My fingers sprint lightly across the smooth kaleidoscope of illustrations overflowing their cartoonishly-large covers and spilling onto the discount table in front of my favorite radical bookstore. I’m visiting my brother just before he turns six, and I want to show him something about who I am, about how I’m different from his mom and dad…about how he can talk to me about things he wouldn’t dream of talking to them about.
I note that several of the books have people of color on the cover, and I wonder if Daniel has ever talked to a person of color before. I’m aware that this book is going to be about exposure. Exposing him to some larger world than what his parents are willing or able to do. Exposing what matters to me to him. Exposing why I can only be a marginal influence in his childhood.
The dreary shade of the afternoon demands my uneasy skepticism about lingering outside with precious articles of resistance, so I decide to duck into the store to weigh my options.
People’s history posters line walls with the particular brand of collective nostalgia which I feel compelled to pass on to my little brother. Is it selfish of me to want these places to be his places too? It dawns on me that, in all likelihood, he’ll turn out to be that mythic straight white male upon whose complicity the myriad of interlocking heirarchies are built. For a moment, the distance that gets in the way of our relationship is reinforced by every geographic, social, and temporal boundary. Can I prove that it isn’t insurmountable?
The first book I notice is the tale of an enslaved family escaping to freedom in the north. Of course it appeals to me, I escaped to the north to find my freedom. It seems an arrogant miscalculation to compare leaving a middle-class military family to go to a private liberal arts college with escaping slavery to settle into working-class poverty. I put the book down for fear that my stepfather, an ardent defender of the south, may not approve of the tenuous parallel it may imply.
His approval suddenly has a renewed significance as I realize that since I won’t be there to read to Daniel, I must choose a book subtle enough to elicit my stepfather’s compliance. The realization removes my decision from the relatively simple arena of sister and daughter into a no-mans-land between activist, diplomat, and subversive.
My attention shift to a collection of Jewish-American immigrant biographies. It seems somehow safer to give Daniel stories of white immigrants, like my agenda may go unnoticed. Is that really how I want to present my principles to him-as watered down as possible in order to be more palatable?
A Smithsonian book about the radio presents a charming image of a young boy struggling to understand why a broken radio means so much to his grandma. He is taken back in time to retrace the events that marked her life (from the Kennedy assassination to integration) through this medium. He comes to understand the symbolic importance that this object holds for her. Will Daniel even notice?
My heart skips in tandem with my fingers as I fumble over the Islamic encyclopedia. Why can’t I be from a place where that could be seen as anything other than an insult to everything his parents stand for?
Whole new fleets of anxieties coalesce in my mind as questions tumble forward--about where I came from in relation to who I am; about what kind of relationship is possible between my family and I; about whether or not Daniel will ever be the kind of person I can relate to. I realize my breath has taken on a quaking quality and the motion of my hands has lost its stead-fastness. I close my eyes to collect myself, but all I can do is trace the sinews of my own anger, fear, and disappointment.
Hearing the harsh tones of my stepfather’s disapproval reflecting off of each hardbound volume, I can’t escape the feeling that this book may draw the battle lines I’ve avoided all my life. I imagine his narrowed eyebrows recalling all the questions that lie dormant but unanswered. The anticipation is paralyzing.
I leave the bookstore empty-handed. I’ve always used books to start conversations. When did I stop being able to handle them?