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Last night, your mother and I rode the El down to River North, to listen to a poetry reading. The El stands for elevated train, and I must admit: having access to that system — of raised tracks, and the steel cars that rattle and curve like giant snakes all across the city — is one of the reasons I love living in Chicago. Riding the trains makes me feel like a little kid.
The first poet was a girl who said she had recently turned 26, but looked much younger. She was soft-spoken and pretty. Her unblemished skin matched the day-old snow visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows at her back. She had jet black hair, a lock of which she would sweep away from her face between each poem. Though I think she was Chinese and not Filipino, she looked as I imagined you might look. That is, if you turn out to be a girl.
Your mother is of Filipino descent. I come from a Croatian and German background. What does this mean? It can mean a lot of things, but on the surface, it means that your mother’s skin, in the summertime, is approximately the color of one 12-ounce cup of coffee with one tablespoon of milk in it, whereas my skin is closer to the color of one 12-ounce cup of milk with one teaspoon of coffee stirred in. (And maybe a dab of ketchup too.) If you want, we can test these recipes for fun sometime (as long as we don’t use good coffee, because it would be sacrilege, in my humble opinion, to ruin the good stuff with all that milk).
What color will your skin be? What will be your ratio of coffee to milk? Why does it even matter?
Depending on when you actually read this, you will have already learned plenty about this thing humans call race. This, of course, is a different kind of race than the marathon I was telling you about in the previous letter. Regardless of whether you’re 15 or 25 or 75 when you read this, what I want you to know is this: viewing people as fundamentally different from you because their skin is a different color than yours — this is a learned behavior.
In our world, there are women who fear dark-skinned men. There are men who fear light-skinned women. There are so many others who fear so many others because of the way those others look. We weren’t always like this, us fearful ones. As babies, we were ready to love anyone who would hold us, feed us, and wipe our stinky little rear ends.
There are so many others who fear so many others because of the way those others look. We weren’t always like this, us fearful ones
We were taught to fear. Our first fear teachers were likely our parents; they had the best of intentions, and yet, consumed by the protective fire of love, perhaps they kept us away from strangers who looked different than they did. Or maybe we were fear taught by school textbooks or television or the internet or whatever combination of mass media — generated not by love, but by profit — made a lasting stamp on our minds. There is no way to quantify these teachings or their impacts completely. This shouldn’t stop us from being aware of them.
I’ve made the long leap from they to we. And now I want to make the shortfall back to me and you.
I wonder so much about you, my friend. I wonder what your earliest memory will be. And I wonder when your spongy brain will absorb a thought that might go something like this: Mom’s skin is darker than Dad’s. Her eyes are different too. Why is that?
Will you share this thought with us? Will you ask us this question? I hope so. But I’d be lying if I said I knew what I would say in response.
I’ll always be your Dad. Your mother will always be your Mom. But it would be another lie if I said I wouldn’t wonder — were you to ask such a question, about the differences in the way we look — whether you would think of us differently after posing it.
Or would you think of yourself differently? Will you someday look closely at the other little kids in a schoolhouse circle and feel alone? Will you see yourself as a minority, even if you don’t have the language to name it as such? When will you learn what that word means to people? What, if anything, will minority mean to you?
Towards the end of last night’s reading, the poet read a poem that contained the following lines:
Parents think their children belong to them but children belong only to themselves.
The poet seemed to be speaking directly to me. Her quiet voice got quieter, as if to allow the idea to pull even more oxygen — was I the only person holding my breath? — out of the room. I nodded, tried to play it cool. Your mother was leaning her shoulder against my shoulder. I put my hand above her knee and squeezed.
You will fear who you will fear. You will hate who you will hate. Is this true? Regardless of whether or not I want it to be? Will it happen? It doesn’t seem fair for me to be asking you so many unanswerable questions like this, especially since, first off, you’re actually not born yet, and second off, when you do get yourself born, we should probably spend approximately the first 5-18 years of your life not worrying at all about fear or hate or anything like that. We should worry about singing silly songs and playing.
We’ll spend a lot of time playing, of course. You already know I like to run, so we can run like wild animals through the streets if you want. But that’ll make us hungry, so we’ll also spend a lot of time eating, having fun in the kitchen, and teaching you how to cook. After all, who’s going to cook for your mother and I when we get old? Add that to the list of things you didn’t sign on for: making fried chicken for your crotchety old Dad, while I sit there asking you if you ever read all those letters I wrote you, cracking myself up over nothing in particular while your mother, always and forever, rolls those beautiful brown eyes of hers. They really are quite different than mine, her eyes. Yours will be too.
Jason Basa Nemec’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has appeared in Gulf Coast, Kenyon Review Online, Slice, and numerous other magazines. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter.