On Hearing My Daughter Trying to Sing Dixie

by JOSEPH MILLS

i.

My children’s elementary school used to be an industrial warehouse. Located on Martin Luther King Jr Drive, a street that used to have a different name, it’s across from the Winston-Cup Museum, a place dedicated to a defunct stock car racing series that was sponsored by RJ Reynolds, a company whose headquarters used to be nearby. A building on the street displays a banner announcing:

WE SUPPORT THE
TOBACCO INDUSTRY
“THANK YOU FOR SMOKING”

This sentiment puzzles my children who, unlike their parents, have grown up in an ashtray-less world. Whereas we lit cigarettes for our moms and eagerly pulled the tobacco vending machine knobs for our dads, when our children watch It’s a Wonderful Life they are astonished to see George Bailey light up. How could he be the hero they wonder? My daughter’s friend sees a smoker and urges his father to call the police.

I sign in at the school’s front desk and nod to a man with waist-length dreads who has entered after me. I know his son’s name, but not his, and I suspect the same is true for him. Here our identities are grafted to our children. We walk along the hallways decorated with art projects to a backroom that serves as a makeshift theater. We sit in a row with several mothers, one with spiked hair, one who homeschooled her son last year, one with Jesus stickers on her sneakers. Together, we watch our children perform Cinduron, an Indian dance version of Cinderella. The students try hard to be serious and graceful, but they can’t help smiling and waving to family members. We smile and wave back even though it’s yet another story about bad parenting and how they’ll be forced to negotiate the unjust world we’ve put them in and the obstacles we have placed upon them.

ii.

When my wife and I moved to North Carolina and started house-hunting, the realtor had mentioned school districts then looked at us significantly. We were childless at the time, so she might as well have been referring to Mars colonization or Medicaid plans. It seemed so far over time’s horizon as to be irrelevant. So, it was surprising to us that several years later, when our daughter arrived, we were in the same house, and also still there when our son arrived three years after that. And, it was disconcerting to realize that, as my children grew, they talked differently than I do. Once, when my son told me as we left a room that he would “cut the lights,” I did a double-take.

I am a born and bred Northerner, raising born and bred Southerners. On weekend mornings, I want to go to Dunkin Donuts, and they want to go to Krispy Kreme. Unlike me, my children have always known what dogwoods in bloom look like. It puzzles my son when a new neighbor from Pennsylvania starts to shovel his sidewalk after a snowfall. He asks, “Daddy, what’s he doing?” not understanding why the man doesn’t just let the snow melt like everyone else. I laugh, remembering how the first time it snowed after we had bought the house I went next door to borrow a shovel. The old woman had stared at me, “What for?” she had asked, “The sun’s going to be out soon enough.”

Furthermore, I am a born and bred “white” Northerner, my wife is a born and bred “white” European, and our children are born and bred “black” Southerners. When we go out, we frequently elicit double-takes. We get comments. There are misunderstandings. At Costco, we put our food on the conveyer, leaving the kids in the cart, and the cashier rolls them away and towards the first “black” couple she sees. The couple looks at us, and the woman says, “She’s trying to give away your babies.” The barista at a coffeeshop grabs my wife’s arm and says, "I think it's great what you're doing. Just great!"; for a moment my wife is confused because, after all, it’s just an order of cardamom tea. A man refuses to come through the door that my daughter and I hold open. A couple pretends they can’t hear or see us. A stranger shakes my hand in the grocery and says, “Thank you.” A woman stops my wife in an aisle to give unsolicited advice on hair care for African-American children. A TSA employee pulls us from a long security line and moves us to the front. Even people we know well sometimes act oddly. A white older colleague greets me, then crouches to my two year old son, high-fives him, and says, “My Man! Give me some!” Another colleague sees my young daughter toddling around in her toy costume jewelry and says, “Ooooooh, girl got her some bling!”

And, suddenly, our children aren’t toddlers, but school-age, and it matters what district we are in. We initially send our daughter to a school that has a strong science and academic program. It also is 90% white. Although I had heard that the public schools had become resegregated, I’m shocked to realize how much, and it makes me suspect our realtor had been trying to talk in a code that we hadn’t recognized.

There are mild racial incidents at this “School of Excellence.” In first grade, when the teacher explains how someone had shot Martin Luther King Jr., a girl claps and says, “Good.” After our daughter swings on the jungle gym with a boy, she is told she shouldn’t play with him anymore because they aren’t the same color. Although upsetting, none of these are particularly surprising. What is, however, is the classmate who, having seen that my wife and I are white, repeatedly insists our daughter has been adopted from Ghana or Africa somewhere. When our daughter explains she was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, the girl refuses to believe her, repeating, “No, you’re not from here. You are not from here.” She explicitly denies our daughter any claim to a Southern identity.

