African American familyIt’s not that the girlpies haven’t ever been anywhere nice: they’ve sunbathed on the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard, sipped lemonade on the porches of the Gullah on Sapelo Island, wrapped themselves in thick blankets during a horse-drawn carriage through Central Park and, my God, strolled the gardens of Versailles. They are the children of intelligent, curious people who have been blessed with the ability to work hard and save up for meaningful vacations and experiences and so where we go, Mari and Lila go and what we find interesting, they do, too.

But this past weekend, our travels were different. More purposeful. I treated my daughters to a meal at one of the fanciest restaurants in town, fulfilling a promise I made to them earlier this summer. They are foodies—we watch and root for our favorites on Bravo’s Top Chef like dudes do their favorite quarterbacks on Monday Night Football and my ladies love a well-cooked meal—so the thought of a fine meal prepared by a culinary star in Atlanta had the two of them downright giddy.

The experience did not disappoint: it made my heart swell to see my daughters enjoy fine dining—to know, for sure, what it feels like to dress beautifully for dinner, and have a gentleman pull out their chairs and gently place a cloth napkin on their lap, and to order from a menu featuring braised octopus and roasted duck and sun choke and rabbit and other eclectic delicacies that they won’t get on even the most inspired nights at our dinner table.

And I couldn’t have been more proud of them; they were adventurous with their meal choices, minded their manners beautifully and were genuinely excited as they took in all around them—the décor, the ambience, the respect they got from the waitstaff, how fancy they felt ordering from a menu devoid of burgers and chicken fingers and other kid-friendly fare. No matter that they are wont to act like banshees at our dinner table at home, they were perfect ladies where it counted.

And when we toasted, I made sure they understood—really understood—what our fancy dinner date was all about. For Nick, taking Mari and Lila out was so that they wouldn’t be impressed by some boy who’ll surely come along and think spending a lot of money on a date is pretty much all he’ll need to do to get into our daughters, shall we say, good graces. For me, taking my daughters to dinner was about making sure that they understand that when you work hard, it’s important to celebrate a job well done with a well-earned treat for yourself—something that extends far beyond the bills and the worry and the politicking and the tricking that comes with making a couple dollars.

It was Mari, though, whose eyes were opened widest by the experience. Halfway through the appetizers, I noticed her looking—saw the expression on her face as she peeped first, the patrons at our neighboring tables, and then the tables beyond them, too, and then at the waitstaff and the men who cleared our plates and neatened our tables between courses.

“I see you looking,” I said when her wandering eyes finally landed on mine. “What do you see?”

“Everyone here is white,” she said simply. “We’re the only ones.”

“And what of the waiters?” I inquired.

“All of them are white, and the ladies at the front door were white and the people cleaning the dishes are Indian and Asian,” she said.

Precisely.

We didn’t shy away from the conversation; our daughters needed to understand the goodness and the sadness all rolled up in this particular experience—how awesome it was that we had the means on this particular night to enjoy this gustatory experience, but how maddening it is that more of us simply can not, and how infuriating it is, too, that right here in the middle of a Black city with a collection of elite Negroes doing amazing things in business and entertainment, clearly someone had made an executive decision that pretty blondes should be at the door and young white men should serve and get all the tips and “The Others” should clean and the Black folk need not bother coming up in there for anything at all.

It was a sociological lesson we weren’t intending on having this weekend for our chocolate, smart, accomplished girl pies, but one we had nonetheless. The duality of worlds. Our places in it. The pleasure and the pain that dances all up and between the experiences—all at once sweet and bitter and ugly and beautiful.

This will be their lives.

We will prepare them the best we know how.

The souls of Black folk.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.

4 Comments

  1. So sad and lovely. We have no choice but to wonder where we fit in.

    I went to a lovely resort in Stone Mountain, Ga for a family reunion this summer not realizing until later the history of the locale. What struck me at check-in was the fact that here in the deepest south, the front desk staff was all of Caribbean descent with the diction and carriage that often goes with that, and the women on the housekeeping staff were all Eastern European. Looks like there are a lot places where regular ole Black folks need not apply.

  2. Just to be clear, my father is from the Caribbean so my comment wasn’t intended to be an us vs. them attack, and my observation about who was able to work at the desk was confirmed by the sisters working there.

    Ten miles from Atlanta, though?

  3. Pam, I’ll take it a step further; your garden variety American born Black male is virtually disappearing across the landscape (save professional athletics and the prison system). Look at the graduation ceremonies of any top tier private or public university, or walk the halls of corporate America. The restaurant scene depicted here is a reflection of a much more profound and growing problem here in America.

    Sadly websites like this are rare as a result few are discussing the problem and most are unaware how serious it is…

  4. It makes me sad too, but I am impressed that you have the conversation. I am a mental health therapist and so I am all for the value of processing life with our children and in our own lives. We have to make sense of all that we see so that we don’t just jump on stereotypes to explain it like most people. I don’t want my daughter to be coming up with negative , inaccurate analysis of what she sees in her world. My daughter at 8 years old asked me why all the “Mexicans” have jobs like cleaning up tables and working at car washes, jobs that don’t pay well……wow, what a question! She also noticed that the “Mexican” girls at her school don’t get paid attention to by the “popular girls.” Wow! So, we discussed it that we are close to the Mexican border where there is poverty and also that there are many Mexican Americans and Mexicans that are professionals and have more options. Talking about racism is hard! I am also having a Spanish class with my daughters friends Dad whom is from Mexico, so we can celebrate Mexico and Spanish, and just try not to let racism overwhelm our lives, but make conscious choices to celebrate diversity. Thanks for having this discussion. :)
    Oh, also it shows you how unexposed people are—-several white girls at my daughters school routinely ask her if she curls her hair everynight in rollers to get it like that!!

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