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My Kid's Words After Charleston Stopped Me Cold

Photograph by Getty Images

"I always come back!" my daughter exclaimed with a smile. It was the day after the mass murder in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in which a man killed nine people because they were black.

My daughter was verbally processing her understanding that when mommy or daddy go away they'll always come back, yet the certainty in her tone broke my heart just a little bit. I had spent part of the day anxious, reminded that there are people out there who are willing to do harm to others because of what they LOOK like.

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The facade I put up earlier in the day cracked a little as she said those words. I don't know if I regained my composure in time, but in that moment, I needed a hug. So I asked my 2-year-old daughter for one.

She pulled a face then reluctantly gave me the hug I needed.

Up until I heard those words, I had successfully managed to swallow my grief for the victims: Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, The Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., Rev. Sharonda Singleton, and Myra Thompson, and their families. I'd managed to quell the anxiety that comes after news like this, as well as the sadness and anger I felt at wondering how someone could hate black people so much that he'd kill them.

I was fed up for having to explain why I felt so hurt to people who would inevitably tell me this wasn't about race.

I'd nearly lost my cool when my husband returned home in the morning after dropping our daughter off. The blood had gone from his face. I thought someone in his family had died. He had just discovered the news about Charleston. He didn't know that I had been sitting with it—or at least the headline for most of the night.

"How are you?" he asked. I shrugged. I wasn't good. I admitted that I was fed up of trying to understand why people didn't like black people. What exactly had we done to deserve it? I was fed up for having to explain why I felt so hurt to people who would inevitably tell me this wasn't about race. I was sad that I knew how this situation would play out: The media would paint the killer as mentally disturbed, rather than recognizing what happened was also part of a wider issue in our society, where some of us are valued over others, and some of us are seen as threats. Then the victims and their families and the wider black community would be asked to forgive and move on.

My husband sat next to me and told me, as the blood slowly returned to his face, that he learned about the shooting while driving our daughter home. He said it was surreal taking her into her classroom, where everything seemed "normal" and carefree. I knew what he meant. He had a case of cognitive dissonance. He was reeling from the news that had devastated a community and set black people and their allies on edge, but none of that seemed to be reflected on the teachers' faces.

We agreed that was probably a good thing. After all, how would you even break that down to 2- and 3-year-olds? We had no idea. For a split second we wondered if she'd have questions; she's smart and according to him she was listening to every word on the radio, which was unusual, because she usually demands to listen to "Can You Feel It" by the Jacksons during her ride to school.

I reminded him that we could probably take a leaf out of her teachers' books. We didn't know for sure how they were processing the news, but I figured that as parents, we had to learn how to deal with our strong feelings while finding a way to keep the joy in our kids' day.

So I vowed to keep going. I talked it out with my good friend, who is also a mother of three. The conversation was just what I needed. In the play date that followed (with a lady I met at our local story time, whose daughter was the same age as my infant son), I started to feel weary. As I showed her around the neighborhood, I began to wonder if she was as upset by the news as I was. She was so polite and seemed so carefree that I wondered, does she even know what has happened?

I was determined to keep the joy in my children's day, even though I couldn't erase Dylann Roof's words.

By the time I went to collect my daughter from pre-school, I was exhausted. I could barely keep a smile on my face. I was ready to put my guard down, which is probably why her words got to me. But I pushed through, not because I was less sad or angry. I wasn't. I'm not. I was determined to keep the joy in my children's day, even though I couldn't erase Dylann Roof's words: "I have to do it. You rape our women and you're taking over our country. And you have to go."

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And I'll continue to do it despite the fact that I'm devastated for the 5-year-old girl who had to play dead to survive. Not only did she lose a relative, she saw people she knew get shot to death and had to hear that man spew those words. She'll have to live with that for the rest of her days.

Now Nikki Haley, the Governor of South Carolina has called for the Confederate Flag—which represents a traumatic time in America's history for many and troubling ideas on race today—to be removed from the state's House building.

It's a symbolic gesture that was considered almost impossible before the mass murder in Charleston. Now it's gaining traction. If we're going to stop these killings, we have to stop the ideas this flag represents, the very ideas on race and supremacy that make the flag controversial, scary and at times life-threatening.

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