"Mama? Can I be like Rachel Maddow when I grow up?"
We were in the swarming crowd tumbling out of the school that night a few weeks ago when Rachel Maddow brought her TV show to Flint.
Making our way out at the end, another mother next to me got what I call my 'Mama radar' going. That tingle you get when something just not right is just about to happen. Her daughter, 'bout 10, same age as my Yolanda, was walking slumped shoulders in front of her Mama. Then the crowd pace picked up, but the child slowed down. So the woman pulls back an elbow and rams it sharp and hard into the middle of her daughters back. The woman spits out sharply, 'Hey Lazy girl! We got a bus to catch. And as the child's head whips back with the force of her mother's blow, I see her eyes. Empty and dead.
My Yolanda sees too. She doesn't comment on the microburst of child abuse. Instead, her eyes turn brighter and I see a spark of steel as she says, 'Mama, I really want to be like Rachel Maddow.'
"Why's that, child?"
"Because it feels like she brought some new kind of fresh air here to Flint!"
"You sure that's not just winter?"
"All those people running around with the TV cameras, setting up the chairs, talking and shouting. Everybody here in Flint! Dr. Mona talking and Rachel Maddow saying she's a hero and then everybody standing up clapping for Dr. Mona and she says, 'there are a lot of heroes here.' And all this is happening in Flint! I can't believe it Mama. Nothing ever happens here. And no big TV person ever comes here."
"Well honey, no one ever got their clean water stolen from their houses either."
"Mama do you think they took the water away on purpose?"
"Hard to say what's going on in someone else's head. What do you think Yolanda?"
"I don't know. Maybe it's like sometimes in school with one of the teachers? Teacher looks at me like I ain't even there! Like I ain't alive! She don't get mad, she don't get anything. Maybe the government thought we really weren't here."
"Mmm. Might be true."
"But then Rachel Maddow? She came here and made everyone look at us. Mama I bet even famous people know about Flint now! Mama do you think President Obama knows about Flint?"
"Child, that is one thing I am sure of. I heard him talking about Flint. And he knows. But you know what I'm even more sure of?"
"What's that Mama?"
"I am really sure that Michelle Obama knows what happened here to us. And I am sure that she is mad. Really mad."
"Michelle Obama, she's like Rachel Maddow. You know she's mad. But she still smiles. That's when she gets kinda scary like you don't want to mess with her. It's like they have a smile that says, 'Pay attention. Time to get to work. In fact . . .'
And I laughed. First time I'd laughed in awhile. Maybe that laugh started while I was sitting in the stands with my neighbors being part of the TV show. I grew up here in Flint. Never lived anywhere else. Sometimes back when the water first started turning brown, I don't remember when it was but it was a while ago, sometime back then, I pretty much stopped smiling. Stopped laughing. Not too hard to figure out why. It was cause I did not know how me and my baby were supposed to make it without water. We have lived making it without lots of things for most of my time. But even my parents never had their water stolen from them. Not by some kinda tornado or flood or something. But stolen by men. Not much to investigate there. Everyone knows who did it. Everyone knows they really should go to jail for what they did to us. But that's for later. Now we need new pipes. Like our Mayor said. We need the water pipes now so our babies can never have to touch the poison those men sent flowing into our houses.
"Mama, you laughing! Why you laughing?"
"I am laughing cause I know what you are gonna say. You're gonna say that I get that same kinda smile as Michelle Obama and Rachel Maddow. That smile that says, 'Pay attention. It's time to get to work!'
"That is what I was gonna say. Mama something changed since Rachel Maddow came here. We still got no water. But now I feel like we will! It feels like when she came here, we didn't just see her. It feels like she saw us!
"Yolanda you could be right."
"See! Maybe that's the start of me growing up to be like Rachel Maddow! Mama do you think I could be like her?"
And I smiled at my baby and said, "Honey I think you could."