FIVE YEARS AFTER NILE’S BIRTH, there are many reasons I’m filled with self-doubt. There are many reasons I still feel less than fully equipped to be a father; many reasons I feel so compelled to take this trip with him, to drive halfway across the country back to my small Iowa hometown in search of whatever answers the road will offer up. This is one of them: I am white, and my wife is black, and I have nothing to teach my son about how to be a black man in America.
I don’t yet know the extent to which race will shape Nile’s experience of the world. We’re taking this trip in the summer of 2016, right in the middle of the Black Lives Matter movement. While there are entire books to be written about every case that has made national headlines these past few years — Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Mike Brown, Philando Castile, and far too many others — what I will remember most vividly about this period is how all of these young black men were labeled “thugs” after they’d been shot down in the streets by people who feared them.
I watch Nile grow taller, and I see his skin grow darker, and I hold my breath.
ON THE SECOND DAY OF THE TRIP, we head toward the National Baseball Hall of Fame, a place I always wanted to visit as a boy. Nile knows nothing about baseball, but he says he’s excited to go, and I’m giving him a crash course in the history of the sport as we cruise down the interstate in our rented Toyota Avalon, which Nile has dubbed the “black racer.”
“Tell me more about the old-fashioned players,” Nile says.
“Let me think. Did you ever hear of Jackie Robinson?”
“No, Daddy,” Nile says. “Who’s he?”
Up to now, I’ve almost completely avoided discussing racism — or even race at all — with Nile. I know it’s something that will affect his life, but I also strongly feel that it’s just not his problem, at least not yet. He’s 5 years old. Until a year ago, he described people as “blue” or “gray” or “purple,” depending on the color of the shirt they were wearing. Recently, he’s begun noticing differences in skin color, but his descriptions are childlike and precise, and have nothing to do with the over-simplified labels and complex histories that inform grown-up conversations about race. Nile says that he’s “tannish,” that my wife is “brownish,” and that I am “kind of pinkish.” He notices that his mother has braids, that my hair is straight, and that he and his sister both have curls. It hasn’t occurred to him — because why would it? — that anyone might use these distinctions as an excuse to treat some people differently from others.
It’s impossible right now to know what sort of impact race will have on Nile’s sense of identity, or how it will circumscribe his ability to move through the world as he pleases. It is my whitest, most naive hope that my son will never have to worry about racism at all. I hope that we’ll make progress quickly enough that racism won’t affect him, or that he’ll be light-skinned enough that it won’t affect him, or that he’ll always be well dressed and well spoken enough for it not to affect him. I make up all sorts of reasons — the diversity of our community, the liberal politics of our state — that racism won’t touch my son in the way it’s touched virtually every person of color who’s ever lived in America.
My wife has no such illusions. She’s certain that, in just a few years, we’ll need to have difficult conversations with Nile about how other people may see his skin color and his gender and perceive him as a threat. She’s certain that we’ll have to tell him not to play hide-and-seek after dark, so that he’s not mistaken for a burglar; that we’ll have to tell him to keep his hands visible when he’s in a store, so that he’s not mistaken for a thief; that we’ll have to teach him to move slowly and say “yessir” and “nossir” when he interacts with police, so that he’s not mistaken for someone who must be shot before he shoots them.
I hope she’s wrong. I doubt that she is.
“Nile,” I say. “Do you know what ‘white people’ and ‘black people’ mean?”
It makes me a little sad to even use the words with him. It feels like I’m deliberately peeling away a layer of his innocence.
“What?” Nile says. “What’s that?”
“People that look like Mommy are called ‘black people,’” I tell him. “And people that look like Daddy are called ‘white.’”
“Oh,” Nile says. “Am I white? Or am I black?”
