Sometimes I don’t know whether I am constructing bridges for Sepo, or digging the gulches she will have to cross. That’s why I take her to demonstrations.
I am waiting for two women to get their drinks so I can order mine. They look like they’re on a date and share a worldview fortified by liberal opinions and gestures, as do most educated white millennials in Brooklyn (including myself). They are scrolling their phones while the bartender shakes their cocktails. One of them exclaims, “My student just followed me!”
“Angelise?” the other woman peers at the glowing touch screen. “The fuck kind of name is that?”
My neck jerks. My eyes snap at them, but they’re too transfixed by a teenager’s Instagram to notice my horror.
“Puerto Rican,” the teacher answers her question. I search her tone for a hint of correction, any sign she’s offended by the way her date just dismissed her student. “They’re all loud kids from deep Brooklyn.”
That’s not umbrage, that’s a boast. She’s proud of her student’s fetish name, her loud difference; it lets her display rapport with the heart of darkness beating in her own borough.
The first time I saw Prince I was seven years old and afraid of how much I loved him. I mocked his falsetto and asked my mother if he was a boy or a girl (the same question posed to me by a child last week, who broke from the sprinklers to ogle my lime green toenails).
I was sitting beside the sprinklers because my two-year-old loves water. Once I brought a kiddie pool to Zambia and she splashed and drank so much of it she wound up vomiting all the way to the hospital (I forgot the garden hose wasn’t potable).
If the word “Zambia” just struck you as fanciful or non sequitur, please remember that Zambia is a country, and 16 million people do live there, as my daughter lived there, happily, until a week before Trump’s inauguration. That’s when she moved to Brooklyn. We didn’t think customs officers would let her in the day they woke up and realized they worked for a bigot.
My daughter’s name is Sepiso. You probably consider that exotic. That’s because you’re not Zambian, where it’s a perfectly common name from the Lozi tribe that predominates the country’s western province. Sepiso means promise. We call her Sepo for short, which means hope. I guess hope is, itself, an abridged promise. I order a dark and stormy and hope my daughter is never taught by a white person, no matter how woke they look. Who knows what they’ll say about her over drinks with their white friends.
But of course my daughter has white teachers, not to mention half my white DNA. I can’t stop remembering a human microphone at a Black Lives Matter rally. “Get your kids,” a woman declaimed, and we echoed, Get your kids “out these motherfuckin’” out these motherfuckin’ “European schools” European schools.
I recited her words with gusto and nervous laughter. My kid was just a year old then. She lived in Africa so I assumed she would go to an African school. But most African schools are European by dint of a residual colonialism that sucks the value out of their pedagogy as surely as it does their land and natural resources.
Instead, Sepo attends a private preschool in Brooklyn. (Should I say “deep” Brooklyn? That depends whether “deep” is a geographic expression or racial doublespeak.) I experienced a bad omen on my way to tour her school: horrid indigestion on the B38 bus. I rushed the teachers’ bathroom as soon as I walked in the door—a charming way to introduce myself as a prospective parent. But a single peek inside the classroom made me stop thinking of myself as a prospective parent. I didn’t see a single visibly brown student. I couldn’t make Sepo a token.
I got a call from her mother. They were running late. So I left and waited. And waited. She called again; they had taken the bus too far. I waited some more, then called her back. Sepo was throwing a tantrum so they had missed the stop again. We showed up an hour and a half late for the tour. All the kids were out at the park. Here we were, Sepo’s riven parents, a hippie poet with a blue dashiki and upset bowels, and a frazzled African woman with punctuality issues. The director was nevertheless eager to sign us up. She bragged about the school’s “diversity.” She referred not to her students, but rather the male teachers in her employ (a rarity in the early-childhood hustle).
This would be forgivable in, say, Iowa. But the school is in Bushwick, a neighborhood pegged by the last census as less than 10 percent white. That percentage may have jumped ever since Brooklyn became a nationally-recognized synonym for kale-munching yuppie entitlement, and this surging white minority may comprise the only locals who can afford private preschool (three-quarters of children born in Bushwick are born into poverty). But Bushwick is by no means a white neighborhood, so its enriching preschools shouldn’t be white, either, unless you believe white children are entitled to a better education than children of color.
Most white people, in their heart of hearts, do believe their children should get a better education than other children. In isolation, this is human selfishness, but applied systematically, it’s vile and pernicious racism. Nikole Hannah Jones writes in her New York Times Magazine essay “Choosing a School For My Daughter in a Segregated City”:
In a city where white children are only 15 percent of the more than one million public-school students, half of them are clustered in just 11 percent of the schools, which not coincidentally include many of the city’s top performers. Part of what makes those schools desirable to white parents, aside from the academics, is that they have some students of color, but not too many. This carefully curated integration, the kind that allows many white parents to boast that their children’s public schools look like the United Nations, comes at a steep cost for the rest of the city’s black and Latino children…. New York City public schools are among the most segregated in the country. Black and Latino children here have become increasingly isolated, with 85 percent of black students and 75 percent of Latino students attending “intensely” segregated schools—schools that are less than 10 percent white.
Bill de Blasio, who won the 2013 mayor’s race after his biracial son narrated a television advertisement that shot him to the top of the polls, spent his first term in office refusing to acknowledge or even utter the word “segregation.” (I don’t get lost in terminology, he once deflected.) Jones continues:
[W]hen asked at a news conference in November why the city did not at least do what it could to redraw attendance lines, [Mayor Bill de Blasio] defended the property rights of affluent parents who buy into neighborhoods to secure entry into heavily white schools. “You have to also respect families who have made a decision to live in a certain area,” he said, because families have “made massive life decisions and investments because of which school their kid would go to.” The mayor suggested there was little he could do because school segregation simply was a reflection of New York’s stark housing segregation, entrenched by decades of discriminatory local and federal policy. “This is the history of America,” he said.
I am familiar with the history of America. It is not a history I would like to think of myself as tolerating, let alone perpetuating. So why do I let Sepo’s grandparents shell out sums of money that exceed my taxable income to procure her superior education? Why do I let Sepo serve white kids a microdose of diversity? Maybe I lack conviction. Maybe I, too, believe my child is (and thus deserves) something special.
Sepo had so much fun undressing the classroom’s multiracial baby dolls (yes, there were more brown dolls in the class than brown children) that she cried when it was time to leave; I had to lift her by the armpits and haul her out of there.
V. Civil Disobedience
A good essay will arrest its reader. But it should also achieve things its writer could get arrested for. Personally, I have been arrested for disorderly conduct, criminal trespassing, obstructing traffic, obstructing governmental administration, incommoding the halls of Congress, and resisting arrest. I also want my writing to resist, obstruct, trespass, and always be disorderly. But usually it only achieves public urination, which won’t get you locked up in New York.
A few months into the current presidential administration, I was arrested at Trump Tower. Our team dropped three banners over the escalators in his gilded atrium: NO BAN, NO RAIDS, NO WALL. Then two dozen of us sat down, chanting, refusing to leave. While committing civil disobedience, many activists prefer to “go limp” and force police to carry them away. This has tactical benefits (it’s good for the cameras, and maximizes disruption) as well as philosophical benefits (resisting the unjust state rather than actively participating in your own arrest). I hadn’t been arrested since the 2004 Republican Convention. The officers tightened my plastic handcuffs and grappled with my limbs. I was nervous and excited; I had trouble remembering how to go limp. So I channeled Sepo: when she doesn’t want to leave the playground, or the sprinklers, or her preschool tour, she’ll hit the floor, slack as a dead fish. Her bones all seem to vanish. I struggle to pick her up, just like it took three cops to wrangle my grinning ass into their van.
Sepo staged one of her sit-ins when the preschool tour was over. But she wasn’t protesting segregation; she was protesting our brute, intransigent spoiling of her fun.
We took Sepo to Maria Hernandez Park and spied on her potential classmates chasing each other in the grass. “No brown kids,” I grimaced.
