Citizen Green: To Amy Bell, on your 4th birthday

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Dear Amy Bell,

I can’t believe you’re already 4 years old.

I remember the moment you emerged in the world, puffy eyed and no longer than my forearm. The nurse at Women’s Hospital handed you to me and I held you against my bare chest.

You came into the world at midnight. When a hospital employee dropped in to ask us whether we wanted your date of birth recorded as Aug. 9 or Aug. 10, your mother and I were both too sleep-deprived and foggy-brained to properly cognate, and we opted for Aug. 9. Later, after realizing our error, we asked for a do-over and properly recorded your date of birth as Aug. 10. You were born at 12:00 a.m., which is the first minute on the clock, so the date is technically correct and also fitting that you came to us at the first moment of a new day.

We talked about you a lot before you were even conceived in your mother’s womb. We worried about whether we had the financial resources to feed, clothe, shelter and nurture you. Just as important, we worried about the world we were bringing you into.

In some ways, your very existence is improbable. Fifty years ago, it would have been against the law for your mother and I, a black woman and a white man, to be married. Speaking only for myself — your mom is smart enough to know better — I sometimes allowed myself to believe that we could construct a protective cocoon around you by cultivating relationships with other enlightened people in the small, progressive North Carolina city where we’ve made our home.

It’s impossible to explain this to you now, but the love your mother and I share was at one time the very thing that hateful people warned would happen if blacks and whites were allowed to live in the same neighborhoods, go to school and work together. What’s strange is that even as racism infects every part of our society, even the most conservative people we know seem to have no trouble with interracial marriage. All that is just to say that it’s easy for me to get lulled into a false sense of security.

We knew when you were born that fresh hatred and division were stirring in our country, but we wouldn’t have believed in a million years that a washed-up TV reality star spewing hatred towards immigrants, Muslims and women would be the president of our country. If we thought that our progressive urban bubble could be a post-racial utopia, we were sorely wrong. Shamefully, the world we are leaving to you seems to be replacing a shared ideal about equality under law in favor of tribal competition.

And yet I have no regrets.

You can’t imagine how much joy you’ve brought me and your mom. Your uncontained delight at simply being alive has taught me that the starting point for anything in life should be gratitude. Every day I marvel at some new marker in your development — an astute observation, a particularly clean and straight soccer-ball kick, your flawless vocal performance of the Simple Minds song your mom taught you.

Your total openness towards new people is a gift you should never abandon, even though it sometimes worries me, as when you were 2 years old and ran up and plopped down in the lap of the complete stranger sitting on a blanket in Reynolda Gardens in Winston-Salem. Another time, you spotted a little Latina girl in the Butterfly Garden at the Arboretum in Greensboro. You ran up to her and clasped her hand in yours. I didn’t know if the other girl’s mother would think it was an intrusion, and was relieved to find that she was delighted by your instant offer of friendship.

Like our last president, you are a person of mixed race. When you get older, this duality may allow you to try out and discard, invent and play with identities, but it’s likely that when you start pre-K next month most of your teachers and peers will see you as a black girl. I worry sometimes that since you’re bigger than most of the kids your age that your exuberance may be mistaken for aggression and our white-dominated culture will define you as a threat. I want you to stick up for yourself and also treat others with respect.

Perhaps the greatest gift you’ve given me, Amy Bell, is that you’ve taught me that my actions make a difference. If I want to teach you courage and compassion, I must first model those qualities through my own actions. A lot of people will tell you that you should be out for yourself, but I want you to never forget that we have an obligation to take care of each other.

It seems like just yesterday that you were born, but you’re going to be teaching me things that I can hardly imagine when you’re 13, and 18, and 25….

Love,

Papa