Gone to Look for America: Postcards from a White Parent

When I look in my car’s rearview mirror, I see the reflection of my two napping kids. At the start of this trip, because of coincidental timing, that same image of my children, one of them black and one of them white, became interwoven for me with that of another backseat passenger — the little girl in the back of Philando Castile’s car. That contrast, linked in my mind by our simultaneous car rides, weighed heavy as we first set out. For almost two months now, we’ve been whizzing, unimpeded, across the freeways of America.

Last winter, my 4th grade son asked to travel to and from our regular summer trip — to the west from New York City — via cross-country drives rather than by plane. In response, I laughed. I laughed because our car is a 2002 Honda, rescued from my father-in-law’s local trash dump. I laughed more because our freelance existence depends on working remotely every day of our vacations; to picture my husband and me taking turns on our laptops, 8-hour car ride after 8-hour car ride, was ridiculous. Mostly, I laughed because I couldn’t imagine taking my children out to explore the America of 2016.

We are white parents raising children of two different races. We therefore consider the racial implications of most everything we do, at home in Harlem and out in the world. Even back when my (white) son first asked to go, before so many flash points flashed this summer, I categorically ruled out the idea of a tour through the land we were seeing on TV, the America that was hosting violent Trump rallies and cheering racism.

I remembered the feeling when I, the one Jewish child in my 1970s southern school, first went driving around the blue highways of Virginia. I knew prejudice; there were boys in my grade with swastikas on their notebooks. But it was another level of anxiety to walk into all white towns where residents turned to watch when strangers showed up. With my light skin and freckles, I had the conscious thought then that at least my difference could escape detection. My young brain had known that, in those situations, there was privilege in not being black.

Amarillo, Texas • July 13, 2016 • photo by Gail Lauren Karp

Many years and many road trips have passed; my husband and I, Gen X slackers, made multiple kitschy interstate journeys. I could see the appeal of America for my earnest white child. But when I thought of taking my black child down the same roads, I recoiled. Over these 10 years, I’ve worked hard to foresee what I can through her lens. And when I forget to, she insists I try harder. I haven’t lived her perspective, I can’t embody it, but I have to anticipate what could be different from my white child’s experience, to head off potential pain. “No trip through America,” I said.

But they both wanted to go. And, since real-life responses are often the opposite of what’s anticipated, we adjust. We white Americans in 2016 are collectively learning that balance — the one between actively predicting and backing off — that many transracial parents have tried to get right. Maybe our attempts at empathy come out as self-indulgence or fragility. Maybe our attempts at inclusivity come out as appropriation. Maybe we offend sometimes by our silence and sometimes by our statements. Maybe — but we have to risk saying the wrong thing rather than risk saying nothing. And so, about America, we said yes.

We mapped a zigzag of welcoming, multiracial friends’ couches to sleep on. We designed an adventure, but a safe one. No turns into the Deep South. No convergences with Trump’s Cleveland. We set up the westward route and a photo album. “Gone to Look for America”, I called it, to fill with pictures of the “America” we were finding. I didn’t let my kids know that we were actually planning not to search too hard; the gauzier the presentation, the better.

Takoma Park, Maryland • July 4, 2016 • photo by Gail Lauren Karp

On our first driving day, the 4th of July, we realized that the car’s air conditioning had fritzed out and broken down. Unable to stop long enough to fix it, we drove with open windows, the first of many improvisations. As we prepared to head west from our first stop in DC, America seemed to fritz out and break down too.

We started at an idyllic Independence Day parade in Maryland, a diverse, optimistic display of what America could look like. But by the next morning, in the aftermath of Alton Sterling’s murder, idyllic suddenly seemed to be a less than honest destination for what we were trying to do. We’d picked a lofty job title, looking for America, and meant to take it seriously, and so we spent the next day upping our game with as much civics as we could stuff in it: a gun control rally at the Capitol with John Lewis, the stately mansion owned by Frederick Douglass. Instead of starting with a gauzed-over America, we kicked it up a level, presenting a place that struggled but succeeded.

