I posted this story about Mako and Avery for my Patreon supporters in 2017. I thought it would stay in the archives forever: this story was me trying to wrap my mind around the Black Lives Matter movement and how it impacted every aspect of black and brown lives. Especially how parents would explain something so serious and so complicated and so very terrifying to their young children.
I didn’t want to make this story public because (1) I’m not a POC, and (2) I’m not a parent. This story is so far out of my lane that I’m using it to pilot a sailboat down the highway. But this week’s episode of Lovett or Leave It has an interview with Brittany Packnett Cunningham in which she speaks about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, and how white people have an obligation to speak out and explain systemic racial inequities to those within their own social circles. And being a white person of privilege is definitely my lane.
Anyhow. Let’s take Avery out for some ice cream.
The girls behind the counter were a little shaken to see him come in, but he was used to that, and his daughter was still at the age where she could charm the whiskers off a kitten. It was just a matter of time before they were all smiling, and Avery had been given an extra scoop of ice cream.
He took her over to the table closest to the window and let her chatter away. It took a few minutes for the enthusiasm over an unexpected treat to wear off, and for her attention to move from the spoon to the street outside.
“What are they doing?”
“It’s a protest, Sweet Pea.”
“Where’s the sauce?”
“Sauce?” Mako had rehearsed this in his head a million times, but with a four-year-old, planning and preparation were mere suggestions.
“For the sp’getti.”
Well, that had gone off the rails quicker than expected. He tried again. “Would you like to have an Adult Conversation?”
His daughter started nodding—Yes! Very much yes!—before she remembered the ice cream. She stared at her bowl before she solemnly pushed it aside.
“You can keep eating,” Mako said with a straight face. “But what are Adult Conversations?”
“And why are they important?”
“’cuz they matter for-ever.”
“Right. You see those people in the park?”
His daughter stared at the protesters with huge dark eyes. “Yes.”
“A protest is a big meeting for people who want things to be different. It’s how we can show that those things are important to us.”
Avery mulled this over. For a young child, this involved lots of stirring until her ice cream was mostly sauce. “Protests are Adult Conv’sations?” she finally said.
He smiled. “In a way, yes. Except when you’re at a protest, some of the talking has already happened. A protest is what comes after the Adult Conversation, when the people who were part of the conversation want to talk to those who weren’t.”
Sticky fingers went against the window, followed by a forehead. Outside, a woman in blue jeans spotted Avery and gave her a happy wave. “Why can’t they all talk?”
“Because there are a lot of people in America, Sweet Pea. And sometimes they don’t all listen to each other.”
“But you have to listen in Adult Conv’sations!”
“That’s right. Except what happens when one person thinks they’re having an Adult Conversation, and the other person doesn’t?”
This idea had never occurred to her. She turned away from the window and bounced a little in her chair.
“Avery? What happens when one person is saying something and the other person doesn’t listen?”
“Do adults go to time out?”
“So what happens when one adult doesn’t listen to another?”
“You make them!”
“What if they don’t want to make them listen? Or what if making them listen might make the problems worse?”
This was reaching critical failure for a four-year-old. His daughter said nothing and returned to stirring her ice cream.
“Avery? Look at me.”
It took her a few moments, but she did.
“Do you feel confused?”
Stir, stir, stir… She nodded.
“That’s how adults feel about this, too.”
“But whyyyyy?!” That last word was pitched so only dogs could hear it: the tantrum wasn’t imminent but a distraction was necessary. He told her to stay put, and went to ask the girls at the counter for sprinkles. Lots of sprinkles. In fact, here’s eighty bucks—just give me the five-gallon tub out of the back.
Avery watched all of this with the eager wariness of a child who wasn’t quite sure what her father was up to, but since it involved candy she was willing to stick around and see where this was going.
The bucket went on the floor between them. Avery looked up at her father. “Are these mine?”
“No, Sweet Pea, these are people.”
She giggled: tantrum averted.
