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Transcript: 627: Suitable for Children


627: Suitable for Children

Originally aired Oct 6, 2017

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Ira Glass

There's a story my mom used to like to tell. My older sister Randi was eight or so when this happened. Something came up at school that Randi didn't understand, and she came home and she asked my mom, where do babies come from? And my mom just felt like, great. This is great. She's bringing this up on her own. I don't have to sit her down in some awkward birds and bees conversation someday. We can get this out of the way now, when she's young. And she's really excited to tell her this stuff.

And she explains the whole thing, where babies come from, what sex is. And the way my mom always used to tell this story, she said that she felt like, I am doing such a good job here. I am such a good mom today. And at the end of it, she asked Randi, OK, so that's everything. Do you have any questions? And then Randi pauses for a long moment and she asks, can birds really fly?

And my mom realizes, of course, oh, she was not ready. She absorbed nothing. And sure enough, like a year passes and Randi comes back to her-- I don't remember why-- and asks her again, where do babies come from? And it's like the first time never happened. She remembered none of it.

And I think of that story sometimes when there are debates over what is suitable for children. An I think there's a whole category of things that kids protect themselves from, like they just don't want to engage with that stuff. Adults don't need to keep them from it. But then there's other stuff, stuff that does seep into their world that they take to heart and they mull about and they make part of themselves. And the thing that's difficult is that it can be really hard to predict what those things are going to be.

Today on our program, things that kids hear, things they see, things that happen to them that affect them in ways that they only understand later as adults. Like for instance, what it means to give little black kids toys that celebrate the Confederacy, or to drag teenage boys into the desert to watch atomic bombs go off, or to send kids who should be in elementary school over the border into the United States alone. How do you even quantify exactly what that does to a person? Well, today, we try to figure that out.

From WBEZ Chicago, is This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. Stars & Bars & Bars.

Ira Glass

Act One, Stars & Bars & Bars.

We got the idea for this week's show from this thing that happened to one of our producers, Neil Drumming, a realization that he came to in adulthood about a TV show that he'd watched as a kid. Here's Neil.

Neil Drumming

The hit TV show The Dukes of Hazzard ran from 1979 to 1985. It starred John Schneider and Tom Wopat as Bo and Luke Duke, to rakish good old boys trying to stay on the right side of the law in rural Georgia. But if you ask any man my age who was a fan of the show, The Dukes of Hazzard's true star was a bright orange 1969 Dodge Charger nicknamed the General Lee. Every week on CBS, the General Lee would roar through country backroads, leaping over virtually everything, defying the laws of physics, and blowing little boys' minds across America.

Breeze Brewin

I had a General Lee.

Neil Drumming

In like a Matchbox or Hot Wheels?

Breeze Brewin

No, I had a straight-up-- like the plastic joint.

Neil Drumming

Oh, OK. Like a big-sized one.

Breeze Brewin

A big-sized one. You know, go around, drive on your dad's foot and he'd get angry. That size.

Neil Drumming

This is one of my favorite rappers, Breeze Brewin. He's from the Bronx. Like me, he watched The Dukes of Hazzard faithfully as a boy. We both had Dukes of Hazzard lunchboxes. And we were both proud owners of miniature versions of the General Lee. Back then, it was probably one of the most coveted toys any kid in either of our neighborhoods could possess.

Neil Drumming

I remember the bully of the neighborhood stole mine and tried to pretend it was his.

Breeze Brewin

I hate when that happens. This is mine, right? I'm like, no, it's definitely not.

Neil Drumming

The General Lee was remarkable, not just because it was both fast and furious before that was a thing, but because its rooftop was emblazoned with the Confederate flag. As kids, black kids, pushing our mini American muscle along the carpets and concrete of New York City, neither Breeze nor I saw anything bothersome about that bold symbol up top. In fact, for us at the time, the rebel flag was just part of what made the car so damn cool.

Breeze Brewin

There was a kid in my neighborhood, Irish kid. He had a orange Dodge Challenger 440, no flag on the top. I remember a lot of us were like, damn, he needs to throw the flag on top of that bad boy.