Her mother took a deep and wary breath. “There are good kids and bad kids. White, black, yellow, brown, doesn’t matter.” She was sold. The school was artsy, close to their home, and bathed in sunlight. I didn’t have much leverage. I wasn’t the one who would have to bring her there every morning. “Plus, I don’t know if Sepo even sees herself as brown.”
I had trouble containing my side-eye. I’m not one to mansplain race to an African woman. But there’s no way the 63 million dickheads who voted for Trump won’t let my daughter know exactly how they see her. (Shut up, you stupid fucking liberal, and be real for a second: Your daughter will be surrounded by white folks who vote straight Democratic tickets, and they will be the ones to educate her, with their ignorance, in the nuances of her difference.)
“And that girl’s Asian,” her mother added. “And that kid over there looks like he might have something going on.”
“He doesn’t look like Sepo. It’s important for her to see kids who look like her.”
I sound patronizing. Because I am trying not to scream Get your kids out these motherfuckin’ European schools! That protest speaker wasn’t exhorting me to remove my daughter from bougie daycare; she was urging black people to renounce a school system that deprives their children of a sound basic education. But if I deprive that same school system of my relatively privileged daughter, doesn’t that make me part of the problem?
Fast forward six months. I’m pushing Sepo on the swings in Maria Hernandez Park. Her blonde classmate’s blonde mother is pushing too, one swing over. A class from the local public school streams into the playground. The woman rolls her eyes and grumbles, Here come the hordes.
I say nothing, because I’m a coward. But if you asked me to identify Bushwick’s nearest equivalent to the bloodthirsty armies of Genghis Khan, I would point to rapacious developers, not a few dozen frolicking Latino kids. White people, however, feel entitled to use city property without being outnumbered by brown people. Even when they move into a brown neighborhood. And especially when picking a school for their child.
Next year Sepo will qualify for Mayor de Blasio’s crowning achievement, New York City’s universal pre-K program. How will I protect her from the public racism of the state as well as the private racism of white liberals? And in the meantime, what’s she learning at her creative, nurturing, exclusive, segregated school? That it’s better to work the system, or shrug at the system, rather than fight the system?
I attended the same Upper West Side private school from kindergarten through senior year, and came to consider the institution a vector of wealth inequality that exemplified everything wrong with the world. No matter that I took the most meaningful course of my life there, a James Baldwin elective steeped in praxis and critical pedagogy. As Baldwin wrote, “The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” I became conscious that we (mostly wealthy white kids) were being lavished with credentials and chauffeured to elite colleges where we could only serve as unwitting agents of further stratification. I recognized, as a teenaged Marxist, that if a belly of the beast existed, I was kicking in its womb.
Now I’m soaked in its stomach acid. When I still lived with Sepo’s mother, I used a loan from my parents to purchase a building in Windsor Terrace, a historically white neighborhood on the outskirts of Brownstone Brooklyn. Its whiteness is no inoculation against gentrification. My block has served as breeding ground for gastropubs and chic eateries that cater to upwardly-mobile young families, not the aging Irish-Italian working class that once settled it. But things feel less insidious when a community gets a makeover while its pigmentation stays the same. My anti-capitalist convictions persevere, no matter how I toil to undermine them.
When Sepo was a baby, I flew often to Lusaka. Once my white seatmate asked if I was going on safari. No; I was going to see my daughter. “Oh,” her face clenched up. “So she’s a volunteer?” I was 28 years old and struggling to muster the maturity to be a father. I definitely didn’t look old enough to have spawned a voluntourist. But truth is just a maze I built myself to dwell in, with hedges trimmed short so strangers can peer in, or leap out if they don’t like it.
During one of my visits, I attended a reading by Namwali Serpell. She had recently won the Caine Prize for African Writing. In the Q&A portion of her reading, she related an anecdote that sticks with me. A mentor asked her friend, “What do you think is the greatest strength in Namwali’s writing?”
The friend answered quickly, “Metaphor.”
“And what do you think is the greatest weakness in Namwali’s writing?”