I pause. The obvious answer to this question is: “Both.” The more nuanced answer is: “Throughout history, many men who you would call ‘pinkish’ raped women you would call ‘brownish,’ so that lots of people who are considered ‘black’ today probably have less African blood in them than you do; and anyway, for much of this country’s history, white people have subscribed to something called the ‘one-drop rule,’ which would classify not only you as black, but also your children, and their children, on into infinity; and these definitions and categories seem to be shifting, although it’s unclear to me exactly what is changing, or for whom, or how quickly; but, after hundreds of years of treating skin color as the most important thing in the world, many white people suddenly don’t want to hear anything about it, and will, if you vocalize your thoughts about race and identity for more than a few seconds, ask you what the big deal is or why you’re so obsessed with race; and although overt discrimination is certainly less frequent today than it was 50 years ago, this does not mean that racism is over, but rather that racism has largely retreated deep into the subconscious minds of most white people, a part that they — I mean ‘we,’ this applies to me, too — have walled off with the words I’M NOT RACIST; and whether you’re a black boy or a white boy is going to be determined more by how other people perceive you than any label you apply to yourself; and to the extent that people perceive you as black, many of them will also perceive you as scary; and even though you’re the one scaring them, it’s you who will be in danger.”
Instead of giving him either of these answers, I say, “Well, you think you’re ‘tannish,’ right?”
“Yeah,” Nile replies. “I’m pretty much tannish.”
“A long time ago,” I tell him, “people who looked like Mommy and people who looked like Daddy weren’t allowed to play together on the same baseball teams. What do you think of that idea?”
“I don’t think that’s good,” Nile says. “That’s not fair!”
“That’s right, baby,” I tell him. “It’s important to treat people fairly, but that’s not what happened. The black people had to make their own baseball teams. And the first black player who got to play on a white team was named Jackie Robinson.”
“Jackie Robinson,” Nile repeats.
“A lot of people didn’t want him to play with the white people,” I say. “They were mean to him.”
Nile gasps, almost comically. “That’s not what you should do! Even if you’re angry, you should use your words.”
“They did use their words, baby,” I tell him. “But the words they used were really mean.”
“What?” Nile says. “Did they use words like ‘stupid’?”
“The words they used were even meaner than that.”
“That’s not good,” Nile says. “I don’t like that.”
“I know, baby,” I say. “But you don’t have to worry about it now. Black people and white people can play on the same baseball teams. And it’s because of Jackie Robinson.”
There’s a falseness to what I’m telling him, this implication that racism is something from the past, something we’ve dealt with and moved on from. It’s the way I learned about racism in school when I was a kid: We used to do this bad thing, and then we stopped. But, of course, that’s not the story of race in America at all. What would I even tell him, if I thought he was ready to hear the truth? Would I say that black kids and white kids are allowed to go to the same schools now, but they almost never do, because every time black people move into a neighborhood, all the white people sell their houses, and there’s no way to make a law against that? Would I tell him that there’s an entire world of opportunities open to him, but that he also has to watch out if he gets a summer tan and wears a hooded sweatshirt and walks home from the store in the dark, because then someone might follow him down the street and shoot him — and not only will the killer get away with it, but people will make shooting targets that look like him, so they can gleefully pretend to murder him all over again?
After a few minutes of silence, Nile pipes up again from the back seat. “Daddy? Could I play on the baseball team?”
“You can play on whatever team you want,” I assure him. "There aren’t any white teams or black teams anymore. Everybody can play together.”
"But what about in the old-fashioned days?” he asks. “Would they let me play on the white team then?”
"No, baby,” I tell him. “Probably not.”
A COUPLE MILES PAST THE MICHIGAN BORDER, I spot a large, hand-painted sign. It’s got a yellow background, and in large, red letters it just says TRUMP. It looks like it was scrawled either by a child with a gigantic red crayon, or by an adult with a bucket of blood. At this point in the campaign, three months before votes will be cast, the mistaken consensus is that Trump will certainly lose Michigan, and that Iowa, a deeply purple state, will likely be a coin flip. He’s trailed Hillary Clinton in national polls by mid-single digits for most of the summer, and although he’s clearly within striking distance of the presidency, the national media seem to still be deciding just how seriously to take his candidacy. Whether he wins feels almost beside the point to me, at least in terms of what his campaign has revealed about the country I love. I’ve already seen the way millions of people are gravitating to Trump’s old-school, no-apologies, bulldozing brand of masculinity. I’ve already seen the way people either thrill to or ignore the way he villainizes immigrants and minorities. I’ve followed politics my whole life, and Trump is the first major candidate whose rallies I would feel unsafe attending with my family.
