On Trying to Love My Neighborhood…And Not Succeeding

Or the Perils of Hyper-visibility and Black Parenting

My family and I just got back from the vigil and community celebration against violence at Powderhorn Park, maybe four blocks from our small, stucco house in South Minneapolis. There has been an unfortunate increase in violent incidents against women and children in our area recently, so people decided to organize a musical, puppet-rich, flame-throwing, hot apple cider-drinking, firepit burning get-together to validate everything we love about our hood, which is chuck full of progressive art farmer types, and the like. It’s the end of the semester, and I am even more exhausted than my students (if that’s even possible), and it is cold to the bone out there, but I thought it would be important for us all to go — for Ballah to get to know the hood even better, for Boisey to revel in his winter-babydom, and for all of us to show solidarity through the recent spate of difficulties here. Instead, I ended up wishing we had stayed at home.

We were standing around a fire pit, warming ourselves, when a large dancing bear, of Amie Cesaire proportions, approached us. Ballah and I immiediately thought that this would be a wonderful opportunity to take a photo with said bear and said baby, so we brought the boy, who was wrapped in two layers of clothing, a thick down coat his grandmother had given him, a thick blanket over his legs, and a hat that his Auntie JR had sewed him that he kept on throwing off, to the bear. Well, Boisey is a squirmy fellow, and he wasn’t really feeling all of this being managed and moved around, so the thick coat was floating up his stomach, and the blanket fell to the ground. After we had finally snapped the photo, this older white lady tells Ballah, “Why are your baby’s stomach and legs uncovered?” Ballah was leaning in, trying to hear her, as the horns were playing loudly around us, and he is still picking up peoples’ accents here. But I heard this woman loud and clear. The lady repeated herself again, and said, “This seems like negligent parenting to me.” Ballah hadn’t heard her, but I did, and struggled to contain my anger, and with the best way to respond. “Why would you say that?” I asked her. “Well, his stomach and legs are exposed,” she said. “That’s not what I mean,” I said. “Why would you say something about negligent parenting? Why wouldn’t you just say, ‘I’m not sure if you noticed, but your child’s stomach and legs aren’t covered.'” She shrugged for a moment, and then responded, “I guess because I’m judgemental.” “You might want to do something about that,” I told her, and then we walked away.

Don’t get me wrong, I still would definitely be pissed if this were an isolated incident. And I am well aware that my friends of all ethnic and racial persuasions sometimes get hounded and judged by the general public, and ornery white people in particular, but there is a kind of accumulated experience along these lines for my family these past few weeks that feels disturbingly like targeting. This, coupled with the hard data I am aware of, documenting the hyper-visibility, vigialnce, and surveilance of parents of color — particularly Black and Native families in this state — which partially leads to our increased incidence of out-of-home placement, termination of parental rights, and general exposure to the child welfare system, makes me particularly sensitive to these kinds of occurances.

I was similarly less than pleased when I got home from work yesterday, and asked Ballah how he and Boisey’s first ECFE (Early Childhood Family Education) class was. Ballah replied that while the class itself was good, he had not exactly had a warm reception. He had walked with Boisey to Wilder Family Center, maybe a 10-minute walk, mostly through Powderhorn Park. By the time they arrived, it was snowing, so Ballah had Boisey (who was a huge ball of blue snowsuit from Auntie Kath) tucked safely inside his coat. He saw several (white) women eyeing him suspiciously as he walked up. After a few minutes, one finally approached him and asked him what he was doing there. “I’m here for the program,” he said, even though the women were still suspicious. “You can find my name and my son’s on your roster.” At which point one of the women looked on her sheet and indeed found their names. “Oh thank goodness,” said one woman. “We were going to call the cops on you, because we thought you were stealing a baby.”

Yes. For real.

Ballah has been busy making the monumental and ongoing adjustment of acculturating from a poor, monoracial Black society in the Global South, to a rich, multiiracial, white-identified society in the Global North for a little over two months now, and I had been warning him that this day — or one much like it — would come, so I think he was somewhat prepared…But then again, you can never really be prepared for people not believing that you could be as valid of a parent as they are, simply because you are a young, Black male. “What I don’t understand is why you would assume something like that. Someone stealing a baby? Wouldn’t you just ask, before making up a story like that?” Sadly, no.

So, while I still love my neighborhood for all its arty, community garden, Fair Trade goodness, I am disappointed — and yes, angry — by all the recent violence, both physical and psychological, that continues to be inflicted on families every day.