The friend laughed and repeated her answer, “Metaphor.”
She contended that the word metaphor derives from the Greek word for bridge. Naturally, someone like Namwali (she was born in Lusaka to a black mother and white father, then moved to America as a young girl) would be driven to seek out bridges, and this quest to resolve her own chasms could be her boon as well as her bane.
Sepo crossed an ocean in the womb, then crossed back almost as soon as she learned to walk. She crosses worlds most days of her life. One morning I might take her to a playground in her neighborhood, where she will almost certainly be the only child with a white parent, and her playmates point out the NYPD helicopters growling in the sky above them. That same afternoon, we might visit a playground in my neighborhood, where she is liable to be the only brown girl (not counting nannies). At a playground near my parents’ house, Sepo’s mother has been mistaken for her nanny. Some white mothers still can’t accept that a young black woman might use city property without first being issued a work pass.
Once a nosy woman ogled me and my partner (who is not Sepo’s mother, and who alternates between describing herself as “indeterminately beige” and “indeterminately brown”) and asked if Sepo was adopted.
“No,” I smiled icily.
“Oh really?” she clucked with blatant disbelief.
An elderly woman asked me where I adopted Sepo. She may have assumed I was gay, because we were gathered outside the United Nations protesting global persecution of LGBTQ people. But she didn’t even leave room for the possibility that I might share deoxyribonucleic acids with my little activist. “I’m her father,” I retorted, too flustered to realize I had matched her microaggression with another microaggression; of course I would be “her father” even if I had adopted her. Forgive me. It felt like the woman was trying to steal my baby.
“We adopted ours, a long time ago, of course,” she backed out of the conversation with equal fluster. “They used to advertise them on the radio.”
Do I look like someone who orders a brown baby off the goddamn radio?! Could she not see how Sepo’s face resembles my own, down to her smile, her laugh, her most idiosyncratic expressions? No; a single glance sorts us, then separates us. Even Sepo’s physician at the family health clinic asked if I had medical records from the adoption agency. Do you want to see a fucking DNA test, I’d like to scream. Because I have one; I needed to prove paternity just to get her a U.S. passport.
No one would say or even think these odious things if they saw me and her mother together. But we are not together. So our little girl shuttles from world to world, her existence interrogated by the curious, idle people who never run out of ways to let you know you don’t belong.
My last name is Prins. I used to joke that I would name my first-born “The Artist Formerly Known As” (tAFKa for short; who wouldn’t want to rhyme with Kafka?). I used to hold Sepo in my arms and sing medleys of Prince songs to lull her asleep underneath a lemon tree in Lusaka:
I just can’t believe / all the things people say Am I black or white / am I straight or gay?
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe 144,000 folks are anointed to rule beside Christ in the afterworld. Prince earns my vote to join that little flock (though I’m sure he’ll get disgruntled by celestial hierarchies and scrawl the word “sheep” across his cheek). He expanded my narrow sense of life’s possibilities and helped me bridge my notions of gender, genre, sexuality, and race. I hope that same resplendent groove will burst all the boxes and binaries the universe may thrust on my daughter.
I enjoy Sepo’s neighborhood in the summer. Old men sit on their walkers all day long, crossing the street only when the sun creeps into their eyes. “Where’s our baby girl?” one of them spots me in the morning; Sepo often serenades him with high fives. “Going to pick her up? That’s love, right there! What a beauty—her skin is like peanut butter!” And I laugh, completely unruffled, though I would suffer apoplexy if someone uttered those words in my neighborhood.
I used to live nearby. But that was in 2006, so it was a different neighborhood. My roommates and I were the only white people around. The neighborhood is still heavily Latino and black, but you wouldn’t guess it watching brisk pale faces charge the subway at rush hour, or peeking at the vegan coffee shop where Sepo’s mother wants me to pick her up an almond milk latte. (Pick it up your damn self, I always want to say, but never do.)
