The pandemic has made it clear that parents are walking a tightrope with no safety net. We talk to parents about how they want to change the system, what it's like to raise black boys in a time of racial injustice, and how we might learn from ancient cultures to improve our parenting skills.
Anne Strainchamps (00:00):
It's To The Best of Our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps, and today we're going to be hearing from parents.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (00:06):
Brittany, thank you so much for doing this.
Brittany Powell (00:08):
Yeah. Thank you for having me.
Anne Strainchamps (00:15):
If there's one thing the pandemic has laid bare, it's how precarious the lives of most working parents really are.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (00:25):
If you could start with saying your name, where you live, just really your story: what you've been going through.
Brittany Powell (00:33):
Sure. My name is Brittany Powell and me and my husband, Eric, we live in rural Vermont. We have one child. Our son, [Waylan 00:00:50], is almost two. I have a full-time job as a media marketing manager at an arts college here and then I also work as a part-time adjunct professor of art at a local military college. My husband works as a craftsman in a metal fabricator for a local build company.
Brittany Powell (01:20):
In the beginning, our full-time daycare provider closed for several months and my husband was also laid off. I was all of a sudden working from home, which was a little challenging, and my son was not even one yet. He was pretty needy for me while I was here and I was trying to get work done in the house and I was also breastfeeding. It definitely felt pretty hectic. We were also having to continue to pay for the childcare that we weren't using, so it became pretty challenging financially because childcare in Vermont is about half as much as our mortgage is.
Brittany Powell (02:00):
Our current situation, which is sort of stretched out six-plus months, has been that my son goes over to his grandparents' three days a week. I have him at home two mornings a week and then I start work around noon and then I work into the evening, and then my husband comes home at noon from his job. He starts his job very early in the morning. Then he spends the afternoon with my son. I think it's easy, sometimes, to consider that there are solutions to every problem. For some people there are no real solutions.
Brittany Powell (02:39):
I interviewed a woman here in Vermont whose husband was military who was deployed at the beginning of the pandemic and she had a job as a nurse and her childcare provider shut down. She had no choice. She had to stop working. There was nobody to watch their kids. If you have a job where you can't have your kid buzzing around while you plug away at a computer... you have to go to a job every day... it's like what do you do? If you quit your job and then you can't pay your rent, how do you do that and not end up homeless?
Anne Strainchamps (03:16):
The thing is, this isn't, or shouldn't be, news. Working parents, especially moms, have been doing the impossible for what seems like forever. But the pandemic made everything so much worse that now people are finally talking about and even moving toward real change: something like a parenting revolution. Journalist Alissa Quart has been documenting the lives of working mothers during the pandemic. She's the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and the author of Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America. And our producer, Shannon Henry Kleiber, also a working mom, got together with her to bring us the ideas and the voices of parents who are struggling today.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (04:05):
Alissa, thanks so much for doing this today. I wanted to start with being real about everything that's going on in our lives today. I was setting up for this recording and the dog was here and the kids were setting up their Zoom calls and next door they started painting the house and I was like, "Oh my god, there's so much going on." I just think that the reality of working from home and being a parent, you can't separate them any more.
Alissa Quart (04:35):
Yeah, it's a lot. It's just a lot to try to have a professional life, to work full-time. Both my husband and I probably work more than full-time and have our daughter... doing every pick up, every drop off, trying not to use public transportation. Even things like that have become complicated.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (04:55):
Tell me how you decided to cover this right now. Were you thinking, "I'm seeing this in my own life. What are other people seeing? How can I get their stories out?"
Alissa Quart (05:06):
Absolutely I was seeing this in my own life. I have a nine year old. And everyone I knew has been having these kind of Rube Goldberg-like setups where they were working in the laundry room, one of my friends, working in a closet, having their kid have their virtual schooling near the bathroom and having their little kid on their lap while they're doing phone meetings. For women particularly, it was a real set back. It felt like a lot of the gains of the second and third wave of feminism, and just women's labor rights, were being turned back. It seemed to me... and the research bears this out... that women were bearing the brunt of this in households.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (05:50):
In some ways, it's such a universal problem. It's cutting across race and class and geography. But as you say, it's really striking feminism.
Alissa Quart (06:01):
Yeah, and you can kind of see a lot of the conventions of feminism and women's independence that were kind of attained... like, you can have a live without a man in it and raise kids, you can have a blended family... all these libratory personal choices that women were able to make, in addition to working outside the home, were now being set back. It's like if you're a single mom you literally have no one to rely on, or if you're a single woman without kids you're potentially completely isolated right now. It's been very strange from a feminist perspective: setting it back to this 19th century moment when the beginning of the childcare system was created. It was a fragile system and it was intended for the poorest unfortunate women with no choice but to work and who were being punished, in some senses I felt, by a failed system in this country. And now it's happening again.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (06:58):
What are parents doing who are really stuck? And can we talk about them a bit? Like the parents who both parents need to be out of the house for work, the daycare is closed, and the school is virtual. What are they doing?
Alissa Quart (07:13):
One of the people I've reported on, she actually had her young adolescent son caring for her other two children who were seven and nine. I think you're seeing a lot of that. Someone was telling me about someone who works at their school going up to the Bronx from deep Brooklyn, dropping off her kid with her mother and then going back to school to teach at Brooklyn, and then going back up the Bronx and picking up her kid and then going back to Brooklyn. You're seeing these absurdist lengths that people are going to to just get any affordable, accessible daycare that they find safe for their children.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (07:59):
Okay. Just go ahead and start when you're ready with your name.
Dasja Reed (08:02):
Sounds good to me. My name is Dasja Reed. I currently am located in New Orleans, Louisiana. I have one son. He's two years old at the time, right now. I am a single mother. My parents do help out as much as they can as well, but pretty much it's me. It's been a long rodeo, right?
Shannon Henry Kleiber (08:34):
That's a good description: a rodeo.
Dasja Reed (08:41):
My son daycare ended up closing before we were actually furloughed or sent home from our jobs, so I had to go two weeks without pay. Eventually, we did ended up getting furloughed, but when they called me back to work it was like a lot of schools, they were shut down or you can't go in and tour them, you can't meet the teachers, you can't do this because of COVID and everything, which is like a... That's a struggle because you want to be able to meet your kid's teacher. You're giving your child to somebody. You're putting your child in somebody's hand and sort of... Just to not be able to meet everybody or even walk around the center to see anything, that was challenging. I did not find nowhere for him to go for a very long time because it's already challenging: finding a daycare that you felt comfortable with leaving your child for 40-plus hours a week.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (09:37):
What do you think needs to be different?
Dasja Reed (09:47):
I honestly believe that childcare should be government funded, but if we put more energy in and not just taking it as we're babysitting from zero to four... but it's like, no, we're understanding that that's truly the age where the children, they learn the most. This is what it's [inaudible 00:10:05] them for the rest of their life. If we just took into account that zero to four is really where we need to start... not in elementary, not once they get to kindergarten, but truly starting that and putting most of our energy in the zero to four, I don't think we'll have as much issues once we get to elementary and middle and all these other things, you know? That's just my opinion, but I truly believe that it would eliminate so many other issues that we have further down the line.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (10:36):
Wow. Dasja, thank you so much for telling us your story. I really appreciate it.
Dasja Reed (10:41):
Shannon Henry Kleiber (10:43):
Yeah, it's sounding good.
Dasja Reed (10:44):
Shannon Henry Kleiber (10:55):
So much that comes from this pandemic, it pulls back these layers that we didn't realize were there, or we knew were there and we were ignoring. We're seeing the brokenness of the childcare, the work, the housing, the inequity. It would be so easy to get depressed about it, but one thing I really like about your work, Alissa, is you talk about solutions and you talk about what can we do next.
Alissa Quart (11:21):
One of the things that interests me is what have other countries done. Everyone points to Scandinavia. But even in the Scandinavian instance... In Sweden, for instance, it was the '60s and '70s Swedish feminists that lobbied for the expansion of childcare. There was a mass movement. It wasn't just, "Those Scandinavians with their good moral sense and their sense of social democracy." It was women organized to put pressure. One of the things I've always been startled about, especially since I had a child, is why are people not more organized and upset about this? Why isn't there a parents' lobby like there is for the elderly? Like, I was thinking of AARP. It had a million dollar in total lobbying expenditures in 2019 and it's part of why we still have some degree of social security. This is part of why the amount of rights that the elderly have have been kept in place. We need that for parents.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (12:20):
I love the idea of the parents' revolution. Are there ways people on the ground can create their own parents' revolution?
