It shouldn’t take holding a baby in my arms for me to see the events of Ferguson as personal. It shouldn’t matter that the baby is my nephew. I shouldn’t need to remember his recent warmth on my lap, his boisterous baby laugh, his tiny strong baby hand bringing me a book to read to him. I shouldn’t need to have just held him in my arms a couple of weeks ago to feel afraid for black people everywhere.
But skin is powerful when it’s right next to yours.
When my nephew gets scared or upset or overwhelmed, he craves the feeling of warm skin against his. He calms right down, even if it’s only his auntie holding him, not his mom or dad. He’ll take what he can get. He sighs deeply, sucks on his fingers, and leans into me, hard. He closes his eyes.
When my nephew sits on my lap, he looks like a baby. When he grows up, he will look like a criminal. This is something I am having a hard time wrapping my brain around, because I’m white. Others have expressed this sentiment over and over again, in the last five days and long before. It shouldn’t take a photo of me reading to my nephew for me to realize that from a distance, we look a lot more different than we feel, close-up.
So much is transmitted through the skin. But you have to get close enough. Close enough to comfort, close enough to wound. Close enough to understand how very little it means for one person to be called “black” and another person to be called “white.”
I call him nephew. He doesn’t call me anything yet, although my sister swears he tried to say “Amy.”
From a distance, my nephew’s skin absorbs light in a certain way. The way it absorbs light makes people feel scared. It’s an irrational fear. I say “people” as if I don’t understand it. Looked at another way, it’s perfectly rational. You only fear people that much when you know they have a very, very good reason to hate you.
You look at a college kid and you see a thug. You look at a reporter and you see a hood. You look at a local alderman and you see an “outside agitator.”
You look at a 14-month-old baby and think, by the time he is 14 years old, he will have undergone a frightening transformation that is completely imaginary. Maybe it will happen earlier. Maybe it will happen at 12. Maybe it will happen at 10. When does it happen? Someone who is black, someone who has experienced it from the inside the skin, tell me. When does it happen?
He’s small for his age. Maybe it’ll be 18. Maybe he’ll be getting ready for his first semester of college, like Michael Brown.
It’s a race, in my mind, a selfish race: my nephew growing quietly older while America grows noisily scarier. Do we have time to shape up before he hits the age of Looking Scary? How much time do we need? How much time does my sister have to prepare him for the reality of life in his city, in his country? How much time does she have to prepare herself?
Maybe he’ll never be stopped and frisked, maybe he’ll never be wrongfully imprisoned without charges or bail or paperwork, maybe he’ll never be beaten. But I guarantee you that if anyone ever is again–and they will be–under circumstances that resemble Ferguson or any of the other events leading up to it, and if he is old enough to see pictures of it on the news, with their half-assed watered-down language of “face-off,” “heightening tensions,” “conflicting reports,” trickling out the next day because they didn’t send any cameras during the four days when it was actually happening—if he’s old enough, he will understand, better than I ever could, that his skin is a mocha-colored target for police batons, rubber bullets, real bullets, tear gas containers, fists. And he will understand why this is happening. He’ll understand it perfectly, in a way I never, ever can.
I wish I could hold him and feel his warm skin against mine again. I wish we could share that moment again where I’m reading to him, where I can’t see him, can only feel him on my lap, and he can’t see me, can only feel me holding him on my lap. I wish we could all just close our eyes for a minute and feel how much we need each other, how much we rely on each other not to hurt and kill one another, how fragile is the skin, how warm, how powerful it is, and how thin.