“We’ll pretend they’re people for right now, okay?” he said, and spread a small handful of sprinkles across the table. All the colors of the rainbow bounced and skittered across the old laminate. He scraped them into a pile. “You know Daddy’s superpower? Where I can count anything without going ‘one, two, three, four, five…’?”
“How many sprinkles are here?”
“Millions! No—a hundreds-millions!”
“There are three hundred and eighteen sprinkles in this pile,” he said.
When it came to mathematics, Avery was wholly his daughter. She stared at him suspiciously before she pulled the sprinkles towards her. Very carefully, she plucked out sprinkles one by one and placed them in a separate tidy pile. It took a long time; she was very diligent.
“Two hundreds and nin’ty-six,” she finally said, an accusing tone in her voice.
“You dropped some on the floor.”
“So,” Mako said, as he reached into the bucket again. “We’re pretending those sprinkles are three hundred people, remember?”
“Two hundreds and nin’ty-six.”
He counted out four sprinkles and added them to the pile. “Good?”
“These people,” he said, pointing to the sprinkles, “want these people to listen to them.” He placed the pile in his hand beside the first. “How do they do that?”
“They talk to them!”
“Okay, but what happens when there’s a lot of people to talk to?” Another handful of sprinkles went into the second pile, followed by another, and another. Mako’s hands could palm bowling balls; the second pile dwarfed the first. “So many people that talking is hard.”
“Look in the bucket, Sweet Pea.”
“You see all of those sprinkles? Did you know there are almost four hundred million people in America? There aren’t a million sprinkles in this bucket. Not even close to a million.” He lifted up the bucket and placed it on top of the second pile. His daughter’s head bobbed over the edge to peer inside. “But this is why protests matter. They let three hundred people talk to everyone else.
“And,” he said as he reached back into the bucket, “maybe they’ll convince some of those other people to join them.” This time, he added the sprinkles to the first pile. “You see? If those three hundred people can convince others to join them, their number grows.”
“Will all of the people join them?”
“Maybe,” Mako replied. He held the bucket to the edge of the table so he could sweep the sprinkles into it, and pretended he couldn’t hear the girls behind the counter breathe signs of relief as they put the brooms away. “The protesters would like that, but talking to all of those millions of people takes a lot of time, even when you use protests to do it. And some of them won’t change their minds, no matter what you say to them.”
“Now,” he said. “Do you still want to have an Adult Conversation?”
“Um…” His daughter’s nose wrinkled like a rabbit’s.
“We’ve been talking about math,” he told her. “Math is easy. The Adult Conversation will be hard.”
“Because people have been dying, Avery. Black people like you and me, and brown people like your mom. It’s very serious. That’s why the protestors are here. They want to stop us from dying”
Her big dark eyes moved from his own, taking in the protesters outside. He was biased, he knew that, but he wondered how many other kids his daughter’s age would stop to weigh the worth of the crowd.
(His heart twisted a little: she was older than she should be. That was his fault, and her mother’s, and everyone who forgot that parents were only powerful until their children were involved.)
Avery turned back to him. “We’re dying?” She had never had a problem with the concept of death. She had known—quickly, instinctively known—that death meant change, and sometimes heartbreak.
“Yes,” he said.
“Some of the reasons you won’t understand. When you were born, your mother and I decided to wait until you were in Kindergarten before we told you about what happened to my family before the Civil War. And after it. You’re a big girl and you’re very good about Adult Conversations, but I don’t want to have that one with you right now, okay? It’s very serious, and I want your mother to be a part of it.”
“But we’re dying?” Her voice was getting high again, her hands clenching around themselves.
He reached into the bucket for another handful of sprinkles. “Would you like to do some more math?”
Avery nodded, almost frantic. Math was good—math was safe!
He made one small pile of sprinkles, and then poured the rest into a larger pile a few inches away from it. “These are people, remember?”
He pointed to the small pile. “These are black and brown people,” he said. “Can you count out ten sprinkles for me?”
She did, as carefully as if she really was counting out ten tiny lives.