Alissa Quart (12:31):
I wrote some about this in my last book and I'm writing a bit about it in my new book because I think a lot of them are kind of bespoke: things like co-parenting, where people are living together in the same house even though they're not biologically or romantically involved with each other. They're sharing daycare, pooling daycare. Everyone's making fun of the pods now as this bourgeoisie tendency, but I do think there's something potentially communitarian about... I prefer to call them collaborative learning. That is one thing. The other thing is to organize and to send letters, to fight for greater funds. I mean, the amount that's needed when I reported this was startling. The same amount was being given to Delta Airlines as was being given to help out with daycare, and what we really need is something more like 9.6 billion a month to stabilize it. And longer term, we probably need, I don't know, 337 billion. It's sort of treating daycare as part of the education system, really, which would totally change how we thought about parents and children and our national responsibility to ordinary people.
Monica Scott (13:51):
Hello. My name is Monica Scott. I have three kids and I have one on the way.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (14:01):
Can you tell me Monica's story?
Alissa Quart (14:06):
I was very moved by her story. She is a mom of three in Lakeland, Florida, which had a very high rate of COVID-19 infections. It had gotten so bad that the seven and nine year old were at home with their 14 year old and they were not leaving the house sometimes. And it wasn't even a house. It was a motel.
Monica Scott (14:32):
It's been pretty tough for me during this pandemic because I have to worry about if my kids are safe going to school. Are they wearing their mask correctly like I'm teaching them at home? Are the teachers properly following protocol and making sure our kids are being safe?
Alissa Quart (14:49):
It all started when the Boys & Girls Clubs of Polk County, which is the county that Lakeland is in, that once offered after school care, they shut. So now she's leaving 7:30 AM for her job at McDonald's. She's paid 9.25 an hour. And then she goes to sort boxes for Amazon at the airport at 1:30 and then works until 10:00.
Monica Scott (15:11):
To be honest with you, it's not easy parenting on these low wages. Making $15 would definitely help. Proper childcare would also help us during these times of the pandemic. I worry about my kids all the time: wanting them to be safe and everything. I'm constantly praying for them. I'm praying for all the kids.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (15:37):
Wow. And how is she handling it?
Alissa Quart (15:43):
The thing that was kind of moving... and again, I didn't get into this. She is an activist. She's part of the Fight for 15 campaign to give $15 an hour for people like Monica who work at McDonald's and so forth. She said that was like the thing that made her happy. It was one of the only things that gave her hope right now. She's praying and hoping something good is going to happen, is how she put it. Her life has been from struggle to struggle and now it's just a new level. Her kids, normally they'd go to the ice cream truck and that would be this big joy in their lives and they can't even go without being accompanied by their older son, who's not able to do sports any more because he has to take care of his siblings. His whole adolescence is being kind of deformed and warped. This is just one little story, but there's probably millions of people whose kids and whose lives look like this right now.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (16:50):
You do phrase it as an opportunity. I know there are some dark places, too, but the opportunity and the necessity, I think, of doing something different right now is real.
Alissa Quart (17:04):
I'm more hopeful, in some ways, than I was before the pandemic started, just because you're seeing... On television, on CNN, people are talking about people's needs in a different kind of way because they've been forced to. I think maybe one of the things is that people don't really politicize parenting in this country. They individualize it. I think this is one of the obstacles. We need to, in some ways, de-individualize it and say every parent has these same problems. I think the in-roads, even though he didn't win, of people like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren show that there is the desire amongst a large number of people in this country to have a different kind of relationship to the state: a social reframing to have a more interdependent sense of what we do for families so not every family is siloed in their own difficulty. I feel like that's part of what's been exposed by this whole pandemic.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (18:06):
Well, we will keep talking about this, Alissa. This is an incredible, interesting idea, and your insight and your research is really interesting. I really appreciate it.
Alissa Quart (18:18):
Thanks so much. Lovely talking to you.
Anne Strainchamps (18:31):
Alissa Quart talking with Shannon Henry Kleiber. Quart is the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and she's written four non-fiction books including Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America.
Anne Strainchamps (18:53):
Maybe it's time we looked beyond our own country, our own culture, for ways to make parenting easier for everyone.
Michaeleen Doucleff (19:07):
I'm a reporter at NPR: a global health reporter. NPR was doing a story about parenting around the world and they sent me down to the Yucatan to a small Maya village. What I saw completely changed what I thought about what parenting could be.
