Adoptive mom Karen Skalitzky shares a series of conversations with her Black son.
I am white. My 10-year-old son is Haitian. We adopted each other when he was just shy of three years old. The world sees him one way and me another. Sometimes they collide.
On our drive to school, I ask if he wants to watch a movie about Martin Luther King, Jr., to celebrate the holiday.
“No,” he says, a bit too quickly.
I inquire as to why.
“I don’t know,” he whispers.
“I think you do,” I say gently, and then I wait. I have learned to give space, to allow silence. Several minutes pass.
“Because the violence scares me,” he offers.
This time, it’s me who needs silence. To let that sink in. Several minutes pass.
“Yeah,” I say. “It scares me, too. Does it scare you because it happened to him? Or because you think it can happen to you?”
“A little bit of both.”
I remember our first MLK Day celebration. My son was five years old. We went to a children’s photo exhibit of the civil rights movement. The black and white photos were five feet tall, seemingly larger than both of us. I carefully narrated the scenes, even as they got progressively harder. Bus boycotts and lunch counter attacks, the march on Washington and the Baptist Street Church bombing.
I focused on courage and inner strength, the power of love to overcome hate. I remember feeling proud of myself, like I was doing something right as a white mom to a beautiful Black boy. Then I leaned down to ask him how he felt.
“Sad,” he said, his eyes looking away.
I looked back at the giant photos and saw them through his eyes. Where I had seen moral conviction and the power of collective action, he had seen people who looked like him getting badly hurt by people who looked like me. It did not look like love or triumph. Suddenly, I felt sad, too.
Being Haitian is an important part of my son’s identity. When we first became a family, I spoke to him in Kreyol so he wouldn’t lose his first language. I was conversant at a three-year-old level. I named every toy. I explained to him what a mom does: I love you. I feed you. I keep you safe. I told him the things he must not do, like play in the street.
Most days, we sang Kreyol songs from the creche where he spent his early years. Haitian pop music played on repeat in the car for three solid years. At night, I sang the most traditional Haitian lullaby to him in what I hoped was solidarity with his birthparents, who likely sang him the same at a tender age.
In Haiti, my son’s skin color went unnoticed. Here, my son is Black. When he walks out my front door, some people are afraid of him if he wears a hoodie. Or plays with a water gun. Some people are afraid because his skin is too dark. It is exhausting. Heavy. I fear crushing him with the reality of this hatred, yet I must prepare him for it, too.
When he was younger, we attended a Haitian church. It became clear that he was expected to know his history. I had no idea how to explain slavery and Haitian independence on four-year-old terms, so I started with Christopher Columbus. I told my son that when Columbus stepped foot on the beautiful Taino island of Haiti (after getting way off course), he declared it as his own. Then he gave it a Spanish name to make it official.
“Could we walk into our neighbor’s house and say it is ours?” I asked him.
“Could we tell our neighbors that they now work for us and have to do whatever we say?”
“Could we tell them that after a long day of work, we will not pay them?”
That is what Columbus did, I explained. He enslaved the people of Taino. They worked hard without pay. They were treated badly. They were not allowed to go to school or read or write. All the while, the Spanish settlers, and later the French plantation owners, grew rich off of the their labor.
One day, the enslaved people got together and decided it was enough. They said no.
My son’s eyes got big at that moment, like he knew the good part was coming.
“Haiti is the only country in the world that said no and won,” I explained. “They took back their freedom because it always belonged to them. Just like it belongs to you.”
There it was: the Haitian Revolution in five words. Haiti said no and won.
As my son grows older, I expand this history. We read books about Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacque Dessalines, Henri Christophe, Alexandre Petion, all early leaders in Haiti. We eat soup joumou (known as freedom soup) and discuss the reparations that Haiti had to pay France for the loss of slave labor. We talk about poverty and the assassination of Jovenel Moise, the former president of Haiti. My son thinks France needs to pay Haiti back. I could not agree more.
We also talk about resilience, about how it is in his blood. How it comes from his ancestors. How he stands upon a legacy of dignity, strength, and moral conviction. I tell him that Haiti’s fight for freedom and independence inspired other leaders around the world, including Martin Luther King, Jr., and the other African American leaders and change makers we read about.