Neil Drumming

Wait. It was a real car or it was a toy?

Breeze Brewin

No, he drove that bad boy. And you heard him coming down the block.

Neil Drumming

You were just like, that car would be dope.

Breeze Brewin

That car would be dope if he had that flag on that bad boy.

Neil Drumming

I got the idea to talk to Breeze about this because, in 2001, as part of his group the Juggaknots, he wrote and released a song called "Generally." It's spelled like the adverb, but a play on the name of the Duke's prized racer. I don't remember exactly when I heard the song, but by then it'd been over 15 years since The Dukes of Hazzard went off the air. I hadn't thought about the show or the car in ages.


I'm pretty sure that when I was in my 20s and heard "Generally," well, that was the first time I put two and two together and realized, oh wait. One of my favorite toys growing up actually bore an unabashed affront to my humanity and freedom. The flag on the roof, how the hell did I miss that?

Listening to the song again recently, I thought maybe it was about Breeze himself coming to that same realization. We are the same age, after all. But when he and I met to talk about it, Breeze said he'd recognize the inherent put-down in the General Lee's paint job by the time he was in high school. He was actually inspired to write "Generally" a few years later, after he'd had kids of his own.

One day, he took them on a shopping trip.

Breeze Brewin

I was literally in Toys "R" Us, probably on Gun Hill Road, near Co-op City, or the one in Yonkers, on Central Ave, and kids losing their shh, looking for toys and me questioning, like, what's up with these toys? And then I see the General Lee.

Neil Drumming

The iconic roadster was back on the shelves, being pushed on a new generation to promote some TV movie relaunch.

Neil Drumming

Do you remember it?

Breeze Brewin

What, the song?

Neil Drumming


Breeze Brewin

Yeah, definitely.

Neil Drumming

Can you take me through it?

Breeze Brewin

You want bars?

Neil Drumming

Yeah, man.

Breeze Brewin

Oh, man. It's tough. I'm 43. You're driving me batty. Daddy survive and be seeming slimmin' screaming women. Could the sound be more annoying?

Neil Drumming

The thing I love about Breeze is that he writes these dense, clever, impressionistic rhymes that sound like words tumbling down stairs. In this first verse, he's telling the story of that trip to Toys "R" Us, building the scene of a frustrated parent overwhelmed by toys and demanding children.

Breeze Brewin

Baggin' all these whack toys. Try to lack noise. Peace and quiet. Cease a riot constructively, then what I see, the General Lee.

And I said, you know what? I need to explore this idea. Why did they think that was OK? Why did they think that they can show this image and make us champion that image? Why is it OK to make our pain this pop icon? Why was it OK? I just wanted to attack it, that you would have the audacity to do that. I was just thinking, not with my kids.

Neil Drumming

So then there's the chorus after that, right?

Breeze Brewin

Yeah. So the chorus is like, the General Lee, representin' for your clan. The General Lee, for real, somebody pulled a fast one. The General Lee, now I'm starting to overstand. The General Lee wasn't the first. Won't be the last one.

Neil Drumming

I love that line, "Somebody pulled a fast one," just because it's nice. It's like, the car is fast. It's a really nice line.

Breeze Brewin

I appreciate that.

Neil Drumming

That's very slick.

Breeze Brewin

I mean, it's pretty blatant. It's the hoodwinking. They got over, you know? They normalized it, for better or for worse. It's a huge screw you. It's like, we're going to do this. You're not going to say nothing. We're going to put it on prime time TV. We're going to put it in Toys "R" Us. In fact, you're going to buy it. In the song, I say, "But sell my L. Sell my loss."

Neil Drumming

Of course, at seven, eight, nine years old, it wasn't Breeze and I controlling the TV remote or spending our hard-earned cash. It was ultimately our parents who let us watch the show and bought us the toys. Considering that both of my parents were born and raised in rural South Carolina and experienced chilling racism firsthand, you'd think they would have objected to the Dukes and their General Lee. But they didn't.

Breeze's parents, who are from the Caribbean, they didn't either. He has a theory as to what our parents were thinking.

Breeze Brewin

I think it's a lot about, I don't want my kids to be left out. I don't want my kids to be weird. It was a number-one show. So it was like, why deny them that?

Neil Drumming

OK. This is important. On TV, the doors on the General Lee were welded shut, as is common with a lot of stock race cars. So Bo and Luke Duke were constantly hopping through the windows. It was the only way in or out of the car. Here's Breeze with the song's final verse.

Breeze Brewin

Disturbable to see what we was murdered to when it coulda, shoulda been a convertible. I started off with like, you know what? You's constantly jumping in and out of the windows. It would have made more sense and been more practical to have been a convertible. Just cut the top off. Chop the top off. But you needed it. You needed the top of the car. You needed to show that image because that's the pimpery. That's the game. I get it. Y'all wanted to see it. Here it is.

Neil Drumming

OK. Take me through that verse.

Breeze Brewin

Disturbable to see what we was murdered to when it coulda, shoulda been a convertible. See that they're climbin' through the windows and go make better time and do the pro hoppin', but no stopping commercial use. The issue, they get you with decals. Match the lunchbox, pajamas. You wanna snatch the bunch. Lock that be wild, generally praise the stuff, crave the stuff, slaves to stuff. Get it for me, begging like, please.

So now, with that, I talked about how I would beg my parents for it. But then it's just like sporting the pain. You know what I mean? Like, you were sporting my pain and it's literally a comedy. Sportin' the pain. Sure was a brainwashed kid, but never had a fad with rockin' a swastika. Of course, Nazi. But that I'd rather not see. The closest that I got be [INAUDIBLE] Haile Selassie. But sell my L, see it's nothing than this double standard. Trouble, be it something candid or this subtle. Gun the flag down. What? No hesitatin'. Gutter regulation. [BLEEP] the legislation. But now some of y'all walking around like, for shame, word, as I wonder what the murderers of James Byrd thought about the General Lee.

Neil Drumming

In 1998, James Byrd, a black man in Texas, was badly beaten and pissed on by three white supremacists. The men then chained Byrd by his ankles to a pickup truck and dragged him over asphalt for roughly three miles. Byrd died when his head and arm were severed from his body. The white supremacists, who sported various Nazi and Confederate symbols, dumped Byrd's mutilated body near a black church. This atrocity was heavy on Breeze's mind when he wrote "Generally," which is why the last verse ends in anger. As he says, "Gun the flag down. No hesitating."

Breeze Brewin

I kind of was like, I know some people are going to be like, Breeze, you're wilin'. You're talking about shooting down a flag. You should go through the right channels. There's legislation.

But I'm like, word, well, what do the murderers of James Byrd think about the General Lee? You know what I mean? It's just like, at some point, we gotta kill your idols. We gotta burn your idols.

Neil Drumming

So you told me that you've been thinking about this song a lot lately.

Breeze Brewin

Literally, like a week before you called, I was listening to the song and I almost got a little choked up. Because, like, god damn, you know what I mean? It's like, 16 years later, why is it still an issue? I'd like to think, come on. You're better than that now, America.


Neil Drumming

That said, I can't help but harbor a little bit of nostalgia for the General Lee. Not so much for the thing itself, but for what it represents for me, a time before I could possibly recognize the insidiousness of its design, before I really understood its origins or how that history has shaped me and the people I care about, back when all I really had to worry about was who had the coolest toy on the block.

Ira Glass

Neil Drumming is one of the producers of our program.

Joralen Maulbin

I honestly believe they should've changed the name Robert E. Lee High School a very long time ago, probably after, you know, '90s, early 2000s.

Ira Glass

That's Joralen Maulbin. She's 16, a member of the drill team at Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler, Texas. A black girl with a blonde Afro, which, last Friday, was tucked under a white cowgirl hat, part of her drill team uniform. She talked to our producer B.A. Parker.

Joralen Maulbin

I love being on this team. I love the girls who are on here. But you know, the history is still there at the back of my mind, and I know a lot of it doesn't really bother that many people. But it's still something that I find that gets to me.