Anne Strainchamps (19:28):
Michaeleen Doucleff isn't just a reporter. She's also a mom, and at the time she was on assignment in the Yucatan she was also having toddler trouble.
Michaeleen Doucleff (19:42):
Rosie had just turned about three and she had always been a baby that made a lot of noise: crying, screaming. But as she turned into a toddler, she started to do a lot of hitting. She'd have tantrums probably on like a daily basis and I would try to hold her or pick her up and then she would just slap me across the face.
Anne Strainchamps (20:07):
Michaeleen Doucleff (20:08):
Yeah. Sometimes in public. I got to the point where I would pick her up and duck. I'm serious. It was not a good place to be in. To be honest, I didn't think that what I was going to find, learn, in this Maya village was going to help me with Rosie at all. But when I got down there, the moms that I talked to and I interviewed, they had this calm confidence about them. They didn't yell. There was no bickering or nagging. The children were very kind and respectful to the parents, to the siblings. It was just this completely different relationship between the parents and the child than what I had with my own mom and what I was having with my daughter.
Anne Strainchamps (21:06):
The lost art of raising happy, helpful children and how parents can get their lives back, next. It's To The Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.
Anne Strainchamps (21:25):
What would it be like to live in a community that really supported parents and children: a community, a whole culture, of care? Author and NPR reporter Michaeleen Doucleff visited Mayan, Inuit, and African families with her own toddler in tow and discovered a way of parenting that makes life easier for everyone.
Michaeleen Doucleff (21:47):
One morning I was with this mom, Maria [Timborgus 00:21:49]. She has five kids. She's my age. She's in her 40s. We were in her kitchen and her daughters were on spring break. The oldest one is 12 and she was sleeping in because they had stayed up and watched a shark movie that night. She woke up, comes out of the bedroom she shares with sisters, walks past me and her mom and starts washing the dishes from breakfast without anyone asking her.
Anne Strainchamps (22:12):
Michaeleen Doucleff (22:14):
I know. I was like, "What just happened?" And I asked her mom. I was like, "Does she do that often?" And Maria wasn't really surprised. She's like, "She's 12 and by now she should know what needs to be done. If she sees it, she does. Not always, not every day, but often." And then she went on to tell me about a time that she took the youngest daughter to the doctors and [Angela 00:22:38], the 12 year old, when she got back had cleaned the whole house. This seems exceptional. For me, it seems exceptional. But actually, anthropologists have been documenting a similar phenomenon in many cultures around the world.
Anne Strainchamps (22:54):
It seems like one of the big differences is that in the western culture we've really constructed two very different worlds. There's kid world and there's parent world. Kids play with kid toys and they play with other kids and they go to school and the adults talk to adults and they read adult books and they go to work. It seems like, from what you've described with the Mayans, the kid and adult cultures were much more interwoven.
Michaeleen Doucleff (23:19):
Absolutely. What I saw, not just with the Maya but also in Tanzania with [Hadzabe 00:23:24] families, is that every time a parent did something... go collect water, go collect firewood... the parent gave the child a very small piece of the task. So they would hand them a small water bottle to carry. They would say, "Hold your little brother's hand." You hand the child a dish: "Go put the dish on the table." It's these tiny...
Anne Strainchamps (23:44):
What happens if the kid says no and throws the dish on the floor?
Michaeleen Doucleff (23:50):
I doubt many kids would throw the plate on the ground, but if they did... It's interesting. What would a Maya mom do? I'm thinking this study where they were looking at what happens when a little toddler wants to help, like with the laundry, but doesn't know how. In this instance, the toddler comes over and starts throwing the clothes everywhere.
Anne Strainchamps (24:12):
Michaeleen Doucleff (24:13):
Yeah, exactly. I would be like, "What are you doing? You're making a mess. Go play." The mom, interestingly, in this study says... The researcher says, "What did you do? How did that make you feel?" And she said, "On one hand, I was upset because they were making a mess." But she said, "On the other hand, I was excited that he was interested in the laundry." She interpreted it as the toddler trying to help but not knowing how. So then she guides him back into being productive and shows him how to be productive.
Anne Strainchamps (24:50):
I can imagine parents hearing this and thinking, "Oh my god. Now I have to both do the chores and include the child? I'm never going to get done. It's going to take us three hours to get the laundry done."
