Making Stories of Struggle a Thing of the Past

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We come from different worlds, my wife and I, but we both call America home.

Before the pandemic hit, we spent just about every Sunday visiting my Sri Lankan in-laws. We were met at the door with the smell of chicken curry, a favorite of mine for the last few years, and my father-in-law’s favorite dish to make. I was greeted with a long “Hello….” and plenty of questions before I could take off my shoes, a custom in their household and now in mine too.

Our three kids would beeline for the snack cabinet, hungry for chocolate and other sweets their grandparents collected for them. We had to pause those visits when the pandemic hit, but since the viral video of George Floyd’s murder has circulated online, and the resulting protests, we are using social distancing and the green backyard at my in-laws’ Connecticut home or our own to dig into the difficult conversations about race in America.

Calling myself African-American never really felt genuine as I came to understand my own identity. I often felt most comfortable calling myself black, as defined by my dark skin color. For my wife, her identity is wrapped in her country of origin, Sri Lanka, an island nation south of India, the home her parents left because of the ethnic civil war that plagued their homeland for 25 years. When my wife came to America as a child in the 1980s, she realized skin color was an issue in American culture. Before immigrating to America, she lived in Sri Lanka, Uganda and Kenya, where dark skin surrounded her. It was never feared, but in America, things were different.

The place they called home, their suburban neighborhood, was filled with middle-class Irish- and Italian-Americans, who didn’t know of Sri Lanka but perceived her father to be white and her mother black. Her school lunches became a source of contention and one of many reasons she was bullied. White students made fun of her for the curry meals with fish cutlets she brought, and for her South Asian accent. A white classmate told her, “Get on a boat and go back to wherever you came from,” before pushing her into the school closet.

Her white classmates looked down on her as less than. She was one of three children of color in her class; they were tied together by their shared realities and nonwhite skin tones, visibly marking them as minorities.

Her parents came to America with an openness to learning about American culture. But in America they quickly found themselves bombarded with negative stereotypes of black people.

“They will mug you. Watch your pocketbooks. They are crooks,” her mother recalls colleagues warning her about black people.

When I, a gay black woman, began dating their daughter, they struggled at first. Eventually, they accepted me for me, as part of their South Asian family once I married their daughter.

Over time, they educated themselves about black history in this country and were appalled to learn about slavery and segregation and systemic racism.

When we had children together, they decided they had to put in the hard work of understanding the types of discrimination black people face in America. My mother-in-law registered for a “Facing Racism” workshop through her local library. She and my father-in-law began to understand the disparities in education, job security, homeownership and wealth that kept black people from advancing.

If my immigrant in-laws can educate themselves and can help to shift the narrative being told about black people in America, then so can every person who calls themselves an American.

I was raised by my maternal grandparents, both products of the segregated South. My grandmother grew up in rural Central Virginia, my grandfather in North Carolina. They shared their own stories of being black children in the late 1930s and early ’40s.

With a kind of candor I’d never seen before, they told me at the age of 11 about having to walk on the black side of the street and hide in the cars of their white schoolteachers to safely get to school.

They told me, “We didn’t know any better, it was normal for us. It just was.” The riots, the protests happening today, mark a turning point for black people, for me, for my grandparents and for my children. It is a time to not accept discrimination just because it is what we know, what we’ve been taught, what we’ve become used to wallowing in.

It is up to us, as the parents of the next generation, to teach new lessons and continue to share our stories with our kids.

It is through storytelling that we give our 4-year-old twin daughters and 13-year-old son the opportunity to learn of the struggles faced by their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. We provide them with the information they need to know to best help define who they will become. We share with our eldest son the experience his great-grandparents had of drinking from black-only water fountains. Or talk about how hired help in wealthier households in Sri Lanka provided families with home-cooked meals, much different than what our black ancestors were forced to do for free.

As brown and black moms, we are holding the door open for tough conversations about our respective histories that shape how we move through the America we call home. Over the past week, I have thought about, mulled over, and dissected how my Nigerian ancestors came to America. I have thought about my life experiences — being called an Oreo, being falsely accused of stealing from a Claire’s jewelry store at the age of 10 or being pushed off a seat on the school bus in sixth grade because the white kids said my skin was too dark to sit with them, experiences that left me feeling as if I was too black.

The America we should aspire to is one in which our kids feel at home and where they are free to be who they are. When words like “Oreo” or “get on a boat and go back to wherever you came from” are stories we pass down to them as their parents and not part of their own lived experience, I will believe that we’ve turned a corner as a country, giving everyone, no matter the color of their skin, to be who they are in the place we call the “land of the free.”

I want these to be merely stories rather than experiences that define their childhoods, when they are free to simply be.

Nikkya Hargrove writes about motherhood, marriage, race and L.G.B.T.Q. issues and is working on her memoir.