“Mommy, look! A Black baby!” bellowed my four-year-old son, Silas, in a volume characteristic of all children his age. “He’s so cuuuute!”
I felt my insides immediately freeze, unsure whether to be mortified or not. Outwardly, I kept idling my shopping cart along the grocery store aisle, being careful not to quicken or slow my pace, eyes pretending to look around for the brand of ground thyme I like but can never remember before stealing a glance at the woman wearing the tiny baby in a carrier. We couldn’t have looked more different. She was tall; I am short, not even able to reach the lone packet of Red Star yeast she effortlessly extracted from the top shelf and dropped into her cart. She had shimmering dark caramel skin; I have pasty, dull skin with freckles. She had thick African braids bundled up like a crown on her head, making her look even taller; I have thin brown hair that clings to my head like it’s afraid to go out into the world.
Her eyes didn’t meet mine, not even for a split second, and because she was wearing an N95 face mask I couldn’t tell from her facial expression whether she’d heard my son’s outburst or seen the instinctive recoil in my eyes. I guess I could thank my own brightly patterned face mask for hiding the flush in my cheeks. I could see my glasses fogging from the heat in my face and the mouth-breathing in my mask. What was I thinking bringing him with me? The entire trip to the store had thus far been a nonstop panic attack as I tried to keep Silas from touching any and all surfaces and I struggled to find half the shit on my shopping list. My husband had told me I should just get the groceries delivered while he worked his eighth straight day of twelve-hour shifts at the hospital, but we were critically low on everything in our house, particularly the gummy bunnies that ensured I could get ten minutes of uninterrupted work done before getting a repeat inquiry about my favorite dinosaur. Even the songs buzzing overhead at the grocery store were preferable to hearing the songs from Frozen on repeat.
Had I been the four-year-old child in Silas’s shopping cart, I know my own mother would have silenced me immediately and then punished me for embarrassing her later (and I certainly wouldn’t have dared ask for gummy bunnies, let alone gotten them). But even at four years old, I wouldn’t have dared make an observation like that because I already knew that we didn’t talk about people like that. Silas would never know the kind of casual and overt racism on display daily in the house I grew up in. His father would never tell “spook jokes.” Even if he someday tried to discover if the rumors about his great-grandfather’s involvement with the KKK were true, no one who knew the truth would say a word, even if they lived long enough to tell about it. Things like that, people like that, were not spoken of.
I wondered if, when he or she is old enough, this tall, caramel-skinned woman’s baby will point at strangers in the store and proclaim “Look, Mom! A white baby!” Probably not. And even if that happens one day, this mom would probably just grumble “Yep” and move on. It’s not like Silas has never seen Black babies or Black adults before. He’s been in the same daycare center since he was 12 weeks old and has been classmates with Black kids, Hispanic kids, Asian kids, Indian kids. He’s had Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Indian teachers. His classroom alone could be the BIPOC diversity photo on the daycare home page, and yet here he was, writhing about in a shopping cart the way the diagram on the seat flap warns against, loudly identifying passing infants by race.
It must be because he’s been cooped up in our house for the past 10 weeks, I thought to myself. Or was it even longer? The construct of time during the pandemic had long since ceased to follow any logical pattern. I was the only other person Silas saw or talked to most of the day, which bled into the next without structure, unless you counted the rare occasions his Dad got to spend a few minutes before bedtime with him. And we looked just like him. That had to be it; he hadn’t seen his preschool friends in so long he’d forgotten people like that existed. For my part, I couldn’t wait until daycare reopened so he could see his friends, I could work an actual normal workday, and maybe I could, for once, not feel like I was failing in every aspect of daily life. I wondered if the mother of the cute Black baby felt the same struggles I was feeling – constant anxiety about my family contracting COVID, failure to get an hour of work done in a twenty-four hour day, simultaneous excitement about getting my kid in daycare and paralyzing fear about the implications of being exposed to two germ factories – because I already knew she felt struggles that I’d never begin to understand.
I smiled at my grimy, stir-crazy son. “Yes, Silas. It’s a very cute baby.”
© Copyright 2020 Kelly I. Hitchcock. All rights reserved.
Kelly I. Hitchcock is a literary fiction author in the Austin, Texas area. She has published several poems, short stories, and creative non-fiction works in literary journals, and is the author of the coming-of-age novel The Redheaded Stepchild and Portrait of Woman in Ink: A Tattoo Storybook. Her newest novel, Community Klepto, is currently in the works. She’s a graduate of Missouri State University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing.