Carter Gaddis on race, marriage and story about a harmonica.
I don’t have the answers. Gay marriage, abortion, race relations, taxes, health care, the death of the American Dream: I don’t know how to solve these problems. My answers only work for me and my family, and even then I’m not so sure.
What, then, am I supposed to say when my 5-year-old son sits across from me at the dinner table and, between bites of ham steak and baked beans, casually asks:
“Daddy, does a boy marry another boy?”
I know my answer. I don’t even have to think about it.
My response is succinct and true.
“Yes. In some states. Not in Florida, though. Not legally. Not yet.”
But I don’t want to stop there. How can I? The question lacks context. A simple, legal explanation won’t suffice, no matter how succinct and true it might be. How does his mind work as he formulates that question?
He doesn’t understand marriage. He doesn’t understand sexuality. He only now is beginning to differentiate boys from girls in his preschool class. He doesn’t understand complex gender issues, or politics, or religion. He doesn’t know those things exist. He’s 5 years old, a couple of weeks away from his first day of school.
Yet, there you are. He wants to know about …
“That’s gay marriage,” his 7-year-old brother cuts in. “It’s when there are two daddies or two mommies.”
I turn to my older son, with whom we have never had more than a fleeting conversation about marriage of any kind, beyond the one he witnesses up close every day under our roof.
“That’s right, Jay,” I say. “Where’d you learn about that?”
He shrugs and stabs a piece of ham steak with his bright purple Ikea plastic fork.
“From my friends,” he says, mouth full of ham. And that’s all he says.
I let it go. Clearly, it’s time to take a more active role in his social education. He’ll enter second grade soon, and I remember second grade. It was a cruel grade, a grating grade. It was the year of the first girlfriend, the first heartbreak, the first awareness of the effect of skin color on…well, on everything.
It was the year I met Anthony*, who gave me a harmonica for my birthday. Or tried to, anyway.
Knowing that my friend Anthony loved that harmonica, I tried to give it back. Besides…what was I going to do with a harmonica? I played baseball and violin (both badly). I handed it back to him. I hope I thanked him. I don’t remember. What I do remember is that Anthony took the harmonica back and stood there staring at it in his hands.
“You don’t want it because I’m black,” he said.
It wasn’t a question. But it wasn’t true. It wasn’t my truth, anyway. It was Anthony’s, though, and no amount of protest or begging to take back the stupid harmonica could change his mind. This was rural North Carolina in the 1970s. If it had been 10 years earlier, I would not have known Anthony at all, let alone shared a classroom with him.
It didn’t occur to me, at age 7, that I could hurt someone’s feelings by not accepting the gift of a beloved musical instrument. Even now that I understand the pain of rejection, I don’t think it would occur to me that an African-American friend would suspect, however fleetingly, that I wouldn’t accept a gift like that because he or she was black. Maybe that wouldn’t happen. Every circumstance is different, after all. But it happened between a black boy and a white boy in rural North Carolina in 1977, and they are now a black man and a white man in the 21st century. What’s the statute of limitations on cultural misunderstanding?
This is a time when a 17-year-old black boy can be shot and killed for no reason and the killer can walk away with the legal blessing of the court. This is a time when a white NFL player can be caught on camera aggressively dropping N-bombs at a concert and – so far – only be fined by his employer.
It is 2013, not 1977. It’s a different time. It’s the same time. It’s as confusing now as it was then.
Anthony and I were born into a world that accepted the cultural divisions as the norm. No questions asked.
I fear the same can be said of my sons, nearly four decades later. Yet, there might be hope. A 5-year-old asking about same-gender marriage? That happens in 2013, too.
After a second or two, I think I know what to say to my 5-year-old son as he sits there eating ham steak and baked beans, pondering one of the most debated philosophical questions of our time.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a man or a woman,” I say. “You marry the one you love, the one you want to spend the rest of your life with, the one who makes you happy. The one you don’t want to live without.”
I leave it at that. Honestly, I hope he and his brother grow up thinking like their mother and me. We won’t push it, but we will guide them, as parents should. And I certainly don’t want to leave their social education solely to their schoolmates, even though I realize much of what they learn and how they think about such things will be shaped by their peers.
Mainly, I hope they grow up asking questions. I don’t have the answers. But maybe one day, they will.
*Name changed to protect the anonymity of my childhood friend.