no idea about any of the family’s personal qualities, redeeming and admirable and also otherwise, refer to them in a collective known as “those people.”

“It is such a beautiful thing that you saved your children from a life living with those people. They won’t grow up to be like them.”

Never mind that you know absolutely nothing about them, and you have earned no right to an opinion about their quality.

Now I know how it feels to research my children’s biological family tree, through official government records, and realize that it is truncated abruptly in 1953. Before then no one officially made much effort to keep records on impoverished black families. For a vast majority of black families in America, there is only family history to rely on—stories passed from one generation to the next, memories kept as the only proof the souls ever lived.

Now I know how it feels to grieve because that history was never “official” in America, and so much of it is lost to time. What a waste. What a loss for us as a nation. What a loss for me and my own children, which we will have to reckon with more fully, as they grow.

Now I know how it feels, in a world of overwhelmingly white political representation, to see Barack Obama flash across the news. To see my children take him for granted as a normal American president, the only one they’ve ever known.

Now I know how it feels to have a leathery old white man—white haired, red cheeked, bottom lip bulged with tobacco—refuse to sell me a bottle of water at a gas station in rural South Georgia, because I am lovingly holding my infant son in my arms.

I approach him with child and water bottle in hand, jostle the bottle of water onto the counter, rummage for my wallet. The man won’t meet my gaze. After a few tense moments and without a word, he wanders to the back of the store, leaving me confused at the counter, holding my debit card.

Now I know how it feels to have a black woman, my age, my height, start yelling at me in a Starbucks courtyard. I’d received news that morning that my 37-year-old uncle had died tragically, and then immediately afterwards, in my shell shocked grief, I had to leave our house abruptly because it was on the market and had a showing. I stumbled to Starbucks unwashed and fragile and barely alive. I had not brushed my own hair, much less my daughters.

But all that this black woman saw in me was a white woman who had not combed my black daughter’s hair. She began aggressively berating me, without end. Raising her voice. Gesticulating. No matter that I kept asking politely, weakly, dead with grief, pushing through with all the strength I had, that she please leave me alone.

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you now please. Please stop. Thank you but please stop. Please leave. Please stop.”

When she finally did, a shocked stranger in the courtyard, an elderly white lady, asked me if I needed her to call the police.

Now I know how it feels to have a white family member enthusiastically share pictures of our children playing together on her Facebook wall.

“Look at us!” the photos seem to say. “We are a progressive family!”

A chorus of white friends gasp with, “Beautiful!” and “So touching!” and other comments that seem just a little out of place beneath ordinary photos of kids eating sandwiches.

And then not more than two posts later, I watch this same family member share a video featuring thinly-veiled racist language from Tomi Lahren.

Now I know how it feels to be sitting in a living room in rural Georgia, with a few old white men sitting in chairs on the periphery. One of them is as familiar with my son as he is with the other male children in the room, which is to say not very familiar, but enough to know their names. He calls those children by their names, and if he can’t remember a name, he finds some way of getting their attention that is not the way he chooses to get my son’s attention. For my son, he barks the word, “Boy!”

It happens once, and I scoop my baby up and leave without hesitation, and I never return to that living room again.

Now I know what micro-aggressions are, and how they wriggle their way under your skin and stay there—like a thousand tiny pieces of glass, rubbed in over time. It won’t kill you, but it makes life so uncomfortable. After enough of them, it makes it exhausting to move around anymore.

Now I know.

Now I know how it feels to protest, in response to the murder of a child that could have been my child. A child that could have been your child. A child walking home with Skittles in his pocket. In response to the not guilty verdict in the murder of Trayvon Martin, almost two years after his death—it was then that I first learned how it felt to march. How it felt to bear my own teeth against the words “Peace” and “Justice” in unison with others.

And I learned how it felt when oblivious onlookers seemed aggressive, or simply bothered, or much the worse—indifferent.

Now I know how it feels, to be the mother of a black child.

For our cross-country move, we made the drive to Atlanta, Georgia from Las Vegas, Nevada the week before July 4th, 2015. It was during that week that there was some controversy over a certain flag flying over the statehouses in much of the South. Many people wanted the flag removed. Many people didn’t.

Responding to the brutal racially motivated murders at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Bree Newsome, a 30-year-old black woman, was arrested at the South Carolina Capitol. There she scaled a 30-foot flagpole and unhooked the flying Confederate flag. Police officers shouted at her to come down, but Bree shimmied to the top anyway, took the flag in her hand and responded defiantly, “You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.”

