New Haven, Connecticut, home to my alma mater, Yale Divinity School, is a small city built like a spider: at the center, gothic stone and ancient brick loom upward, tendrils winding past graveyards and auto body shops until they give way to residential streets, Yankee clapboard worse (and even worse) for the wear.
On these streets bespectacled professors live adjacent to rumpled graduate students shivering on front porches, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. Just a little farther down are the homes of those who make the city run: public school teachers, janitors, bus drivers and nurses. People with black and brown skin who remember when the high-walled, high-heeled buildings had armed guards standing at attention. It’s a city where one day you’re chatting with a movie star and the next cops are combing through your badly overgrown front bushes for a fugitive’s loaded gun. A place where we emerged from ancient rooms and hallowed halls intoxicated by the wondrous workings of our own minds; the homeless junkies outside the Subway take-out shop living props in the worlds our brains were creating.
It was in this city and this time in my life that I met our neighbors – or rather, they met me – as I earnestly cleaned up a vacant lot near both our houses with some similarly earnest friends. One moment we were putting beer bottles into trash bags and the next they were there: a tumbling little cluster of five or six brown-skinned school children saying their mom (or maybe it was grandmom) told them to get outside and help. I don’t remember exactly what happened over the next few hours, but at some point, phone numbers were exchanged and we became, peripherally, connected to this family.
I also don’t remember why a friend and I decided several weeks later that it would be a brilliant idea to take them all to the Yale Center for British Art. Someone in the group was a budding artist and/or had a school project, but in any case, there we went, two white grad students, armed with our Yale IDs, marching into the hulking, hushed building with a tumble of children behind us, sneakers squeaking on the polished floors.
We started looking at the paintings, trying to point out things that would delight and inspire them, things that they’d remember. And it seemed to me that they were delighted and inspired, pointing and whispering, an occasional giggle erupting. At some point, my eyes began to drift from the paintings, and the children, to the other patrons. Their faces, looking at our group, were ice cold. The sounds of hushed voices from the kids were overwritten with grimaces and disgust: YOU DON’T BELONG HERE. We hurried them along. Please make them not notice. Please make this not be their memory.
For years afterward, I remembered these repulsed faces when I thought about racism. I thought about them when my own, white-skinned toddler threw a full-on temper tantrum in an art museum and didn’t get a second glance. But over time what has festered is a growing discomfort with my own role in this parable, the assumptions I carried with me as I marched forward with all the confidence of a self-congratulatory pied piper.
As a parent, it makes my stomach curl to think that an adult could take my child to a place where they’re so ill-prepared to keep them safe, whether that’s a dark alley or a light-filled museum. I ask myself what idols was I bowing before, making unwitting acolytes of young children whose fullness my eyes had edited out?