Conversations about race are essential, but not always easy. I didn’t grow up with them. It was not an issue in our home or neighborhood, so I believed. I never asked my friends who were first generation Asian-American what it was like to live in an all-white community. It never even occurred to me that it would be any different. That is the essence of privilege.
The same was true for my friend at our all-girls Catholic high school. She was the only Black student in our class of 110. I remember one day she wore her hair naturally, and we all asked if she’d gotten a perm. It was only when I attended the funeral for her father that I saw how different our worlds were. I often wonder how painful it must have been for her that we never explored her cultural identity. We didn’t even acknowledge it.
I understand how tempting it is to minimize the need for such important conversations around systemic racism and racial injustice. It’s easy to dispute them and dismiss them. To outright disregard the lived experiences of someone else in order to defend our own. But those lived experiences exist in tandem. They matter. And they are worthy of being named.
Tamir Rice. Trayvon Martin. Ahmaud Arbery. Daunte Wright. Michael Wayne Jackson. Marvin D. Scott III. The list goes on and on. My son only knows of a few (for now).
I watched my son regress the summer he found out how George Floyd was murdered. He started sucking his fingers. He insisted I carry him to bed. He was eight-years-old at the time. We’d been watching music videos on my phone when a still shot of George Floyd pinned to the ground got spotlighted.
“Mama, what is that?”
We participated in marches. We stood on our front porch in candlelight solidarity with our neighbors. We even did a “moment of silence” for an excruciatingly long nine minutes and 29 seconds. But I had never told him the exact details of how George Floyd was murdered until now. I feared it would be terrifying. I cried as I told him the truth.
That summer was also the first summer of the pandemic. We made friends with the neighbors who moved in across the street, another family that adopted each other, and the neighbors who lived downstairs. After dinner, we’d all gather outside, masked and socially distanced, to let the kids fly up and down the sidewalk on bikes, scooters, and motorized cars. It was my sanity break. It was his joy.
He missed his friends from school terribly, and getting to play with other kids restored a sense of normalcy. It helped to temper the unrest inside of him. But I worried a lot about his well-being, his sense of himself and place in the world. I shared my concerns with his social worker, and she decided to try art therapy.
I remember standing in his bedroom, eavesdropping on his Zoom counseling session. He was happily chatting about the picture he’d drawn of himself at her request.
“No, those are my big ears,” he said jokingly. “And this is a stop sign.”
He kept right on coloring as she asked him more questions. I listened, frozen in place, as his insides poured out.
Later that night, the social worker summed it up like this: He doesn’t want to grow up. He sees what happens to men who look like him, and he doesn’t want that to happen to him. He’s afraid you won’t be there to protect him.
That night, I wept.
The next morning, I reminded him that his social worker had given him homework. He was supposed to ask me if I would always be there to take care of him and love him. I assumed he’d ask me right away, and I was ready to jump in and fix the situation. But he kept on playing. I waited and waited. And waited. Finally, I blurted out, “Aren’t you going to ask me?”
That was his standard reply when I asked the next day. And the day after that. I didn’t ask again until two weeks later, the morning of his next appointment. I caved. I used the oldest mothering trick in the book: a guilt trip.
“Not now,” he said again.
“Okay,” I said, slightly irritated and confused. “I give up. Why don’t you want ask me?”
“Because if I do, we’re going to have to talk about it forever and ever and ever.”
It was so hard not to laugh out loud. How could he know me that well? I had to think fast.
“Try me,” I said.
He raised his eyebrows, considering.
“Try me,” I said again, getting down on my knees and looking straight into his deep brown eyes.
He stood still, his toy jet in his hand. Ever so softly, the question fell out of his mouth. Would I always be there to take care of him and keep him safe?
A very long pause.
“That’s it?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said again.
A smile lit up across his face, and he fell into my arms.
I want nothing more than for my son to grow up free from hatred and fear in the way that I did. He deserves that. All children do. But as parents, we know that we cannot actually protect our children from much of anything, no matter how hard we try.
