Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Yesterday, I drove to Martinez, CA, for the first time in my life. I wasn't even really sure where Martinez was before then. I took the 680N, exiting just before the tollbooth to a bridge that leads to I-don't-know-where. I followed my scribbled directions (my printer won't work, regardless of the newly inserted print cartridge), heading downtown in what seemed a roundabout way. I found the Contra Costa County Courthouse easily, and got rockstar parking right in front. It was metered, I was running late, and I couldn't find more than a dime in my wallet. Flustered, I asked a passerby if he had change for a dollar. He did, and as I dropped the quarters in the slot, I almost laughed out loud. It took only two of them to buy me an hour of parking - a quarter of the price of metered parking in Oakland.
I bounded up the stairs to the courthouse, realizing far too late in the game that I may have dressed inappropriately.
It was the hottest day of the year so far, and I had thrown on a tank top - maybe not the most impressive outfit for a judge to see. I walked through the metal detectors, then followed the vague instructions in the email on my iPhone. I got to the general area I was supposed to be in, but couldn't find my people. I knew I was close, though, because there were a lot of other people milling about in the hallway, and sitting down looking hot and bored and as though they had been there for a while. Most of them were people of color.
I worried, and wandered around, not sure where to go. I knew I was a minute or two late already, but now I wasn't able to find my folks, and I was going to be much, much later. I decided to sit on an inviting bench to plan out my next move, near an emergency exit that gave me a peek of the sweaty day outdoors. Within a minute, I noticed a young man of color, who couldn't have been older than 17 or 18 years old, with cuffs around his wrists and ankles, being led through the door by some sort of security officer. I was struck by his apparent age. I couldn't imagine somebody that young being chained up like that. I averted my eyes, not wanting him to think that I was afraid of him, or judging him.
A couple of minutes later, another young man of color came through the doors, cuffed in the same way. He couldn't have been more than 16. I heard his guard say to him as they walked through the door, "Do you smell that? Do you taste that? That's what freedom smells like. That's what freedom tastes like." Before that even registered, I noticed the child trying to follow the guard through a roped-off walkway. I heard his captor say, "No. You wait. Wait until I tell you you can walk through." I was reminded of a book on dog training I had skimmed, a book friends swore changed their dog's behavior completely. One of the key steps to good behavior, according to this trainer, is to make your dog follow you, and wait to be invited through a door. I felt sick. I didn't know whether I was going to throw up or start crying. My default response kicked in and tears welled up in my eyes. Again, I tried not to stare. I didn't want the kid thinking I was judging him. I just couldn't bear to see him in those shackles, to see him treated like a dog.
I couldn't process any of what was going on. I thought of articles I've seen lately comparing the current incarceration rate of African Americans to the number of Africans in slavery. I thought of what it would be like to hug that kid, or to go for a walk together in the sunshine. I remembered myself at that age, and briefly imagined myself in his situation. My montage of thoughts was moving fast. I couldn't keep track. I wiped my eyes, and images whirred through my head . . . and then, I heard something that snapped me out of it . . . familiar laughter. Voices I recognized. They were coming from the door closest to my arbitrarily chosen bench. I scooted closer to the door, and yes, it was unmistakable. I had found my people.
I got up and put my ear to the door, not sure whether they had started, or if I could just walk in. I tried a light knock, then realized I had better just go ahead and try the door. When I poked my head in, I was greeted with smiles . . . my friends' adoption finalization hearing had not yet started. The whole crew of supporters was cheerfully waiting, taking turns playing with the special little kid, seemingly not noticing my tardiness or any remaining evidence of my tears. I got to have a turn with him as well, playing peekaboo from behind my sunglasses, before the judge entered and we got down to business.
The hearing was short and sweet. Everyone in the room was so happy to witness the legalization & finalization of this gorgeous little person's addition to a family of parents who love him and take great care of him. I was teary. I've loved & respected his adoptive mother for many years, and my admiration for her terrific husband has grown as I've seen him care for their little one. And the kid! He's amazing! Bright and bouncy and sweet as can be. It was a truly happy moment.
And also, it would be dishonest of me to not mention that it was challenging for me. You see, there is so much love in this newly-legal family, that much is clear. And the kid, he is a person of color. And his parents, his lovely parents whom I adore, are white. And regardless of how diverse of a community they raise him in, and how many workshops on transracial adoption they participate in, this very core component of his life - his family - will surely affect him and his understanding & questioning of his own identity, in ways I'm in no position to speak or write about. (Thank goodness for people like Shannon Gibney.)
It was a jarring series of events - to suddenly go from seeing young men of color being treated so inhumanely to seeing a tiny young person of color be legally adopted into a white family, all of it happening right there in that same little courthouse. I saw what that court system and that legal system deem legitimate and fair, and who is allowed to be dehumanized under those systems and how a person of color born into difficult circumstances can be legitimized within those systems. It was a soup of emotions, a feeling that so much of this conversation about race and class and systemic injustice is beyond my grasp.
The salve on my raw heart? Kissing that little kid's soft arms, congratulating him, congratulating his parents, and genuinely wishing for the best for all of them. Knowing that their journey can and will be hard at times, and that I'll always try my best to be a good friend and ally. In those hugs and those kisses was a promise: "I'm in this with you, no matter how hard it gets."