The Brown Crayon
BY Shawn R. Jones
…Love your neighbor as yourself.
“Mommy,” my four-year -old daughter spoke from the backseat, “today the teacher snatched the brown crayon out of my hand.”
We were on our way to Atlantic City to visit my mother. My husband was driving and my son and daughter were in the back of the truck. I wasn’t happy to hear that the teacher “snatched” something out of my child’s hand, but I figured it would be best to respond calmly. “Why did she snatch the crayon from you?”
“I was coloring a picture of Jesus. She said I had to use the peach crayon.”
“So, she snatched the brown crayon out of your hand?”
“Yes, and she gave me the peach crayon, and said I had to color his face peach.”
Thank God my daughter did not tell me about her day as soon as I picked her up from school because I would have responded immediately without thinking. It was truly a blessing that she waited to tell me Friday evening on our way to the shore. That gave me Friday night, a talk with my mom, Saturday, Sunday, and a church service to cool me down. Thank God, because by Monday morning, I was all prayed up when I confronted my daughter’s teacher at the little Christian School that sat on the corner of a very quaint neighborhood.
I walked in the classroom and looked up at the students’ artwork. Peach Jesus crown molding lined the ceiling of the room, and there was one with my daughter’s name on it. I walked over to the teacher. “Can I speak to you for a second?”
“Yes, sure, Mrs. Jones.”
I told her what my daughter told me in the truck Friday evening.
“Oh, she made that up. I don’t remember that at all…” she looked down at my daughter.
“Ms. Eagle, I know my daughter is very creative, but she is not that creative. She did not make that up.”
The teacher sighed deeply, “Well, where did she get the idea to color Jesus brown in the first place?”
I really could not believe she asked me where she got the idea to color Jesus brown. At that moment I knew she had an attitude, but I continued to be diplomatic. “She’s brown. Her mommy’s brown. Her daddy’s brown. Her older brother’s brown. Why wouldn’t she color Jesus brown? She should have been allowed to color Him whatever color she wanted to color Him. She chose brown, and that was a healthy identification for her.
“Look, I am not accusing you of being a racist, Ms. Eagle, because I don’t really know you, but you definitely need hours of cultural sensitivity training. What you did to my daughter was damaging to her self-esteem, and she will probably never forget it.”
“I’m sorry,” the teacher sat down and rested her forehead on her palm.
I put my hand on her back gently. “It’s okay.”
I was angry at the situation, but I was no longer angry at the teacher. She was a small contributor to a much larger societal problem with which we had both become victims–racism. She was no longer my focus. My past and my daughter’s present had collided, and I was having a difficult time separating the two because I was confronting an identical beast. It was the 90s, and I could not believe my daughter was dealing with the same giant I had to deal with in the 70s. At twenty-eight-years old, I was still on fire about the injustices I had to face in middle school 16 years prior. I thought I had gotten over it, but the offense was still there. It left me wondering how many times I would have to relive it through my own children and how many times I would have to call on God to help me conquer a similar Goliath (1 Samuel 17). With those thoughts, I left the classroom.
“Mrs. Jones?” the teacher called after me, but I was already on my way to the Principal’s office.
The principal’s comments shocked me even more than the teacher’s. “Well, we try to do be… uniform here.”
“I don’t understand. Your student body is culturally diverse.”
“We just want all their pictures to look the same when we hang them up and-”
“I should have taken my children out of this school as soon as I found out you didn’t celebrate Marin Luther King ’s Birthday.”
“Martin Luther King, Jr. was a communist, Mrs. Jones.”
“What? ” I am sure the little devil perched on my shoulder wanted me to smack her. Instead, I asked, “Can I use your phone?” I picked up the bulky receiver before she could answer.
“Sure,” she spoke with no emotion.
“Yes, I am in the principal’s office and I need you to come down here.”
“Is everything okay?” My husband asked from the other end.
