This essay is a call to reflect on the person to whom we refuse to offer apology.
In “Everybody’s Son”, Umrigar tells the story of Anton, a mixed child with amber eyes, a young boy who captivates anyone who looks at him. He is sweet, devoted, well-mannered, and as torn between two worlds as his heritage. Every chapter of the book is a new chapter of his life: we watch Anton grow from Baby Boy, to Adopted Boy, to Harvard Young Man, to Attorney General, to finally, to Anton. But this essay is for Juanita.
Baby Boy is his first childhood name, given to him by his Mam, as he so fondly calls his biological mother. She, addicted to coke, left him momentarily for a hit, she claimed, before she was abducted and raped multiple times, held hostage at the crackhouse. Meanwhile, Anton is left for seven days in the sealed apartment, a source of traumatic flashbacks later on in his life. The windows are sealed and the door locked from the outside to prevent thieves and mischief; the boy finally crashes a chair to the window and crawls out to seek help, bloodying his thigh with a protruding fragment of glass. The police find him and feel a mixture of great sympathy and disgust. They are simply tired of crack-whore mothers abandoning their poor boys. Umrigar ends the chapter from the perspective of the policeman, enraging the reader at this unjust evaluation.
I did not care for how little attention Mam’s rape seemed to have on anyone. She barely got a sentence of attention. How did such a big event go so under-addressed? But then again, doesn’t it always? Don’t men see what they want to see, particularly white men? Race matters. This book is distinctly on black, white, man, woman, rich, poor and family. This is addressing privilege: who has it, who doesn’t, where it comes from, and where it ends. The book opens true to its purpose: it embodies and re-presents the privilege and the injustice lingering in the background as “the real story” takes place, and “more important” things happen.
It infuriated me; I could not forget Juanita; I was horrified at the abuse she endured. I was appalled that anyone could dismiss such a crime due to another crime (possession or abuse of an illegal substance) as if the latter lessened the severity or horror of the former. It makes me question: “Who is the greater monster: a woman with a lapse in judgment or a civil servant with none?”
Anton was fostered by the Coleman family, a wealthy white family with a legacy of political forthrightness, until one fateful night when David Coleman arranges to meet Juanita. Coleman had fallen in love with the boy, a surrogate for his deceased teenage son James, who had died in a car accident on prom night. He was willing to lose everything to keep Anton, even his moral compass. Juanita should have only served a maximum of six months for neglect but instead Coleman calls in a favor from a judge-friend to give her the maximum of two and a half years: enough to give the boy a proper education, Coleman rationalizes. He intimidates Juanita by showing her pictures of Anton sailing and skiing and enjoying a life she could never provide him. She, in the greatness of her love, allows Coleman to adopt Anton.
Why should this white man’s desires trump hers? Her life, freedom, and her beloved son are robbed from her. She loses everything (a surprise that she did not lose her will to live). This is the second time Juanita is taken advantage of as an “uneducated and drug-addicted” woman of color. This is how the men of the town view her; this is not who she is. We finally understand her at the end of the novel, not just through narration, but Anton’s revelation: she is a woman whose respect he needed to earn and not the reverse. The reverse: she, with limited experience and education, would be an embarrassment. However he knew that it was he who was the embarrassment, for neglecting her and doubting her at all, for doubting the bribe, for doubting her love, for doubting her story. In his words, she was a woman who had sinned, not a sinner. She deserved forgiveness and he needed to earn his and make things right.
David Coleman never apologized to Anton for what he did. In sense, he didn’t need to apologize for loving him as his son and giving him everything any person would do for their own child. He never faltered or failed Anton; he gave him genuine security and unconditional love. He still couldn’t muster to admit how he wronged Juanita. I will.