Newsome recited Psalm 27 and the Lord’s Prayer as she brought the flag down. As soon as she reached the ground, she was arrested, along with James Tyson, who had stood at the bottom of the pole to spot her as she climbed.

The flag was replaced about an hour after Newsome took it down. Bree went to jail. And the Confederate flag went back up. I read this news as we were driving, and it wriggled its way underneath my skin. Another piece of glass.

Welcome back South. I had felt it creeping up on us as we drove from the dry ground of New Mexico into the middle humidity of Texas, then into Louisiana, and under some wet blanket of heat. After so many years living away in the bone-dry desert, there was now this clamminess that was gradually covering us. It was finding us.

“I can’t breathe,” I had said to my husband, somewhere near Shreveport, Louisiana. “The humidity?” he asked. Then gave me a look of acknowledgment that of course it was more than that. “This is going to be our new normal.” Then he amended, “Our new old normal. Our normal again.”

We were driving home.

In Shreveport we fed our family lunch, then we drove on to Jackson, Mississippi for the night. It was during the following morning’s drive from Jackson to Birmingham that I began to see the bumper stickers. And the flags. Everywhere.

One particularly large diesel pickup truck, a white Ford, was covered in the Confederacy. Flags of various sizes and materials mounted on every surface to which they could affix. Where they could not fly, they were stamped in stickers, and accompanied by pithy sayings that pledged allegiance to things like God, the Republican Party, and the Tea Party. Another one declared, “NOT MY PRESIDENT.”

This was perhaps a response to Alabama Governor Robert Bentley having just removed the Confederate flag from the Alabama Statehouse. It is probably worth mentioning that Alabama senator Jeff Sessions vehemently and vocally opposed him in removing the flag. And that seems worth mentioning because Sessions is this week set to become our next U.S. Attorney General, in a Presidential administration that has found high ranking positions for an astonishing number of men who have historically opposed racial reconciliation in America.

More glass.

“This is the right thing to do,” Alabama Governor Bentley had told a reporter. “This had the potential to become a major distraction as we go forward. I have taxes to raise, we have work to do. And it was my decision that the flag needed to come down.”

Alabama’s citizenry responded accordingly. Here was the proof, on the white Ford truck. My three-year-old son marveled at the novelty, as it thundered past.

“It’s Captain America?” he asked. As a burgeoning fan of Marvel comics, this was a question he posed to anything sporting red, white, blue, and stars.

“It isn’t,” I said softly, trying not to convey the darkness. Not today. Not yet. Soon. But not yet.

Another piece of glass.

We stopped in Birmingham to pay homage to the 16th Street Baptist Church, where in 1963 White Supremacists killed 4 black children about the age of my own now, and injured 22 other bodies and wounded a countless number of other souls, of black citizens and their allies. There we stood at the feet of Martin Luther King Jr., his likeness memorialized in a concrete statue above us, until I finally felt like I had the inner strength to make the last leg of our journey to Atlanta, which would be our new home. My new old home.

Just before we left, as we stood beneath the statue, a white middle-class woman walked over to gawk at my family.

“Beautiful!” she exclaimed. “Just beautiful!”

Her buoyance grated against the glass in my skin. The church behind us, where the children had died. The truck with the flags. The Senator Sessions, declaring that Alabama’s pride in her glorious history should never be erased. Keep the flag flying. Bree Newsome, who brought down the flag in South Carolina, sitting in a jail cell. My tiny son, marveling at a truck that was emblazoned with love for a symbol that had kept his ancestors beaten and in chains and oppressed on all fronts.

Pieces of glass.

There was a bedraggled elderly black man walking around the park, hassling people for money. His hair was white and brittle against the dark leather of his skin. I calculated the years between him and the bombing that memorialized this very place. He must have been a teenager at the time.

I saw him wander over to the white woman who had gawked at us. He asked her for a dollar. He wandered over to others, engaged them, walked away. But he never did approach us.

As I was strapping the kids in our SUV, I looked across the lawn and caught him looking. For a quick moment, we made eye contact, my pale blue irises meeting the dark brown in his, watery and tired.

And I wondered. “How much glass is in your skin?”

The answer was in the quickness with which he turned away.

I looked then at my son in his car seat, still so small and innocent, with his own dark skin a little red from the Alabama heat. I placed my fingers on his arm gently, the flesh still chubby with toddler fat, still unscarred and unweathered. I thought about all the glass that would accumulate there over the years. I wondered if I could somehow stop it. If I could find a way to take it all in my own skin instead.

That should be an option, for a mother, I think.

It isn’t fair, that it isn’t.

It isn’t.

Then I closed the door and strapped myself in the front seat. And we drove on to Georgia.

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