A few years ago when I was in Wisconsin, on my way to Iraq, Jojo was born, or “baby jofist” if you ask Bry. My son was a pale little creature who I had yet to meet in person, although it was already decided, by everyone, that he looked exactly like me. This could have contributed to his mother naming him after me; that or the fact that she thought I might die while I was deployed. It was a gift.
The pre-deployment train up left us with a few days before getting on a plane to go over seas, but not really enough time and money to fly back home; that would wait until the middle of the tour. So, some of us drove to Milwaukee for a few days. I walked the city during the day, and at night, taking in the sights. I felt only mildly uncomfortable, alone and not exactly running into people I could relate to.
I looked at photos of Jojo on my phone.
Sergeant Didonado was also in Milwaukee, his fiancé came up and one night I met them at a bar. It was a pretty typical place, about half full with dim lights and a draft list you could count on one hand, sporting events on the televisions. As I was sitting with SSG Didonado and his fiancé, a young shapely white woman with long, light hair came up and sat next to me, started making conversation. It was the usual where are you from, and how long are you in town at first—the white man, black man, and Asian woman combo may have given us away as outsiders, but I couldn’t be certain. The conversation lulled and I cringed a little when she mentioned the weather and then something about her clothing. I then said that my son was recently born.
The cell phone pictures made an appearance and SSG Didonado’s fiancé said things like “awe,” and “cute,” and then I showed the girl who had sat down next to me. She held the phone in her hand for a second, glanced at it and passed it back to me.
“Pretty cute, for a black baby,” she said.
I’m pretty sure SSG Didonado started laughing first, but he definitely said, “wait, what did you just say?” His fiancé looked at the girl, confuzzled. I might have been laughing the hardest. We all laughed even louder though when we realized that the girl sitting next to me didn’t understand why we were laughing.
Eventually, when we tired out, everyone just stared towards the center of the bar for a little while. The girl who sat next to me never quite understood why we were laughing. She left without a word. Afterwards, we chatted about how ridiculous the event was, about how her obliviousness amplified the hilarity. Sad, but hilarious.
And these moments are where I start when I consider how to talk to the kids about race. There used to be a sliver of naïveté in me that thought: maybe I won’t even have to bring that kind of stuff up, they might not have to deal with that. But that would be stupid. And dangerous. Because an infant who, not very long ago lived in my testicles, who had no melanin to spare, was already considered a lesser being because of his blackness—by a girl who never met him and never would, in a photo, 900 miles and a time zone away. I wondered how many years he had before she might consider him armed and dangerous.
And best of all, she probably still doesn’t know what was so funny.