In second grade, our daughter begins to suffer debilitating headaches and other physical ailments. We take her to doctors and specialists, including an allergist, neurologist, dietitian, and therapist. Nothing helps. We switch her to a different school, one with a racially balanced student population. The headaches disappear.

iii.

For her birthday, the grandparents buy the daughter a karaoke machine, and, although it’s in her bedroom, you can hear it throughout the house. She knows folk songs like, “This Land Is Your Land” and “Old Dan Tucker.” I too grew up with these, and I sometimes sing along. I don’t mind the Taylor Swift, but I’m less enthused about the Madonna or when she tries to talk-sing her way through something she doesn’t know, such as “Danny Boy.” I dislike the Christmas songs in July or any month, including December, but I recognize that it’s her machine, her music, her choices. Then, as I’m sitting in the dining room, I suddenly realize she’s singing “Dixie.” Or trying to. She’s unsure of the melody.

I move to the bottom of the stairs to listen to my daughter say she wishes she were back in the land of cotton where old times are not forgotten. I resist the urge to go to the power breaker and shut off the electricity. I hope she’ll move on to something else, but she tries to sing it again, then again, and I know we need to talk some more about the Civil War and slavery, about history and words like heritage, about how melodies come with meanings, and how this song already has been claimed, so it isn’t her song or our song. But, I also know the difficulty in trying to explain the complex associations of stories and symbols and icons that we’re born into, and I know that what a story supposedly teaches and what a person takes from it may be different. She sees It’s a Wonderful Life, and remembers the scenes of violence. George getting his ears boxed. One man punching another. George getting thrown into the snow. Wanting her to be strong and proud, we tell her stories of Harriet Tubman, get her books, and take her to Tubman’s house in Auburn, New York. As a result, she grows afraid of slave catchers and dreams of them regularly.

I don’t know what my daughter hears in Dixie or what she’s learning from the song, and, as I stand at the stairs and listen, I’m not sure exactly how to respond. But, I know I have to. As tempting as it may be, there is no looking away.

iv.

At the end of a vacation, we fly back to North Carolina. The attendant asks a nearby African-American woman what her two children want to drink. “Those aren’t mine,” she says, looking up from her magazine, and we raise our hands to explain. Our kids take this as a matter of course, but when we disembark and another attendant makes a point of coming over and saying, “You have a beautiful family,” my daughter asks me, “Why do people say that about us?” She knows we stand out, but to her, we’re no more beautiful or ugly than other families. It doesn’t make sense. She suspects there is something she’s not getting. There’s some code being relayed.

v.

After the Cinduron performance, several people come up to say how beautifully my son moves. As I thank them, he squirms next to me, uncomfortable with the attention. He swings on my arm, and asks if we can play soccer when we get home. I say yes, but first we have to stop at Lowe’s to get a part for a broken toilet.

Our house always has something in need of repair or renovation. Built a century ago by a RJ Reynolds clerk, it’s been modified so often that no plumber or electrician ever comes out of the basement or attic without saying some variation of “That is not what I expected.” Nothing looks like the books or diagrams say it should. No surface is level. No part is standard. So, we either live with a situation, custom order parts, or come up with our own solutions.

It can be tiring living in this creaky hard-to-heat home. This place that so many people have messed with over the years. Sometimes I joke the only tool we need is a match to burn it down and start over, and this isn’t so much a joke as a desire to escape the confinements of history, the inadequate structures others have left behind. But, the longer we live here, the more we shape and are shaped by it. It’s a common narrative, one of immigration and migration, one repeated often, and yet almost nothing in this version is as I expected. Not the ensnarled unexpected motives. Not the exhausting anxieties. Not the fear for the unfinished work and for the future. Not the unplottable moments of grace and awkward happiness. Not the banal pleasure of gathering with strangers to watch our children dance together.

When we bought the house, we planted a tree in the front yard and named it Snoop Doggy Dogwood. It was an ironic gesture, a joke. Yet it has survived despite our haphazard care, the son whacking it with sticks, the daughter bending its branches for projects only she understood. It’s not as full or robust as many of the other trees in the neighborhood. It’s probably not what people think of when they imagine a Southern dogwood. But it is one. Each spring it blossoms into something increasingly familiar. Each year it grows a little more, slowly changing the landscape. It’s an old story, and although it’s not one that we thought would be ours, that is an old story too.

A faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, JOSEPH MILLS holds the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published six volumes of poetry with Press 53, and in the spring of 2018 will publish the fiction collection, Bleachers. His essay “On Hearing My Daughter Trying to Sing Dixie” won the 2017 Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Competition.