Ira Glass

That history is that Robert E. Lee High School was founded in 1958, four years after Brown vs. Board of Education as a place for white students to go to avoid integration. The town gave it the name Robert E. Lee as a way to give the finger to the civil rights movement. The school prided itself on having this massive Confederate flag, allegedly the second largest Confederate flag in the world. It took 20 people to carry it.

Then in the 1970s, the courts ordered the town to integrate the high school. These days, 60% of the school was black and Latino, though in Tyler, it is still referred to as the white high school. When they announce the name of the school at the beginning of games, Joralen says she just kind of blocks it out. She found out about the school's history a little while ago.

Joralen Maulbin

I learned this last year, I believe, because we have memory books, and it dates back all the way to when Lee first opened. We were flipping through one of the very first ones and that was when I saw the uniforms and all the traditions that they used to have. The Southern Belle Drill Team and our Belle Guards, they were called the Rebels and the Rebelettes, and they did wear confederate uniform style clothing and things like that. And they proudly displayed their confederate flag. And it just shocked me. And all I could think about was, what? Like, for real? Y'all are kidding me right now.

B.a. Parker

Do you have to sing the school song?

Joralen Maulbin

They try to make us learn it, but I never memorized it.

Ira Glass

The school song starts with the lyrics, "Robert E. Lee, we raise our voices in praise of your name. May honor and glory e'er guide you to fame."

B.a. Parker

Have you ever looked at the lyrics of it?

Joralen Maulbin

I've looked at the lyrics, which is why I haven't tried to memorize it.

B.a. Parker

Would you ever sing it?

Joralen Maulbin

Never in my life. Never.

Ira Glass

There's one lyric in the school song, "Our memories will bind us to Robert E. Lee." That part definitely seems true.



Act Two. History is Not a Toy.

Ira Glass

Act Two, History is Not a Toy.

So there are over 100 public schools around the country named after white Confederate heroes and over 700 monuments and statues memorializing the Confederacy in public places. Those numbers come from a survey done in 2016 by the Southern Poverty Law Center. But as people have noted in the last few months, with all this commemoration of the white experience of life in the South before and during the Civil War, there's not that much out there memorializing the black experience. One of the few places is in Baltimore.

I was surprised to learn it was there. I grew up in Baltimore. And OK, this place came into existence after I moved away, but I am back in Baltimore regularly to see family. And Baltimore is segregated enough that I never heard of it till B.A. Parker, our producer who also grew up in Baltimore, told me about it. Here she is.

B.a. Parker

Every black kid in Baltimore knows this place. Most of us went there on field trips when we were in school or were taken there by an earnest parent. It's called the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum. That's great blacks, and they're rendered in wax. It's the first black history wax museum in the country. I first went there on a field trip in the third grade. And for better or worse, it's been stuck in my memory ever since. To be honest, it scared the [BLEEP] out of me. It's violent and graphic and unlike any other museum I've ever been to. And its main clientele was children.

Even today, I can talk to anybody who grew up black and in Baltimore, and if you bring up the Blacks in Wax, they'll be like, yeah, that was messed up, right? Texting with friends and family about this last week, I got messages like, "I had nightmares," and "I started to tear up," and "I can still see it in my head." I wanted to go back to the museum to see if it was as bad as I remembered.

B.a. Parker

There's a crowd of people from a bus coming in.

Sean Cole

There's a couple of kids.

B.a. Parker

So I went back there recently with my colleague, Sean Cole. The museum itself is an old fire station and three row houses fused into one building. In the lobby, the wax figures of W.E.B Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson are there to greet you. Next to the ticket booth is a figure of the great military general Hannibal riding a massive elephant, and up overhead is the first black female pilot, Bessie Coleman.

Sean Cole

Oh, I didn't even see there's an airplane above us.

B.a. Parker

There is an airplane above us with a cool chick in it with her shades on, and she's taking no one's mess.

The lobby's all inspiring and stuff, but then you buy your ticket and actually enter the museum. Then everything changes. A quick warning. There's a lot of violence of all sorts in what follows. It might not be for everyone.

