There is absolutely nothing comforting about the NICU, the intensive care unit for newborns. At least, not during the ten-day stretch we experienced it, at Stroger Hospital in Chicago about a decade ago. The majority of the infants had been born prematurely, and all were fighting for their lives. Their tiny, fragile bodies were housed in plastic domes, amid cords and hoses and machines, with constant beeps and ticks and whooshes. Put together, Darnell and Dani didn’t weigh even eight pounds, and they were by far the biggest babies in the room. Darnell spent most of his time crying, but you couldn’t even hear his little voice. Dani spent most of her time curled up in classic fetal position—or resting her perfectly shaped head on Danelle’s shoulder.
Danelle visited every day. She was clearly exhausted and so heartbroken. I felt awkward and very shy. For one thing, she was younger and prettier—and clearly much cooler—than we were. And her loss was our gain—it was so hard to see her grief and know that we played such a part in it, even though she was making this difficult choice for her babies’ welfare. We seemed to be on opposite sides of this whole enterprise, brought together by these amazing children but not having anything else in common. It turned out that we’d lived a few blocks from each other on the South Side for years, while she attended high school, but we had never crossed paths.
During those first few visits, we focused on the kids. There were awkward pauses. Danelle always brought the sweetest gifts—she even brought me a necklace! She held the babies, played with them, handed them back to Ron or me for diaper changes. Dawn would clamor for attention, and Danelle would happily give it to her. She never stayed too long. The first time she came to see us in Skokie, shortly after we moved in, she looked like she’d stepped right out of a magazine. Striped maxi sun dress, big hoop earrings, perfectly curled hair. Like I said, clearly much cooler.
I don’t remember when we finally broke the ice, but I remember how: we found out she likes to play games. Board games, computer games, video games, games on the phone—and roleplaying games. She’d been recently introduced to Dungeons and Dragons, and she was open to playing it again.
Those moments, when someone you like but don’t know well turns out to be into your very favorite things—that’s kind of Christmas for a grownup. So it was Christmas for Ron. And our relationship with Danelle really took off.
Pretty soon, she wasn’t just trekking twenty miles north to see the kids. She was coming to hang out with us, too. We hosted game nights a lot, and we were so thrilled when Danelle would join us. She picks up on games faster than almost anyone I’ve ever met. She’s focused and smart and makes really good decisions—most of the games we play are cooperative, so one person being checked out or selfish can actually tank the whole game. She is never that person.
And she totally fits in with our nerd herd, because . . . she’s a nerd. She loves vampires, Harry Potter, Wakanda, anime, Korean dramas, fan fiction—I could go on, but I’m already worried that I’m in some hot water here.
Because if you’re Black, it’s hard to be nerdy. The comedian Willie Hunter quips that he grew up Black and a nerd in Alabama, and of the two, being a nerd is a lot worse. I’m not sure that Danelle is “out” about being a nerd to very many people. I suspect she feels like she has to hide that part of her life from them. Which is true for most of us nerds, until we realize we’re in a safe space—or until someone, in what had seemed a light and personable conversation, unexpectedly out-nerds us. Anyway. The stakes are much higher for Danelle, when it comes to being the nerd she truly is.
That is, to my mind, a way of phrasing the ultimate anti-racist goal: for my kids—and everyone’s kids—to be who they are. And the next step: for that to be true regardless of where they go or who they meet. To be treated as an individual, not a stereotype. To be assessed fairly for their personalities, to be allowed to pursue their own genuine interests. I think, when everyone in this country can actually feel that way, we will have achieved something like liberty and justice for all.