Yes, I know. I should’ve written this in October, early November at worst. Forgive me. I was kind of busy trying to write something else. Real life, however, did not go on hold, and so there was a Halloween.
One of the things I didn’t like about Don’t You Forget About Me was that the cast of characters was, by needs of the conflict, not exactly diverse. In fact, one of the things I (subconsciously) wanted to show in that story was that a lack of diversity leads to unnecessary conflict. No, I don’t have anything but anectdotal evidence for that, but that evidence is pretty strong. Whenever I’ve been in a group that was too homogenous, that group found stupid things to fight about at best. At worst, that group targeted the one person who fit in with the group the least and, in the words of DYFAM’s Sister Thomas Marie, set to “Lopping off the tall poppy.”
In my experience, if I’m different from you, you’re going to exclude me at best, bully me at worst, and there’s really no reason to hope for anything different.
So with that kind of conflict coloring the whole background of DYFAM, I knew I wanted at least one main character in the sequel to be not of European descent. I started out wanting that because, well, that’s just the way the world is, and art is supposed to be a reflection of reality. I hope you’ll all get to meet her soon, but this is how I met Emanuelle Claire “Mel” Valcour, Cate Whelihan’s estranged best friend from high school. They’re reunited in NLMDA, and part of this book’s adventure is shared with Mel’s “baby” brother, Father Jean-Christophe Valcour.
Every writing project has its own unique lessons to teach me. Mel has been a very good teacher. I want to portray her honestly, so I’ve read a lot of articles on what it’s like to be a black woman, because, duh, I’m not. Still… writing her is risky, because I don’t want to hurt her feelings. Not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings has kept me from developing better friendships with a wide variety of people–real and imagined, ahem.
Ahem. Back to Halloween.
We live in the first country town right outside a more urbanized area. Our block happens to have the area volunteer haunted house, for lack of a better term. You know, that one family that goes all out for Halloween, fills the yard with zombies and graves and puts giant fuzzy spiders–I’m talking a 12 foot leg span here–on their roof.
And then, and then they have all the young adult kids’ friends come over and dress as zombies who jump out and scare the trick-or-treaters on Halloween! Yeah, they mean business across the street. And it’s awesome. Halloween is my third favorite holiday, but it’s a close third. I love costumes and candy and being silly. I love our neighbors for offering this to our community…
And the surrounding communities as well. I was flabbergasted our first Halloween out here, coming from an apartment in Philly where we were lucky to get two trick-or-treaters to this neighborhood, where we go through at least seven giant value bags of candy each year. People drive to our block from all over to trick-or-treat at The Scary House, and they’re not above stopping at our boring house, with the orange lights on the trees and the five jack o’lanterns.
But the manners. The manners. Or lack thereof. No “Trick-or-treat!” No, “Thank you!” Grabby hands in my two foot-tall stock pot filled with Dum Dums! And then, the teenagers, teenagers, who had the gall to arrive in my driveway with… wait for it…
And the aforementioned lack of manners. And… well, given the neighborhoods from which these ambassadors came, a lot of them had darker skin than mine.
I’m starting to realize there’s an inherent danger in growing up white after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We’re kinda sorta raised to think that if we just act like the Dream has come true, then POOF! It has. So, when these presumptuous teens showed up at my house with no costumes and no manners, I would…
Oh, Lord have mercy, this is shameful…
I would give them less candy. Didn’t matter what color their skin was, mind you, but you got a full scoop of candy if you had a costume and made eye contact and said, “Trick or Treat!” If you didn’t do any of those things, you got one piece of candy and an irritated smirk from me.
I thought I was doing the right thing. The right colorblind thing. Doesn’t matter what skin color you have! It doesn’t cost anybody a thing to have good manners!
I have this weird… it’s not a belief, but it’s a wondering. I know fictional characters don’t have souls, but I wonder if they have guardian angels. God made all the angels He wanted, so who’s to say He didn’t give the creatures of our imaginings their own guardian angels to watch over us, their parents? Maybe it’s Mel’s guardian angel, or maybe it’s just mine, but someone did some guiding here that affected my heart in ways it so sorely needed.
First I ran across the article “What You Need to Know About 6-Foot Trick-or-Treaters.” I immediately thought–not yet about race–just about the ages of the evasive, costumeless kids roaming our block and felt ashamed of myself for judging.
Meanwhile, researching, I read about the pressure a woman like Mel might likely feel to be a strong black woman, about what it is to be an angry black woman, heck, about what it’s like to have black hair. Then while passing through the library, I saw an actual available copy of The Help (book, not movie) sitting on a shelf. I read it in two days. I saw how a culture could be built where to show what one color demands as “justice” and “manners” can come across as a weakness and vulnerability that the other color simply can’t afford to keep paying.
