With worry and pride in her heart, writer Rhonda Mitchell watches her daughter—the little girl she once told to ‘be a leader’—head out to a Black Lives Matter protest. Exploring generational differences and attitudes toward racism, she finds hope through the eyes of her Gen-Zer.
“How far along are you?” Richard Fulton scribbled on a small square of paper and handed it to me while he pointed to my bulging tummy.
It was November, and Richard was at Kaiser West L.A. with an illness that made it impossible for him to speak.
“Eight months.” Realizing while I wrote, there was nothing wrong with Richard’s hearing. “She’s due December 15th,” I said. He signaled me to hand the notepad back.
Richard Fulton, a Black man, turned warrior, turned veteran, ministered to the artists of Leimert Park. He’d created a holy place and named it 5th Street Dick’s. It offered respite and recharge, a space to gather, jazz to heal, and after reading poetry at the World Stage, a communion offering of coffee or tea and sweet potato cobbler.
“Sag,” he wrote and handed it back to me, pointing again.
Sagittarians are fire signs. I placed my hand on my on top of my stomach. Until that moment, I hadn’t thought much about the fire in my belly.
“This shit is crazy, Mom.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“I mean politically, things are jacked up.” She stresses the word “jacked” as if she wanted to use the “f” word.
“Yeah, I hate you have to live through this, I didn’t want this for you.”
“I didn’t want it either.”
My daughter is on her way downtown to protest against District Attorney Jackie Lacey. She moved back home from college because of the pandemic, and today I’ve planted myself in a clear spot in her room, between roller skates, bags full of laundry and boxes that take up most of the floor space.
“Well, go and be careful, who’s going with you?” She pulled a dark blue T-shirt over her head and paused just as the opening of the shirt framed her face to answer me, rattling off the names of friends she’s known since kindergarten. “Watch the people around you. I know you’ll be fine, but there are people in these crowds who like to start trouble.”
“It should be cool, it’s a BLM thing.”
“I don’t want you to get hurt.”
She tilted her head at me, “Did you think I wasn’t going to protest?”
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently published a study in which racism was described as a “socially transmitted disease.” It moves silently in the ether, entering our spirit and psyche. We don’t know it’s there until we’re feverish with implicit bias, prejudice or hate.
Of course, I knew she would go, I’d prepared her just for this. When the ember in my belly became a tiny flame I dropped off at pre-school, kisses and hugs good-byes were accompanied by the phrase, “Be a leader!” Until one day …”Ms. Rhonda, can I have a word with you?” The pre-school director pulled me aside to tell me that my darling daughter wouldn’t let anyone else lead the line to the playground outside. “I asked her why, and she said, ‘cause Mommy said be the leader.’” I modified my good-byes slightly until she was old enough to understand.
“My generation was different from Pawpa’s, and yours is different than mine.” I watch her pull on socks and shoes.
“Yeah, we’re not taking it.” She said firmly while she scrolled through her phone, “There are 5,000 people there! Ashley’s here to pick me up.”
“Be careful,” I tried to keep my tone light and then added, “Don’t let me have to helicopter into L.A. and burn that bitch down.”
She was right, her generation won’t put up with the racism our parents and grandparents tolerated. They used their social media savvy and leaped into “call-out culture” to “cancel” people, small businesses, and corporations who endorsed racism or inequity in any form. Their precision in this type of protest wasn’t always surgical, but it was effective. And then there are killings, the murders of Black men and women at the hands of the police and the protests that followed. This constant, generational demand to be seen as human.
Racism operated like the novel Coronavirus. I’m not too far off. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently published a study in which racism was described as a “socially transmitted disease.” It moves silently in the ether, entering our spirit and psyche. We don’t know it’s there until we’re feverish with implicit bias, prejudice or hate. We get it by being in close contact with likeminded people. It lives on the surfaces of our system and structures, it enters our eyes through the racial wallpaper that lines our public spaces. Once it’s inside the body, it becomes entrenched. Complicity and silence cause it to center itself in the soft tissues, replicating and clogging our airways until Black people can no longer breathe. Unlike the Coronavirus, there’s really no test for racism, and like the Coronavirus, there’s no vaccine.
My phone rings the theme from The Office when my daughter calls. I pick up.
“Is everything okay?”
“Where’s a good place to park?” She asks, then, “We’re fine, Mom.”
I try to sound calm as I guide her to free parking in DTLA.
Whenever she went to a protest, I sat in front of the television so I could monitor the situation to see if I could spot her in the crowd. As if my eyes could keep her safe. Deep breaths accompanied the mention by the news reporter of how peaceful the group was, shallow breaths would follow as the camera panned to images of the police along the edges of the gathering.
The place where I parent from lands somewhere between a beautiful struggle and The Fire Next Time. This generational legacy of protesting for your own humanity was a gift that refused to be refused. I wonder what it would be like if our children were able to express the fullness of themselves without encountering systems and structures that diminish and erase them? They have to grow up so quickly, learn to navigate white spaces. As soon as they learn to walk, they learn to march, soon as they can clap, we teach them to raise a fist. We try to immunize them against the weight of racism we know will bear down on them. We see it when it happens, the darkening of the light behind their eyes, the slump of their shoulders, sometimes followed by the question, Why?
I’ve answered those questions truthfully for my daughter. Sometimes she protested, “It’s too much, you go too deep, Mom.” I gave her the authority to question anyone and anything that wasn’t clear, no matter whose mouth the words were coming from (admittedly, this was particularly painful for me during the teen years). My fiery Sagittarius might’ve passed Code Switching 101, but the notes from that class went straight into the trash. My daughter rejected the need to modulate her tone for the sake of deference to white fragility, and the emotionally laborious work of educating white people about racism.
Unlike the Coronavirus, there’s really no test for racism, and like the Coronavirus, there’s no vaccine.
“No,” she told me when I brought up how she should handle a situation. “I don’t do that, there’s Google.” She was on her way to becoming her own woman and owning her voice.
“Mom, I think we have to go to the doctor, my ankle.” She opened the door and limped inside.
The protest was still going on, and she was home early. “What happened?”
“I fell down the stairs.”
We wrapped the ankle and made our way to Urgent Care. I sat in the car while she saw the doctor, because … Coronavirus. She was safe, she had a sprained ankle and a beating heart. Being here at the hospital for something so benign is a soft reminder that Black life in America is a skillful opponent. We’ve learned to fight or roll with it. It’s about survival for us, still. The fire in my belly Richard pointed out is my protest. I raised this woman “for tha’ culture.” Maybe she can help create a world where the next generation can finally refuse the gift that so far, has refused to be refused. It’s not our call, it’s yours.
Rhonda Mitchell is a PEN Emerging Voices Fellow and a two-time Voices of Our Nations Art (VONA) Fellow. She holds a Master’s degree in Psychology. Her writing uses narrative to discuss the concept of race, the problem of privilege, and its long term effects on indigenous, Black and other people of color. She is currently working on a memoir while also working full-time as Communications Director for the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. She’s also worked as a student affairs professional on the campus of Cal State LA, her work focused on increasing the cultural competency of its student body. And, for 10 years she worked as a 9-1-1 operator for the LAPD, and from that job, has the most colorful stories to tell.