“Yes, I just need you to help me pack our kids’ stuff up. We’re taking them out of this school today.” My voice was shaking. I was so angry because I couldn’t slam her against the wall like I did in the schoolyard so many years prior when Jenny called me a “nigger.” In fact, I was even more angry that I had let my guard down. I trusted them, the teachers, the principal, and the staff. We all loved Jesus. He was our common denominator. I thought it was okay.
“No problem. I’ll be right there.” My husband sounded disappointed, too. “And, Babe, stay calm.”
“I will,” I hung up the phone.
“But your children are doing so well here. And your family is just the type of family we want here.”
“Look, I sent my children here so they could get a Christ-centered education. That’s what I thought I was paying for. I refuse to pay for racism. I can get that free almost anywhere in America.”
I later discovered that minority children were being treated similarly in other classrooms in that same “Christian” school. Another student was told she could not color her angel brown because “there are no brown angels.” The more I listened to stories from other parents, the angrier I became, and I knew God didn’t want me to feel that way. I realized I couldn’t continue to be that angry every time someone treated my children unfairly. I knew we were not inferior to anyone, but I didn’t know if I would be able to successfully convince my children of that when so many people would teach them the very opposite in both blatant and subtle ways.
I knew I had a daunting task before me because the world consistently confirms the point my daughter’s Pre-K teacher made, and at four-years-old, it only took a rude gesture and a few seconds for it to sink in. After that encounter, my daughter got the message: Peach is the preferred color. God is peach. You are brown.
So, what did I do after I took my children out of the school? I went out and purchased a framed print of black Jesus and hung it on the wall in my home. When my friend Tammy came over she asked, “Shawn, who is that supposed to be?”
“Yes, Jesus. You see he’s hanging on the cross. Who else would it be?”
“Well, he has a six pack! He looks uh…sexy.”
“I just think it’s kind of sacrilegious.”
“I wasn’t looking at the picture like that.”
“Well, Girl, if Jesus looked like that a lot more people would be saved,” she laughed.
My girlfriend and I laughed about it for awhile, but I found myself in a struggle. I really didn’t think anyone should have prints or paintings of Christ, but since there were so many blue-eyed blond haired pictures of Jesus, I felt I had to create a balance for my children. At the same time, I knew God didn’t want color to be my focus.
I eventually packed the “sexy” Jesus away in the closet when my children got older, and I told them, “No one really knows exactly what Jesus looked like when he walked the earth, but He loves everybody and He doesn’t care about skin color.” I also told them we all came from one person, and no matter where we live or what we look like, we are all related (Acts 17:26).
I wanted to teach them so much more at the time, but they were too young to understand that race is a social construct we are forced to live with. As such, teaching them that color did and did not matter at the same time was a difficult challenge, but I had to take it on because I knew, from experience, that it would not be enough to say, “It doesn’t matter what color people are.” Colored mattered in the world, and in my daughter’s Christian classroom.
Focusing on color and disrespecting our differences stunts our Christian growth. Sometimes we get so caught up on color that we find it difficult to worship with people who are not like us. We should welcome everyone into the church with a sincere smile and open arms because the bible says, “There is neither Jew or Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:28-29). We are ALL equal in the body of Christ.
Ask the Lord to teach you to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Harboring anger and plotting and scheming to get people back who have hurt you takes too much negative energy. It rots your insides and damages your spirit. Remember Christ asks, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get (46)…and if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others (47)? They are very simple, yet powerful questions, and contemplating on them can change your life brilliantly.
Dear Lord, I desire to love everyone, but it is so difficult sometimes. Anger is often the first emotion I feel when I suspect I am not being treated fairly. I no longer want love to be an afterthought. I want to love like you love and live like you lived when you walked the earth. Amen.
By Shawn R. Jones
Author of the devotional book, Pictures in Glass Frames http://t.co/BxiNwWRG
and the poetry chapbook, Womb Rain,