Reading is a safe place to learn the things I’m afraid to ask real, live humans. Reading answers questions I didn’t even know I needed to ask. Reading the personal and private rather than the newsworthy and violent was exactly the way to break my particular heart in just the way it needed to be broken–broken out of a sense of justice that hasn’t actually been gained yet, broken out of a make-believe world where we all have the same privilege.
We haven’t earned your dream yet, Dr. King. To act like we have would be a lie.
So Halloween 2015 came. Costumeless kids showed up with bad manners and plunged grabby hands, many darker than mine, into my stock pot.
This time, I picked up an extra scoop of candy to add to theirs.
I see now that too many others in our neighborhood would be holding back the sweetness on those kids who didn’t perform to our privileged expectations. They likely wouldn’t have mercy on the non-white trick-or-treaters, because we’re all supposed to be the same, right? Nobody needs any extra mercy, we don’t care how much you’ve already been kicked around before you showed up in our driveways! So in went the extra scoops.
“Have a little extra. Happy Halloween.”
And I’ll say it, the thing that made my Halloween so racist: Yes, I gave the surly black teens more candy than I gave the surly white teens.
Because once you start thinking that people who don’t look like you might need wounds salved that you can’t see, you start realizing that everyone has wounds… that everyone needs a little extra candy sometimes.
I think I got more “thank yous” this year. Maybe. I’m not sure. I know I ran out of candy a bit earlier than usual, but I deserved to. Part of being Catholic is believing in the efficacy of reparation, that when we sin, if we truly repent, we naturally want to make things better than they’ve been–than what our sins and self-righteousness made them.
I know our whole world needs to do better when it comes to having compassion on people whose lives have been tougher than ours and, as a result, encourage them to be tougher than suits our precious preferences, thankyouverymuch. I feel like that extra candy in the shopping bags and held-out shirttails wasn’t very effective, though. I’m also stark scared that someone is going to point out to me that my well-intentioned act of mercy was just another ignorant thing I did from a place of clueless privilege.
(Note–this post is teaching me how to spell privilege off the top of my head, without relying on spellcheck.)
I know I still have a lot to learn about being kind to everyone, that fair isn’t always merciful, and that if I’m striving to be the face of Christ in a faceless world, I’m going to hurt and I’ll need to give more and I’m going to make mistakes. But I have to have faith that the desire to please Him does in fact please Him–because if I don’t, I’ll just hide again and shut my mouth and never click “Schedule” to have this post show up in your feed on the morning of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday (Observed).
We have not earned your dream yet, Dr. King. We have more work to do. We paler people have more trust to earn. We have wounds to heal. We have repairs to make.
And I still have more to learn from Mel.
And I guess I have more candy to buy in 2016.
OK, now here’s my story.
24 years ago we lived in a town in which we were the racial minority. And we got LOTS of trick or treaters from our own neighborhood who showed up without costumes. I was mystified. Now, I never mind giving candy to teenage trick or treaters, because I think that if you go to the effort to put together a costume, you deserve all the candy you get. But I resented the kids without costumes or even a bag.
The next year I got a little revenge and I will admit that the revenge, to me, was sweet. I had 2 candy bowls. One had whatever regular candy I was giving out, and one was full of Jolly Rancher Fire Stix (which I’m not sure you can even get anymore). They’re red, like cherry or strawberry. As a (former) teacher, I know how teens loved Jolly Ranchers because they were easy to sneak in class. I could smell how much the kids loved those cherry or strawberry candies. Anyway, on Halloween, I handed a fistful of Fire Stix to teens without costumes. “Wow! Thanks! Jolly Ranchers!” I knew what they were going to do with them. They were going to save them for math class. And then they were going to get a little fiery surprise.
It never occurred to me not to give them candy.
But it also NEVER occurred to me that maybe they didn’t have a costume was because they couldn’t afford one. Maybe their parents had to tell the kids over 12 that they didn’t get a costume that year, because there was only money to get costumes for the little kids in the family. Or maybe their parents worked crazy hours and several jobs and never had the chance to take the kids shopping to get costumes. I just chalked it up to “lazy teenagers” and set my mind like stone. It wasn’t a racial thing for me; it was a teenage thing. But still. I made a judgment that I should not have made. I did not treat those teens with mercy.
Shame on me.
Fire Stix!!! And that’s the whole point of humility: learning that our idea of “justice” often is not God’s idea of mercy.