Another member of Sepo’s fan club is hunkered outside a vacant storefront with its palimpsest of novice graffiti. He’s locked in conversation, gripping his cane so hard it tremors. “I remember when I saw my daughter again. Of course she asked, Daddy can I come home with you? But I was in the shelter. I didn’t want to tell her that. So I just said, Next time, baby.”
I feel so stirred, overhearing him and knowing how heavy life can be. It is not within this essay’s purview to discuss how I came to have a child born in Zambia to a woman I can no longer be involved with. Suffice it to say there is lots of agony and rancor in my future and my past. But some days I can simply feel grateful that I no longer have to fly across the ocean to see my baby. I just take the G train to the A train to the L train and then I can play with her all day long, offer her my zany sense of home and make her a boisterous little pizza-devouring New Yorker.
I drop her off in the evening. My back aches from humping her stroller up and down the subway stairs. I hit the liquor store for a nip of cheap rum, then the bodega for some juice to bury it in. There are four bodegas between the liquor store and the subway. Two of them have recently been renovated (a telltale sign of peak gentrification). I’m ashamed to say I usually hit the busiest and bougiest of the bodegas. It stocks a strawberry lemonade that goes nice with rum. I curse the line under my breath. It’s been a long day. I’m thirsty. I take a few slurps striding towards the subway to make space in the bottle for my rum.
Three high school girls are walking in front of me. Loud kids from deep Brooklyn, the teacher’s words echo sarcastically in my brain. “What’s that?” one of them points at a storefront. Good question. Its faux-wood panels attempt the old-timey aesthetic of a general store, but they are too spruce and sleek to look truly rustic. BUSHWICK POST is stenciled black on the panels, and below that in smaller letters SHIP IT HERE.
One of the girls bats the air, dismissive and insouciant. “That’s the post office for the white people.”
A bolt of laughter slips out of my mouth. They don’t hear me.
“So you’re discriminating yourself?” her friend argues. “You think you can’t go in there?”
“I’m just saying,” she defends her description. “None of this stuff was here before.”
Another conversation I’m grateful to have snooped on. It clarifies so much. For every person physically displaced by gentrification, several more are mentally displaced. These girls don’t need a Jim Crow era WHITES ONLY sign to know they don’t belong in that hip neoliberal post office. The vegan coffee shop across the street wasn’t built for them, either. Meanwhile, their teachers treat them like exotic animals, and don’t get me started on the cops. I keep walking to the subway, empty the rum into the strawberry lemonade, and dash up the stairs to catch the train that will take me to the train that will take me to the train that will take me back to my side of Brooklyn.
Sometimes I don’t know whether I am constructing bridges for Sepo, or digging the gulches she will have to cross. That’s why I take her to demonstrations. I want her to know that while the moral contours of her world were slippery and unjust, I was doing something, anything, to fight it. And I want her to know she can fight it, too.
After Charlottesville, I took my toddler to march against our Nazi-coddler-in-Chief. A street performer wore a Trump mask and wielded a bloodstained scythe. Sepo and I snuck up on him and roared like dinosaurs. The mingling protesters jeered, and those jeers became a chorus of boos. He blew us a smarmy kiss. Then I saw concern warping Sepo’s face. She had bullied a papier-mâché ghoul, and now she wished to console it, just as surely as she will race to pat the shoulder of any classmate she sees crying.
“Daddy!” she wailed. “I wanna hug the puppet!”
No way I was letting my biracial immigrant daughter embrace Donald Trump. Not even a crude facsimile. Not even if she unveiled an indelible truth: good and evil are just binaries that ought to be deconstructed. But the world’s on fire, so fuck it—I’m with the shrieking canaries. I whisked her away like she was under arrest, even as pride inflated my chest. For my empathic little girl is growing up in a nasty world that has already displaced her and will continue to mistake her for something simple, and slight. May she teach me how to fight.
Richard Prins is a New Yorker who received his MFA degree in poetry from New York University. His work appears in publications like Gulf Coast, jubilat, Ploughshares, Rattle, and Witness, and has been listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays 2014.
Header photo by Richard Prins. Photo of Richard Prins by Isha Racho.