After our honeymoon in Hawaii, I spent hours arranging all of our photos perfectly in a wedding album. Finding no satisfaction in it, I never looked at it again. Six months later, just before my father died, I gave him the pretty picture he wanted, my forgiveness, but I didn't mean it and I still don't. I cheated on my husband within months of our marriage and divorced him by our second anniversary. But years afterward, my mother still refused to take the wedding photos down off of her mantle. “They’re such beautiful pictures,” she would say. Beautiful, perfect and utterly meaningless.
Right now, my son knows nothing of race. If you ask him what color Mommy and Daddy are, he’ll say “green” or “orange” or “blue,” naming the color of whatever shirts we’re wearing. But if nothing changes, it won’t be long before we have to sit him down for a conversation that I dread: the one where we tell him that the rules may be different for him than for his White friends; the one where we tell him that, if the cops bust him and his buddies for smoking pot, he can’t count on being treated the same as everybody else; the one where we tell him that White kids generally don’t get shot just because they’re not perfect citizens, but Black kids sometimes do.
Some nights I used to stand in the doorway of his bedroom, watching him thoughtfully edit the outfit he planned to wear to school the next day. He would lay out its components, making a kind of flat self-portrait on the bedroom floor—oxford shirt tucked inside of cotton sport coat, extra-slim pants (with the adjustable elastic straps inside the waistband stretched to button at the very last hole), argyle socks, the whole thing topped by the ubiquitous hat—and I would try to understand what the kid got out of dressing up every day like a pint-size Ronald Colman out for a tramp across the countryside of Ruritania. Did he like the attention—even if it was negative? Was he trying, by means of the clothes, to differentiate himself from the other boys, or were the clothes merely the readiest expression, to him, of his having been born different? Was he trying to set himself apart, or could he simply not help it?