I sometimes try to deceive myself on that point, but watching When They See Us, a four-part documentary about the Central Park Five, eradicated any sense of denial. All five boys are Black — Kevin Richardson (14), Raymond Santana (14), Anton McCray (15), Yusef Salaam (15), and Korey Wise (16) — and all five boys were falsely convicted and imprisoned for assaulting and raping a white woman they never met. She became known as the Central Park Jogger.
My reaction was visceral. Watching the detectives, grown white men, brutalize those boys made me want to retch. They repeatedly slapped and beat them. They shoved them against walls, hollered in their faces. They denied them food. They lied to them. But more than anything else, they forcibly coerced false confessions from all five. As much as I wanted to turn it off, I made myself watch. I felt like I owed it to them, to my son, and to the thousands upon thousands who have suffered similar fates. Living in Chicago, I know all too well the story of Jon Burge, the former commander of the Chicago Police Department, who was found guilty of torturing more than 100 men, mostly Black. Not to mention the murder of Laquan McDonald and countless others gone too soon.
It would take years for the Central Park Five to be acquitted. They were grown men by that time, having served anywhere from six to thirteen years in jail, with Korey Wise serving the longest — repeatedly in solitary confinement — because he was tried as an adult.
I could not stop thinking about my son, his friends, my best friend’s son, our neighbors. What if? Given the same circumstances, I know my son would say whatever needed to be said to survive.
I shared all of this with my neighborhood moms one afternoon. We met at the park for “daily recess” during last year’s virtual school. The kids played; the moms walked and talked. Each one of them reacted the same: they adamantly refused to watch the documentary. “No way.” “Too real.” “I just can’t.”
They are all Black moms to young boys. I suddenly understood.
One day, my son asked me what white people can do. I asked him what he meant.
“You always tell me that I can do anything. Can white people do anything, too?”
“Yes, we’re all born with greatness inside. White people can do anything, too. They just have laws that protect them and help them do it.”
He looked at me, expecting more.
“But there is one thing white people can’t do.” I said. “They can’t really do much with their hair. You, on the other hand, can twist and define. Braid. Do a buzz cut, flat top fade, or waves. I have one hairstyle, and it’s pretty boring.”
He nodded in agreement.
Tonight, we curl up on the couch and finish reading a graphic novel. It was a birthday gift from his “Haitian brother,” a good friend who spent his early years at the same creche. On the front cover, Toussaint L’Ouverture is scowling, looking like the epitome of the dangerous Black man. That is our first clue.
The second is the story line of General LeClerc whom Napoleon sent to reclaim Haiti. Page after page, LeClerc insists that his intentions are honorable, that they have nothing to do with slavery or the resumption of sugar production and exports to France.
“This is making LeClerc look like the good guy,” I observe, realizing that if I can’t stop the bias, at the very least, I can teach my son to see it and name it.
“Yeah, mom, his words and actions are not matching.”
I cannot help but smile. That is the measure of integrity and trust in our house: your words and actions have to match.
“I wonder why LeClerc keeps asking Toussaint to work for him?”
“Mom,” he says in that all-knowing voice, “all bad guys try to make the good guy their number two.”
I could not have said it any better myself.
I am a writer. Plot lines are my currency. I believe in the power of stories to heal and transform, and I believe the narratives we tell can unpack hard truths and make room for everyone’s lived experiences. Stories make each of us wiser, kinder, and freer. I want my son to see me opening up as many narratives as possible.
I wish I knew if these conversations will be enough to keep him safe in a world in which he is feared, especially now as he is getting older. But I am determined to assure him of his value, fortify him, and allow him to move with an inner sense of freedom. Some days I feel hopeful. Other days, less so. But talking is what we do, and it is something all of us can do. Every parent, uncle, friend. These conversations are how my son and I bridge the divide between the realities we face.
Tonight, as we read the last page, my son looks up at me, his eyes wide.
“Mom, this book was written from the white side. It needs to be written from the Haitian side too.”
Karen Skalitzky is a writer and adoptive mother of one. She currently serves as a communications director for a national education leadership nonprofit. A former educator and coach, she has over twenty years of transforming underperforming schools into the kinds of schools all children deserve. She loves books of all kinds and reading with kids of all ages. She lives in Chicago with her nine-year-old son.