Michaeleen Doucleff (25:03):
Yeah. But here's the flip side of it. The mom, who's taking extra time with the laundry and the two year old, is not going to sit down and play with that two year old. She's not going to take him to birthday parties. She's not going to take him to all these child-centered activities. That laundry is the entertainment. That laundry is the Saturday afternoon activity. In fact, what she's going to do after they do the laundry is go do something she wants to do, or she does with her friends, and then she brings the toddler with them. Actually, in the end, for me, switching to this mode kind of gave me my life back.
Anne Strainchamps (25:42):
Michaeleen Doucleff (25:45):
I mean, it's true. I went from catering to a two year old and a three year old, going to kiddie museums and birthday parties and all these things that I really didn't want to do, to being like, "You know what? We're not going to do those any more. We're going to do the laundry and then we're going to go do something that my husband and I would do before we had children." I think I describe and explore a way of parenting that is sustainable: that you can do for 10, 12 hours a day and not be exhausted and not have the child be exhausted, if you can imagine.
Anne Strainchamps (26:19):
That's really interesting. Do you think the parents you met had different goals than the parents in this country? Because I was thinking all parents want their kids to be happy, but we might define happiness very differently. In our culture, we're awfully focused on success as a path to happiness.
Michaeleen Doucleff (26:37):
That is a really, really good question. I think that the answer is absolutely yes. I think... and several researchers have told me this... that we are so focused on individualistic accomplishments where kids are taught to figure out what they want and what they can do and then go get it. And I think a lot of parents around the world want more. They want their child to also learn to work together and do things as a family and as a team, and that's where you build this cooperation and you build this [accommodido 00:27:10], this wanting to help the family.
Anne Strainchamps (27:13):
That's the name for it? Accommodido? Be accommodating?
Michaeleen Doucleff (27:16):
It means, directly, accommodating, but it's more complex. It's like this skill of being able to pay attention to what's around you and see when a person needs help and then go and do it. I have to say something else. All of these places, parents aren't isolated in a nuclear family. The way we've constructed a nuclear family, we've really taken something that was supposed to be done by five or six people and said, "Okay, now you two people do it, or you one-and-a-half person," because somebody's working. I think that that makes it so much harder and why we're all so tired.
Anne Strainchamps (27:51):
It sounds to me like what you're describing are cultures that really center parenting and children and families in a way that's deeper and more meaningful. The irony is that we think we do in this culture, because we have such high standards for parents and for children. Our children are being raised so enriched if you're middle class or upper-middle class. It seems like somehow, actually, our children are impoverished and parents are impoverished in other ways.
Michaeleen Doucleff (28:24):
Absolutely. In fact, one of the psychologists who studies Maya children and learning in Maya culture said this exact thing to me. She said, "We think the child has this very rich upbringing but actually it's very impoverished because it is missing the adult world. It is missing the real experiences." I think she has a point. What does a kid need? Do they need an extra toy or an extra play date? Or do they need to just be with their parents while they're making dinner?
Anne Strainchamps (28:57):
Wow. This was so inspiring. Thank you so, so much. I wish my kids were still small so I could start all over again.
Michaeleen Doucleff (29:05):
Thank you so much. It's been quite a pleasure.
Anne Strainchamps (29:19):
That's NPR science reporter Michaeleen Doucleff, author of Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans.
Anne Strainchamps (29:37):
In 1866, Malinda Russell, a widow with a disabled son, became the first African American woman to publish a cookbook. A century and a half later, her recipes inspired Cherene Sherrard's new poetry collection: a meditation on black motherhood.
Cherene Sherrard (30:06):
"Marble cake: the white. My son, half-cup white flour, quarter cup brown sugar, has trouble with fractions. When pregnant, I did not follow instructions. Beat the yolks and sugar together until very white. It was months before I accepted I was carrying another human being. Add half pound butter, whip 14 egg whites, flavor with lemon half gill brandy. The dark. The ophthalmologist suspects that he's colorblind. Half cup molasses. The yolks of eight eggs. Perhaps that is why he prefers brown sugar in his oatmeal. He can't tell how it's different from white. Flavor with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, or mace. I confess, I palmed the iron pills, drank light roast brews without sugar or cream. Mixed children usually come out beautifully. The doctor is unsure about mine. Paper and butter the pan. First, a layer of the white, then of the dark. Alternately, finishing with the white."
