Our twin girls are nothing alike. Elizabeth only notices things that are sparkly, shiny, or animal-print. Katie watches everyone like a hawk and does not miss any details. She can read a room like nobody’s business and usually has a list of follow-up questions. Raising a child like Katie can be both enlightening and exhausting, but it’s never dull. Last year, right before Christmas, my husband was reading to Katie from our children’s illustrated Bible. “Why do angels always have blonde hair?”, she asked.
“Not all angels have blonde hair,” he responded, while flipping through the Bible looking for any non-blonde angels. This children’s Bible that we have is not a special Bible only for people of European descent. It’s just a regular, mainline Protestant Bible, but all of the angels were blonde.
This line of questioning from Katie made my husband very nervous and he called me into the room for some theological backup. I reminded her that Jesus had brown skin and said that it was probably just that one Bible. I left her bedroom and started looking through our other Bibles and our Christmas books. I could only find blonde angels, mostly with blue eyes. I was tossing books around our family room and praying, “Sweet Jesus, we have a new situation here. Could you help me find some non-blonde angels? Hook a sister up, please. This matters.” Rest assured that I have nothing against blondes. My son was a blond as a child. I was blonde until middle school and then I tried to be blonde again as an adult during a fierce bout of postpartum depression. Some of my best friends are blondes. I am not a blondist. I do find it odd that blondes somehow managed to take over the angel marketing department. Were there even blondes yet when Jesus was born in Bethlehem? When were blondes invented? I don’t know. I’m not an archaeologist. Maybe they already existed up in Scandinavia, but I’m pretty sure most Middle-Easterners don’t look like Taylor Swift. Why do the angels?
I imagined how I it would feel to be a seven year old girl with chestnut brown skin and dark hair and to not see any angels anywhere that looked anything like me. Why didn’t God’s messengers ever look like her? I felt awful that she felt left out and I felt even worse that I’d never noticed all the blonde angels. The next morning, at 4 a.m., (that woeful hour when I wake up unhinged and need to be sequestered to a panic room), I was convinced that Katie would grow up to not love Jesus because I’d inadvertently brought Aryan angels into our home. Our house was filled with books about adoption, loving our hair, and diverse families. I’d practically memorized their favorite books: I Like Myself; The Skin You Live In; Black is Brown is Tan. I was horrified that our Christian books were the ones giving us trouble. The good news is that online stores are open all night and you’d better believe a box of new children’s Bibles filled with all shades of angels was dispatched pronto to our house.
During that early morning panic, I remembered some folk-art angel paintings that I’d seen posted online by a local artist named Jackie. They were primitive and beautiful, but most of the angels were blonde. I didn’t get in touch with this artist at 4 a.m. because I’ve heard that some people think boundaries are important. I waited until some of the crazy wore off and then I took a chance and sent her a message that said something like, “I have an unusual request. I’ve seen your angel paintings and think they are gorgeous. Would you be open to making some for our family…but with brown skin? I need them to be Angels of Color.” She was generous and open-hearted and got to work. When the paintings were done, I brought them to my house and became weepy every time I looked their way. These two angel paintings are similar in skin tone and hair and shape, but they are also distinct. Just like my girls. The angels are featureless and timeless and stunning.
I had originally thought that it would be great to put them where the twins would see them every day, like over their beds or in the playroom. The more Jackie and I communicated, though, I knew these angels needed a broader audience. The white people in our family needed these images burned into our brains just as much as the twins did. So, the angel paintings are hanging on either side of our kitchen table. It’s the place where we gather most as a family. These Angels of Color are watching over us: as we eat meals, work on homework, even that one time that I caved and did crafts with my twins and it ended with me cussing and the table covered in glitter glue (which I’m pretty sure was invented by Satan). One of my son’s friends walked into our kitchen and said, “Whoa. I’ve never seen that before. That’s so cool!” The fact that angels having brown skin stops us in our tracks should give us all pause.
That’s one of the gifts that the twins have given us as a family. We have a new lens through which we view the world. I recently walked into a gathering, without the twins, and said to my husband, “We’re the only black people here!”
He whispered to me, “We aren’t black, Anna.”
“Speak for yourself, white boy!”, I thought.
As a mother of two black children, I now see the whole world differently. It’s like my eyes, ears and heart are all brand new.
When she was in kindergarten, Katie raced off the school bus and burst into the kitchen. She was so excited to tell me what she’d learned about Rosa Parks and she told the story beautifully. With her sweet little six-year-old voice, she ended by saying, “But now I can sit anywhere I want to on the bus, because of Rosa Parks.” I responded by saying, “That’s right, baby girl, you can and we have all the brave people who went before you to thank for that”. I waited until she left the room to burst into tears. The story of Rosa Parks sounds very different coming from an African-American little girl. It isn’t just history to her. To me, the Civil Rights struggle was about changing society to be more just and fair. It was a broad, holy and sweeping movement. It was never, though, about where I was allowed to sit on the bus. It wasn’t ever about where I could eat or sleep or go to school or go to the restroom…but it is to my children. It is their very real and very personal story. Rosa Parks and those brave men and women who marched and fought and sang and bled; they changed my children’s lives. Their legacy of justice affected where my child sat that very day on the school bus. Their love transformed our world.
Around this same time, I started to really resonate with the character Elphaba in the play “Wicked”. In the song “Defying Gravity”, she sings, “Something has changed within me, something is not the same. I’m through with playing by the rules of someone else’s game. Too late for second guessing, too late to go back to sleep. It’s time to trust my instincts, close my eyes…and leap!” Our twins have changed something within me.
I feel like I’m currently living on a bridge between our old, pre-twin life and a new one. There is a line in our church liturgy that I’ve said during the ‘Assurance of Pardon’ more times than I can count: “Your old life is gone and a new one has begun.” This is meant to be good news. It’s a promise of forgiveness. It’s only recently that I’ve lived it and believed it and have even grieved it a little. It can be scary news when you knew the rules and traditions of the old life so well and the new life feels…well, new. I’m not sure who will guide us and sometimes I’m flat out afraid.
When I feel overwhelmed, I take a deep breath and give thanks for all of the new angels in our lives. I
find comfort in the tiny steps we are taking as a family towards this new life. We have so far to go and so much to learn, but I feel stronger when I remember that old Spiritual that my mom taught us: “All night, all day, Angels watching over me, my Lord. All night, all day, Angels watching over me!” I am fiercely grateful for these Angels of Color that are watching over our family. They remind me that we are not alone. They remind me that “love never fails”. They remind me that this new life will be beautiful.