That night, with the live-streamed murder of Philando Castile, America (and our trip’s theme) lurched into reverse. I packed my own kids’ seats full of iPads and snacks for our first big stretch, and I couldn’t escape the omnipresent image of the little girl in Falcon Heights. I felt ashamed of the timing of our lift-off, with its premise that there was a welcoming American identity for every child to go find. I felt inadequate to the mission, guilty for trying. But because the other child in the backseat couldn’t just look away from what she saw, we couldn’t look away either. We went to the MLK Memorial that night and, while my children ran in the park, I read quotes carved in stone there. I felt this sprawling, improvised trip become a personal challenge. Rather than skirting the undersides of American institutions, we’d head for them. Maybe we could use this uncomfortable privilege to confront, rather than to ignore? By the time we learned, that night, of the murder of five police officers in Dallas, it was clear — with a cross-country toll that week from Louisiana to Minnesota back to Texas — that we weren’t bypassing America by staying put. Even by not driving, we were already there.

Washington, DC • July 6, 2016 • photo by Gail Lauren Karp

We’ve zoomed along these stunning highways without being stopped or looked at suspiciously, let alone anything worse. With our green Honda and our white skin, our children content in the backseat, we’re considered neutral. Inside the car, though, I was manic, lit with purpose. Without air conditioning, our wide-open windows added to the mania: we arrived everywhere with wind-crazy hair, freeway dirt on sunburned skin. We were experiencing the road, not zooming over its surface. “It feels,” my fifth-grader shouted over the roar, “like we’re traveling by super-fast horse.”

“Good,” I said. “Breathe it in.”

When we opened ourselves like this to the road, it told us where to stop next. Determined at first not to take my kids to the celebrated — and segregated — old Route 66, instead we headed for it. We located a National Parks catalogue of the Jim Crow-era stops at which black travelers were welcomed, and we carried it with us. These stops, when we retraced them, weren’t full of tourists or shined up and restored. They were abandoned and demolished. We followed each to the next one, until finally they led to our hotel in Oklahoma. Likewise, we let the news of each day, often awful, carry us to each next place.

Cincinnati, Ohio • July 9, 2016 • photo by Gail Lauren Karp

It led us to the Ohio River, once the dividing line between enslavement and freedom for black Americans. We stuck to its northern bank, and, against the backdrop of Cincinnati’s Underground Railroad Freedom Center, it was impossible not to feel the terror of that crossing. A quote by Carl B. Westmoreland on the wall there compels visitors, “Tell the ugly truth.” As a white mother, I took to heart its final command: “Don’t let it happen again.” Maybe because the road provides momentum, it tricks the rider into thinking they have real power, that they can smash through roadblocks. With my wind-crazy hair, in this road-crazy mindset, I was sure that quote was speaking only to me. Maybe somehow through driving and driving, we’d find the power to keep it from happening again.

It wasn’t until Missouri that our backseat passengers, our kids, told us to ease up on the accelerator. When I said that we were near Ferguson, the child who is a natural traveler, and who is white, was interested. “Good, “ I said. “Let’s visit.” The child who loves travel less, and who is black, said no.

“But!… But!…” I guess I’d come to hope that our drive-by tourism was somehow solving problems or healing pain. Stepping on the brakes, real and metaphorical, I took a breath and remembered that it was doing nothing of the kind. Though my family were mostly my willing companions, the only pain that our breakneck tour was lessening was my own. Speeding through history simply felt better than standing still in it.

Ferguson, Missouri • July 11, 2016 • photo by Gail Lauren Karp

In the end that day, I took one child to the beautiful children’s room at the Ferguson Public Library. We let the other go swimming in St. Louis instead. Racial injustice is my son’s inheritance to learn from; respite from it should be my daughter’s. It’s okay to have different rules for different experiences.

“But the problem,” it took a child to remind me, “is this is vacation.” And that these travelers of course need one. That night, I sat in a parked car and wondered “where next?” It wasn’t a question about which city next — it was a question needing an existential answer. The road feels good because a map has directions, a car has power. But that power is superficial, running quickly from one place to the next. It’s self-serving, letting you see what fits in your own car window frame. The awful events of July and of history were still there when we stopped long enough to notice.