Anne Strainchamps (31:51):
Coming up, we'll stop by the house where Cherene Sherrard writes, bakes, and raises two sons together with her husband and fellow poet [Amad 00:32:00] Johnson. It's To The Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.
Anne Strainchamps (32:10):
Cherene Sherrard and Amad Johnson and their two boys live just a few blocks away from Steve and me. It's a good neighborhood to raise a family in. Dog-friendly, family oriented, a university town. Like us, Cherene and Amad share a profession. They're both poets. Each recently came out with a new book. Cherene's is called Grimoire and Amad's is Imperial Liquor. And although they honestly didn't plan it this way, both are about parenting: specifically about their inner lives as black parents raising black sons in a neighborhood and a country in which racial inequity and injustice are everywhere, no matter how good the schools are or how nice the neighbors seem. It was a sunny day when Steve sat down with Cherene and Amad on their back deck. The weather was warm and the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial was still news.
Steve Paulson (33:13):
Can I just say it's pretty remarkable that you both have these books coming out, both about parenting to a large degree? One from the perspective of mother, the other from a father. Is that just coincidence?
Amad Johnson (33:27):
It is coincidence. It's one of those funny things. I think we didn't really talk about what was going on in these books but it's pretty clear that something was in the water. I didn't plan to write about fatherhood or my children at all. I was thinking a lot about race and the history of racism in this country and trying to write personal poems, I kept returning to my role as a father and witnessing my sons move through these institutions and ultimately be treated in ways that seemed inconsistent with how we raised them, how we see them.
Steve Paulson (34:08):
So this is such a difficult time, for young people in particular. I mean, for all of us, but I think especially for young people given the pandemic, given the kind of systemic racism that's been very noticeable, probably in ways that this country hasn't really seen for decades. You are raising two black teenagers, black sons. I assume this has been a challenging time for you as parents?
Cherene Sherrard (34:36):
It has. I mean, just two days ago Amad and I sat down with our youngest son between us to watch the verdict in the George Floyd case. And because we've seen history come around a few times, I think both of us were probably cynical about what the outcome of that would be. But part of me was hoping, because I knew that my son was hoping, and still expecting justice and expecting accountability. I think my anxiety was about his reaction more so than what the actual outcome of the case was going to be because of the message that it sends to children: that their lives are not of equal value.
Steve Paulson (35:22):
If you don't mind my asking, how did your son react to the verdict?
Cherene Sherrard (35:26):
He was happy. I think if what I experienced was relief, I think he felt like this was the right thing.
Steve Paulson (35:33):
Can you tell me a bit about your sons? You have two sons. How old are they?
Amad Johnson (35:39):
17, almost 18, and then 14. So not that far apart in age but there's a profound distance in those years. Personalities, they're very different, I think. The youngest is interested in creative writing. He's reading poetry and meditation. He's kind of dreamy. The oldest is high energy. Can be very chatty, but then also because he's an older teen definitely has his mood swings. I think personalities... We're very different. They take after us in certain ways so it's really interesting to see who takes after whom.
Cherene Sherrard (36:17):
The oldest takes after me. It's one of those things. You see that, yes, this is what you've gotten from your mother for better or for worse.
Steve Paulson (36:31):
So from a parent's perspective... and this is an unfair question... what's your guess as to how your two sons might remember this very peculiar moment in history right now? Do you have any sense of how this might shape them in their lives to come?
Amad Johnson (36:50):
I left Los Angeles in the fall of 1992 just after the LA Rebellion connected to the Rodney King verdict. I think a lot about this. When my father was a teenager, he lived through the Watts Riots in '65.
Steve Paulson (37:05):
Wow. This is three generations of living through some remarkably similar circumstances.
Amad Johnson (37:12):
It is. So to think about 15, 20, 30 year swing, generations of African American families, this is sadly a common recurrence. Kind of right of passage, if you will.
Cherene Sherrard (37:26):
What feels a little different, I think, is the multiracial nature of the protest. The outcome of the King verdict was very bifurcated. You could almost see the opinions based on the race. And the same was true around other trials of the century: the OJ trial, for instance. But I think this is a scenario where there was just an outcry across the board and when you looked at the people who were coming out into the streets, whether it's in Madison or throughout the world, you really did see people of all walks of life. That felt different. I think made a mark. I think even thinking about our children seeing that it's not just black people here. The question is whether this window will affect lasting change. I think that remains to be seen.
