This morning, I took my son fishing at an event put on by a local church. It was at a private pond, in a small town, south from where I live.
My son and I fished for about an hour with no luck. Even though the pond had been filled with fish for the event, neither of us received even a bite. We grew restless as people around us hooked catfish and bluegill. And I grew impatient as everyone's fishing lines got tangled, one in another. After awhile, I decided we should change spots, away from the crowd. We packed up our gear and trudged through the grass toward a quieter spot on the other side of the pond.
In a hurry to get my pole back in the water, I walked ahead of my son a few feet. A group of young white boys, about my son's age, sat playing in the grass, but I was so focused, they didn't register on my radar. Memories from my childhood, when my younger brother and I used to go fishing, filled my head, and I was looking forward to making new memories with my son. A few seconds later, I felt a tug on my shirt. I turned to look at my son, and he was looking back at the group of boys. "Dad," he whispered, "What is tar?"
I thought the question was odd, given the context. But my son is at that age where he asks a lot of questions, most times, out of context. "Tar? Why do you ask," I tossed the question back at him.
"That kid back there," he said. "He called me a Tar Boy, and his friends laughed at me. What does tar mean?"
It was well over 90-degrees outside, so I was already hot. But my son's words set me on fire. I stopped and reeled in my fishing line, which had come loose and was dragging in the grass. Then I searched for an answer, but I didn't have one. Given my own childhood experiences, my visceral response was violent. I wanted my son to take his $300.00-a-month karate lessons, and get back there and jack that kid up. I also considered finding this kid's parents and asking them where he learned such trash . . . and dare 'em to look at me wrong. But I did none of that. In fact, I didn't even look at that kid. I was filled with so much anger, resentment, and sorrow for my son, that I didn't think it a good idea to direct that much negative energy at this kid or his parents.
I searched my son's face. He was more curious than angry. He understood the kids meant him harm, but he didn't understand their words. He didn't understand that tar referred to his skin color, or that the kids were laughing at him because he is Black.
My son is very smart, but he's still very innocent, thankfully. So I wasn't ready to introduce to him the concept of racial hatred. I decided to let the issue pass. I didn't explain the word. And I told him I didn't know what the kids were laughing about.
For my son, the issue was dead. He was ready to make nice, but I was still on the defensive. We went over to the refreshment area to get some drinks. He popped open a can of Pepsi, and then headed back toward the pond. "Come back, man," I said. "I think we should drink our pop here, before we do anymore fishing."
A white man wearing dark sunglasses approached me. "You must not be from around here?" he said. "Where are you from, the north?" I paused. Was this that kid's dad? Did he witness his son's remarks? Had he laughed at my son? Was he then challenging me, too? I was ready to pounce.
"Why," I asked, with my best Malcolm-X attitude.
"We'll I haven't heard anyone use the word pop to describe soda since I moved here from Portland." Pop vs. soda?
I let down my guard. "I'm originally from Iowa," I said. "Old habits die hard." We both laughed and went our separate ways. But my day wasn't quite the same.