We arrived in New Mexico fully exhausted. At the moment we most felt like collapsing, like giving up on going forward, we went upwards instead. On the volcanic cliffs outside Santa Fe, we climbed dizzying ladders, into ancient pueblo dwellings, over a silent forest. Here, opposite the sunset, the ancestral North Americans built a first civilization. It was stolen from them, and even their names were mis-recorded by the settlers who took it — but on this July evening, during a terrible two weeks in America, we saw a glimpse of what this place must really look like. No radios or phones buzzing bad news, no need to speed our way from improvised answer to improvised answer. We stayed on the cliffs for a long time.

Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico • July 14, 2016 • photo by Erik Linton

It was hard to climb down, back into 2016, to more police dead and soon more young black people too. Pulling into my mother’s house in Tucson, we knew that it was time to get the car’s a/c fixed, to clean up, to map the rest of the way to the Pacific more as vacation than mission. When the Republican National Convention began broadcasting its hate, I had the overwhelming urge to hop in the car, counting miles to the border that separates Nogales, Arizona from Nogales, Mexico. But life has to find purpose in the everyday, not only in urgency. For every stop in Watts, we made sure to have days on the beach. We did an Oakland Black Panthers tour, only after we did Disneyland. We chose, (this was hard for me), elephant seals over the Chavez Center. We were privileged to have those choices to make.

My kids proved to us though, that tourism can have its own purpose. When we moved too far in the direction of carnival rides and swimming holes, the kids showed us how and when to get back to business. Their own Olympic fever got them invested in finding an off-the-path monument at San Jose State, built to honor Tommie Smith and John Carlos as they black-power saluted the American flag. Our shared discomfort with the whiteness of Northwestern towns made us decide to detour to Standing Rock Sioux Nation. My son listed the awe-inspiring protest there against a toxic pipeline as his “best stop”, (and its hotel water slide as his best of those too.) America came alive for us as we met its real heroes, both living people and vivid ghosts, all of them fighting for their land, their lives, their souls. When we eased up, my kids stepped up. In South Dakota, I’d say “Black Hills”, they’d correct to “Paha Sapa”, the native words they learned for the Lakota holy place.

San Jose, California • August 11, 2016 • photo by Gail Lauren Karp
Cannonball, Standing Rock Nation • August 19, 2016 • photo by Gail Lauren Karp

This summer will end soon. We’ll keep driving east, and then we’ll park our car in Harlem and travel by foot again. It’s past time. We’ve run out of couches to sleep on, and our obsessive trip might soon turn into expensive excess. We’re about to stop looking for America.

But we’ll have to figure out other, more useful ways to hang on to the momentum with which we started this journey. We’ll have to keep going metaphorically forward, at least until all families are free to roam as we’ve been roaming. In a world in which Philando Castile was stopped by police over 49 times as he drove, we who have the privilege to proceed must make sure to choose good paths. Ones that take us toward truth, not away from it.

I suddenly realize as I finish this piece that we are driving today through the very roads on which Philando lived and died. The child in his car, who drifted from my mind as July turned to August, returns to the forefront. As we arrive in St. Paul, their city, I see by the side of the road a police car and a sports car in the middle of a traffic stop. Although we’re speeding too, we pass, uninterrupted. At the beginning of this trip, ignited by guilt and grief, I would have pointed all of this out to my family. I would even have paused, made them stop to see significance, look, discuss. Now, near home, I silently notice and keep it to myself.

But I’ll take that significance home with me. And once the car is parked, we’ll find more ways to explore America, through actions rather than through freeway exits. I hope, I think, that we’ve taught our children to keep going on their own, until black lives matter to our justice system, until native lands matter to our leaders, until sickening violence doesn’t bring about more sickening violence. Until that destination is reached, we’ll all need to keep going, keep looking, until we see an America that we want to see looking back at us. I’m so glad that we said yes to our search this summer. One day maybe we’ll understand what we found.

Washington, DC • July 6, 2016 • photo by Gail Lauren Karp