Amad Johnson (38:25):
I feel like the baby steps in the direction of justice should be celebrated.
Steve Paulson (38:31):
You mentioned that the violence that erupted after the Rodney King verdict in LA was affirmative experience for you growing up in LA as a teenager. How do you think that shaped you?
Amad Johnson (38:47):
The last time there was some conversation that took place around the idea of the Insurrection Act... that technically martial law was declared on my neighborhood. I had to show an ID to get past armored vehicles to get home.
Steve Paulson (39:04):
This was in Compton?
Amad Johnson (39:05):
This was in Compton. Whole city blocks were burned to the ground. There was no development for 20 years after that. They just remained empty lots. The months that followed that riot, the grocery stores were closed, the gas stations were closed, there was a militarized presence for an extended period after that, even long after the curfews ended. What's complicated, too, is there were these calls for police reform but then maybe a year or so after that the crime bill was passed and we began to see that narrative of mass incarceration that devastated the community that I grew up in.
Steve Paulson (39:50):
It makes me wonder if you think your two sons are maybe more hopeful about the future than you two are.
Cherene Sherrard (39:59):
I think they are. They're definitely engaged in what's going on. I would say... Sometimes I would have to say, "Please step away from CNN. Please." But I realize that they see this as an urgent... These are urgent things affecting their lives and they're looking for those answers. I think that probably the best part of the virtual homeschooling has been watching our younger son just read the autobiography of Malcolm X, seeking out literature on the Black Panther Party. He's looking for what are revolutionary alternatives. What have people written about? And he's sharing those in class even if it's via the chat function.
Steve Paulson (40:40):
I want to bring this conversation a little closer to home here because I live just a few blocks from where we're sitting right now in your backyard here in Madison, Wisconsin. I have two kids also who were raised in this neighborhood and there were certainly times when I would worry about what they were up to, but my kids are white. I knew that for them this was a safe neighborhood. You have two black teenagers, black sons. I'm assuming that's a very different set of concerns that you would have. Well, I should ask. For living in this neighborhood and living in this city: in Madison, Wisconsin.
Cherene Sherrard (41:22):
Certainly. It's something... especially as they've grown into men. We know that black children are often thought to be older than they are: read as older than they are. So 13 to an outsider perspective, even to a police officer, does not read as a child when that child is black. Those are conversations that we had to have. Once I remember saying to my oldest son, "You have to remember that you are the red car. Everyone else can be speeding, but you are the car that will be pulled over. You need to make sure that you are not speeding."
Cherene Sherrard (42:03):
I remember there was this tradition at West when he started as a freshman where the underclassmen would run and then they would chased in cars.
Steve Paulson (42:15):
I remember that. Our kids did that two.
Cherene Sherrard (42:18):
I was trying to remember what the name of that was, because I remember as a freshman him coming home and saying, "There's this really fun tradition that I want to participate in." Then it was described to me and it just spoke to a kind of privilege: that there would be a tradition here where children ran through people's backyards while others pursued them in cars. That is not something that a black child can do at night.
Steve Paulson (42:51):
Did you tell your sons they couldn't do this?
Cherene Sherrard (42:52):
Absolutely. I was astonished. I remember... Of course, here I seem like the mean mother. Then I had a friend of mine, who's also a mother of a black child, write me and say, "Thank you for not making me the only mother who said, 'Are you kidding me?'" Those are just examples. Or even things like... One of my sons makes quite a living taking care of people's pets in the summer and I have to say to them, "Can you please let your neighbors know that you have arranged for a six foot two..." at the time, maybe taller... "African American young man who is in this neighborhood to look after your pets? I'm sorry that might be an uncomfortable conversation for you to have, but I need you to have it otherwise it's not going to be safe for him to go fiddle..."
Amad Johnson (43:49):
With someone's back door.
Cherene Sherrard (43:50):
"With someone's back door."
Steve Paulson (43:52):
Amad Johnson (43:53):
Late afternoon, early evening, to feed a cat.
Steve Paulson (43:57):
How have your sons reacted to those conversations?
Amad Johnson (44:01):
I think before the events of last summer and the last few years, they would kind of brush them off as if we were just nervous Nellies: parents just overreacting. We definitely experienced some push back from them. That's not true now. I think now they're thinking back to some of the small conversations we had when they were very young. It's like when do you talk to your children about sex. When do you talk to your children about racial profiling? Then at some point, you teach them how to manage money. What is the scale [crosstalk 00:44:42]?
