reFlections prompted by an aquarium membership fee

Some people say they’re playing us – Tahija and Lamarr. They see white guilt and black need as a common, potent compound that, when mixed with cute little boys synergizes into resources: A place to live when Tahija was fourteen, pregnant and homeless. Legal guardianship when that’s what she needed to keep the boys. Miscellaneous stuff. A three-bedroom freestanding house. A zoo membership (family deluxe) and now an Aquarium membership.

My biggest fear when I consider that this might be true is not that we have been played (manipulated, conned), but that we may have reinforced a co-dependent pattern in the parents and greatly abetted its being passed on to the children.

A young social worker named Danny who came to two readings characterized Philly as a racially co-dependent city. I think he’s right. The problem with an interchange of this sort – I’m poor because I’m black, you should give me x (a dollar, a break, a free pass) because your people have hurt mine – is that it neither empowers the poor nor releases the guilty. In fact, in so far as getting resources is contingent upon need/lack/disability it actively disempowers.

It’s like the way poor parents get a small check for learning disabled children, but nothing for the gifted and talented. What does that encourage?

I’ve sometimes felt Lamarr is deeply committed to this strategy. When he was a kid with a mother caught up in the crack epidemic of the eighties, he used his younger, cuter twin brothers to get help from whitefolks. And now he uses the triplets. Twice now white neighbors have given him vans, and last time I was there little Lamarr said a neighbor had promised them bikes.

I think he’d prefer to be independent. Maybe at some level he scorns the helpers. I think his cynicism toward those he plays makes real relationship difficult. It is not a relationship of equals; in fact the relationship is predicated upon inequality. It would not have come about had the two parties been equal.

Tahija has sometimes gone along with Lamarr, as she has with him about nearly everything, because she loves and needs him. (Violent horror movies, for example, are now something she says she enjoys.) But her connection with us is rooted in love, I feel. She has more integrity and a stronger drive for independence. It was her idea, I think, for them to take us out for dinner for Kwanzaa. “You always pay, now we can pay,” she said. When we lived together I lived on the childcare money, needed it. We have that foundation of a kind of equality.

When I haven’t seen or talked to her for awhile, the stereotypes and suspicions start to push up like weeds. But time with them weeds the garden of our relationship. Part of the harvest can be this day at the Aquarium.

It may be that this time Tahija and Lamarr will offer to pay for the membership. If we want to pay, as a birthday gift to the triplets, are we being played?

Or are we being grandmotherly?