“Now, can you count out another ten from the big pile for me?”
Again, she moved ten sprinkles from the larger pile to the table just in front of it.
“Good. Let’s pretend these twenty sprinkles are dead people, and the rest of the sprinkles are alive people” He pressed his finger, lightly, to the top of the small pile. “You and I are in this pile of alive black and brown people, Avery. You and I aren’t going to be dead people.”
One of the sprinkles had rolled towards a wet smear of ice cream. She pushed it back towards the others. “Why?” she asked.
“Because your mom and I are OACET, Sweet Pea. We have serious power. If they come after us, the rest of the collective will stop them, just like when you and Aunt Hope were kidnapped.”
Ah. That one had landed; his daughter’s mouth pressed flat. She had been a toddler when she was kidnapped. Some days, he could convince himself that she didn’t remember.
Not today, though.
“You’re safe,” he assured her. “I promise you, Sweet Pea, your mom and I will always protect you. But other black and brown people don’t have us to protect them, and that’s why some people in this pile—” He pointed at the small pile again. “—might become dead people.
“This pile,” he said, as he moved the larger pile closer to his daughter, “is people who aren’t black or brown.”
“White,” she said quickly, and his heart twisted a little more.
“Yes,” he replied. “Along with people who aren’t black or brown, like Aunt Rachel. Would you like to do more math?”
More nodding, and a small smile.
“How many dead people are on the table?”
“Good!” he said. “Do you want to see me use my superpower?”
Of course she did. She might double-check his work, but he could count objects all day long for her and she’d still think it was magic at bedtime. He moved the two piles of sprinkles around so his cybernetic implant could conduct a full audit. “Two hundred and eighty alive people are in this pile,” he said, as he slid one handful of sprinkles towards his daughter. He pulled the larger one towards himself. “Seven hundred and twenty-eight are in this pile. Got it?”
“Which pile has more sprinkles?”
One finger straight at the larger pile. Bam. No hesitation.
“And how many dead people came from each pile?”
“Ten!” she shouted, smiling and bouncing in her chair. Simple figures held no mysteries for Avery.
“Is that fair?”
The bouncing stopped.
“Is that fair?” he asked again. “The same number of dead people came from each pile, right? Is that fair?”
Her smile vanished as she went to work on the problem. “Ten ‘n ten,” she said. “That’s the same.”
He took one of the candy bodies away from the group resting beside the larger pile. “Is it fair now?”
“No.” She began to shake her head. “No.”
She didn’t have the words.
He slid the tenth sprinkle back into its place. “This is a kind of math that we haven’t covered yet,” he said. “It’s called statistics. We have to be careful when we use statistics, because it’s easy to jump to wrong answers, but this is a very simple problem: if there are two groups of people, and one is bigger than the other, but they have similar numbers of dead people, then that’s not fair.
“That’s why the protesters are here,” he said. “They want everybody to know that things aren’t fair.”
His daughter turned to the protestors. She hopped down from her chair and pressed both hands against the window, watching the crowd, leaving ice cream-sticky fingerprints as she went.
“C’n we go?” she asked.
“Go protest? No,” he said. “Not today.”
“You’re too young,” he said, standing. He bundled up their mess and tossed it into the nearest trash can. “There’re things we need to talk about before you decide whether or not you should join them.”
“We just had an Adult Conversation about why they are here.” He moved to the window and knelt beside his daughter. “We have to have a lot more conversations about whether we should be here, and some of them will be very hard.”
She was frowning at him, with tantrum! set hard in her chin.
“Thank you for having an Adult Conversation with me, Avery,” he said gently. “I’m sorry if it didn’t make you happy. But we can go home, and you can tell your Mom what you learned about protests and statistics, okay?”
His daughter glared at him. She turned to the bucket of sprinkles and scooped out as many as she could with her sticky hands, and shoved these deep in her pockets.
“Let’s go,” she ordered, and led the way out of the ice cream shop, leaving a trail of sprinkles behind her.