Steve Paulson (44:42):
Cherene Sherrard (44:42):
I think childhood is really about learning how to make mistakes and I think for our generations, the parents around us, we were the helicopter parents. A friend of mine, she said, "Yeah, it's Black Hawk Down over at your house." That's how helicopter we are. And those mistakes are important to make. They're learning. But for children of color, there's not a lot of quarter to make mistakes, and I think that's what's really hard. They need to learn from those mistakes but there's a sense that they're not given the benefit of the doubt.
Steve Paulson (45:12):
Amad, you have a poem... you have actually several poems... that touch on this subject, but one I'd love to have you read. It's called Don't Forget Your Lunch.
Amad Johnson (45:20):
Of course. Don't Forget Your Lunch.
Amad Johnson (45:26):
"My dear son, it won't matter how friendly you are, or honest, or which Ivy League school you've attended. It won't matter you hold the door, shop with your hands out of your pockets, or say thank you after giving the cashier most of your money, or saying to the local barista or waiter, 'Fine, and how are you?' It won't matter if your lawn is cut or the hedges or whether the paint along your garage door begins to whether, whether the car is dented or carries a few seasons of wax, whether you signal or roll through a four way intersection, whether you roll down all the windows or spread your fingers against the steering wheel or against the dash: the way you might trace your palm for yet another Thanksgiving construction paper turkey. There are children, and there are no children.
Amad Johnson (46:33):
"I think I failed to teach you how to protect your heart. Every decade now, I grow more quiet, like sound is folding itself and cutting dark shapes into corners of my throat. Sound being tumbled down to fit into some undersized box. And I feel angrier. And maybe it's the money or that how I dress never seemed to matter. The first time a police officer put a gun to my head, the night was as still and musty and oily as your body is now. I lost count. But who counts? Curbs and hoods and concrete and sky. You know, your mother collected all your baby teeth in a tea tin from England. Some nights, I'm sweating and the stars start rattling in my head."
Steve Paulson (47:39):
Wow. There are several lines that really jumped out at me, but one was... given all that you've both just talked about in terms of how to keep your kids safe... also how to protect their hearts. How do you encourage them to love, I guess?
Cherene Sherrard (47:59):
I think that's where history is helpful: family history, cultural history, going back to 1619. A lot of things have happened to us as a people and we're still here and we're here because people chose to try and anticipate a better life. Many people sacrificed for that. And there's a strength that you can draw from that. You really do have the example of your ancestors to inspire you.
Amad Johnson (48:33):
It's a challenge for us, definitely, as parents but I think we also try to do everything we can to really model that beauty: what self care is, how we try to demonstrate love as a couple so they know they're supported and they're a product of something that we believe is pretty special.
Steve Paulson (48:54):
Do they read your poems?
Amad Johnson (48:57):
I think they overhear us when we do the readings now, because everything is happening at home. We have Zoom readings and they're kind of at the door. They may pick our books up. We don't say, "Hey, read this so you know what we really think of you." That doesn't really come up. I think we're in awe of who they are as individuals. We're also trying to process what our role has been in shaping them. I used to think that I just woke up one day and these two dudes were living in my house. It's like, "Where did you come from and how did you get here?" But obviously we love them and appreciate who they are as individuals.
Steve Paulson (49:40):
Thank you. Thank you so much, both of you. It has been such a pleasure.
Cherene Sherrard (49:45):
Amad Johnson (49:45):
Yeah, this is lovely. Thank you.
Anne Strainchamps (49:46):
That was Steve Paulson talking with poets Amad Johnson and Cherene Sherrard on their back deck in Madison, Wisconsin. Amad's new book is called Imperial Liquor and Cherene's is Grimoire.
Anne Strainchamps (50:15):
And that's it for this hour. Thanks to Alissa Quart and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project for their help. To The Best of Our Knowledge comes to you from Madison, Wisconsin. Shannon Henry Kleiber put this episode together with help from Mark Riechers, Charles Monroe-Kane, and Angelo Bautista. Sound design and engineering by Joe Hardtke. Steve Paulson is our executive producer. And I'm Anne Strainchamps. And for a behind the scenes look at our show, subscribe to our weekly newsletter at ttbook.org/newsletter. Thanks for listening.
Speaker 12 (50:53):