One unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon, I walked around downtown, holding hands with my son. He’s four. So his inquisitive mind is always bursting with unrelenting questions and on this day, I had the time and temperament to answer every one.
What’s that place? Can we go inside?
What’s your favorite dinosaur?
How do street lights work?
Can we get ice cream?
I relished this rare moment with my first born. Since his sister joined our family, our lives became so much fuller. Full of love; full of blessings and of course– the chaos and commotion that comes along with another child. Quality time spent alone with my son became less frequent and more cherished now. But on this day, I took the time to notice the new, tiny freckles on his nose and how much more mature our conversations had become while he still wanted to hold hands and insert spontaneous “I love you”s into conversation.
Then I saw it—a poster haphazardly affixed to an abandoned store front window with black, electrical tape at the corners. The poster featured two stone-faced, white-skinned, blond figures who stared back at me with piercing blue eyes. The words “DEFEND YOUR PEOPLE” appeared beneath the image along with more information about the white supremacist group sponsoring the message and how to get involved.
I knew the words “your people” did not include me. I’m suddenly the opposition to the stranger who displayed the poster, . I’m an enemy in a battle in which I did not enlist. By association, the message was not for the sweet boy with the kind heart and cherubic face whose hand I was holding either. The message is that we are the threat.
The ugliness of the message was difficult to process on such a beautiful day. Immediately, I ripped the poster down from the window, leaving behind four unsightly, sticky marks from the tape. I wadded the poster into a ball as tightly as I could and shoved it in a nearby trash can, where I hoped it would remain buried under fast-food wrappers, spilled sodas and the filth—where it belonged.
“Why did you do that?!” My son exclaimed, not comprehending why his rule-following mother would deviate so abruptly.
“The poster was not nice,” I quickly replied, trying to explain as concisely as possible and direct the conversation back to dinosaurs and sunshine, far away from the topic of white supremacy.
“But you’re not supposed to do that!” My son protested.
At this moment, it was difficult as a parent to explain how I justified my seemingly bad actions as the right thing to do. How could I justify, to a child—my child—that getting into a little trouble could actually be a good thing to do?
Fortunately I thought of civil rights icon and congressional representative John Lewis who frequently addresses this paradox and coined the phrase “good trouble”. Rep. Lewis led Democrats in the house in a sit-in to force a vote regarding gun-control. During the protest, Lewis praised his colleagues and thanked them for getting into trouble—good trouble.
I used this concept to explain to my son the complexities of rules and determining what is right. If a rule is unjust, it’s not only permissible to break the rule; it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes you have to get into a little trouble for a greater good, just as Rep. Lewis has a collection of personal mugshots along with a historic civil rights victory.
Civil disobedience was not a topic I was prepared to tackle on this afternoon walk and I feared the concepts might seem confusing and contradictory, but my son seemed to understand that the poster belonged in the trash can and not on display.
“But, Mom, what if they come back and put up another poster?” My son asked as he furrowed his tiny eyebrows and looked up at me, in anticipation of my response.
“I’ll take that one down.”
“And if they do it again?”
“I’ll take that down too.”
John Lewis released an amazing graphic novel trilogy about his life in the civil rights movement. It’s fantastic for young adults and adults alike. You can get it on Amazon here.