I’ve been counting on the idea that the world will become a better place as my children get older, that the country will keep making progress. But watching the campaign, I worry that there’s no such thing as an inevitable march forward. Maybe there’s only a pendulum swinging back and forth.
When we finally get to a rodeo in my hometown of Maxwell, Iowa, the event is anticlimactic. I’m not sure what I expected, exactly, but watching the cowboys fly off the backs of bulls has not sparked any epiphanies about what it means to be a man and a father. It strikes me how impossible it is to know ahead of time which moments will be significant, which ones will have something to teach us.
Nine months from today, just before he turns 6 years old, I will take Nile to his first Red Sox game back in Boston, along with my wife’s father. This will turn out to be the day after Sox fans make the news for throwing peanuts and hurling racial slurs at Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones. We’ll arrive early on May 2, 2017, taking our seats high in the grandstand along the first-base line. A young Kenyan woman will perform the national anthem, and I’ll show Nile how to put his hand over his heart, and when the song is over, the singer will receive a nice ovation from the crowd.
And then the fan next to me, a white man in his early 50s, will lean over to me and complain, “It was too long, and she niggered it up!”
“Excuse me?” I’ll say, thinking I’ve misheard him somehow.
“I said, ‘It was too long, and she niggered it up.’”
“Just to be clear,” I’ll ask, still incredulous, repeating the hateful word in order to make absolutely sure I’ve heard what I thought I’ve heard. “You’re saying the singer ‘niggered up’ the national anthem?”
“That’s right,” the man will say with pride. “And I stand by it."
At first, I will be confused about why the man would say this on this night of all nights, right after the Jones incident, and why he would say it to me of all people, sitting with my black family. Didn’t he see my son? I’ll wonder. Didn’t he see my father-in-law? And then I will think, Of course he saw them, that’s the whole point — finding a way to call a little boy a “nigger” and get away with it.
I will go and find an usher and tell him what happened, and he will notify security, and I will be asked to identify the man. The man will deny, to my face, saying what he’d been so proud to say only 10 minutes earlier. By the end of the night, Sox representatives will later tell me, the man will finally confess to what he said, and he will be kicked out. And by the end of the next day, he will be banned for life from Fenway Park.
On that night at the ballpark, I won’t tell Nile what happened. He’ll watch Chris Sale strike out 11 batters and cheer as Hanley Ramirez hits two solo shots out of the park. He’ll eat ice cream. He’ll have a great time.
But then, the story will be picked up in the press. And so, to prepare him in case anyone brings it up at school, I will sit with Nile at the kitchen table on the morning of his sixth birthday, and I will try to explain the situation in terms he can understand. “The man sitting next to us said a bad word about black people,” I’ll tell him, “and now he can’t come back to the ballpark anymore.”
At first, Nile will sweetly suggest that the man be allowed to come back if he apologizes. But then, very quickly, he’ll process the news in several different ways. He’ll defend the Kenyan woman’s singing, saying, “She sang nice!” He’ll worry what will happen if the man comes to our house, or if he shows up again at the ballpark wearing a disguise. He’ll list every dark-skinned member of his family and insist, “I can still be with them! Even though they have brown skin, I can still be with them!”
Most heartbreakingly, Nile will say, “Daddy, I thought that was all over — black people and white people not getting along.”
And I will cry a little, and I will have to tell him that no, it’s not over; it’s never over.
It will be a moment when Nile loses a bit of his innocence, when he realizes that the story of race and racism in America is more complicated than the we-used-to-do-bad-things-but-then-we-stopped version I told him about Jackie Robinson and segregation. After this moment, I expect, these lessons will come more and more quickly, until his innocence is erased, until he understands the reality of things far better than I do.
Calvin Hennick is a writer based in Boston. This story is adapted from his new memoir, “Once More to the Rodeo,” winner of The Pushcart Press Editors’ Book Award. He will discuss the book with Globe columnist Adrian Walker on December 10 at the Brookline Booksmith. Send comments to email@example.com.
“Once More to the Rodeo” copyright 2019 by Calvin Hennick. Reprinted by arrangement with Pushcart Press, distributed by W.W. Norton Co. All rights reserved. Disclosure: John W. Henry, owner and publisher of The Boston Globe, is principal owner of the Boston Red Sox and Fenway Park.