When you step inside the museum, it's dark. Immediately to the right, there's a wax figure of a slave. He's on his knees, his teeth knocked out, and he's being held down by two white slavers who pull his head back. They've shoved a long funnel into his mouth and are pouring gruel through it, force-feeding him. Brown gruel spills out of his mouth. As an act of rebellion, some slaves wouldn't eat, so the slavers made them. This is the very first thing you see.

And then to the left is one of the museum's signature attractions.

B.a. Parker

All right. So do you want to go into the slave ship?

They've built a facsimile of a slave ship into the museum. It's not that big, about the size of a large trailer, but when I was eight, it seemed enormous. Back then, walking down to the hold below was like walking onto an amusement park ride, only the opposite of fun.

At the entrance, there are two white wax slave merchants, both impeccably dressed. One sits behind a desk. It used to be that, when you stepped onto the stairs, a recording would play, one of the merchants announcing, "New load of slaves coming aboard now." At eight, I understood. They meant me. I was supposed to be a new slave. I burst into tears. At first, I refused to go all the way down into the ship. But the other kids did it, so I did it, too.

And what I saw when I got to the bottom of the steps was what I was seeing now. Another vicious-looking white man.

B.a. Parker

And he's branding a slave woman who has a chain around her neck and placing the brand on her shoulder. And she's fully nude and covered in blood. Jeez. It's just pure agony's on her face, and he looks like he's full of hate and anger and is just ready to torture someone. None of this has changed.

Sean Cole

There's collections on shelves of just parts of bodies bloodied.

B.a. Parker

Being eaten by rats. That should be noted. There's one below that's dismembered and being eaten by rats.

The museum goes for an intense realism. It doesn't leave anything out. It's over the top in a way that's almost campy. This is probably because the wax figures all were made in the 1970s.

The slavers have mutton chops. A few of the slaves look more like they're from Good Times than from Roots. But the scenes are always based on documented atrocities.

At a certain point in the slave ship, I turn around and I see that the entire wall behind me is one huge mirror. And then I see the chained-up slaves and I'm forced to look at myself, and it comes home to me in an instant that these people are my ancestors. Without the torture, without the sorrow, without the misery that they endured during the Middle Passage, there would be no me.

Sean Cole

So what do you remember from when you were a kid and seeing this?

B.a. Parker

I remember being confused and being scared. The fact that it's someone who's my skin, my-- you don't have the language for it, but it is a pause and reflect. And your eyes grow wide, and you're trying to understand what it means. I'm sorry. I just got distracted by them trying to shove the guy in the oven. Sorry.

Sean Cole

What? What?

B.a. Parker

No, that's the Underground Railroad. That's a fake oven.

Sean Cole

Oh, OK.

B.a. Parker

There was an exhibit behind Sean of a white man helping this runaway slave escape through an oven with a door in the back, allowing him to slip through from one house to another and another. As a kid, it wasn't like I was unfamiliar with black history. By the third grade, I'd already been to the plantation in North Carolina where my ancestors were sold. I was obsessed with Thurgood Marshall. I wanted to be him. I wanted to marry him. Everything.

And my elementary school made such a big deal about Martin Luther King every year. And I once got to play one of Coretta Scott King's bridesmaids in an assembly. But it was exactly that, the elementary school version of black history-- Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, the coloring book of greatest hits, not the brutal reality.

But none of this compares to what you see in the museum's basement. The basement is so intense that the museum has posted a sign outside of it warning that you shouldn't go into it until you're at least 12. Under 16, you need a chaperone. We headed there, past Henry Box Brown, the slave who mailed himself to freedom in a box. When I was a kid, he'd pop out and wave but it startled too many kids and they don't do that anymore. We walked past Henry to the top of the basement stairs.

B.a. Parker

All right. So we're going to go downstairs to the lynching exhibit.

I didn't see the lynching exhibit when I was eight. I saw it on a second field trip when I was a freshman in high school. I still don't think I was ready. I don't think I was ready now.

It starts off when you're still walking down the stairs, with historical photos and newspaper clippings of actual lynchings as recent as 1998. Black people hanging from trees, set on fire, dragged by trucks. Photos of the dead surrounded by crowds of white spectators all decked out in their Sunday best, smiling little girls with ribbons in their hair looking at the camera, some with pride, a man hanging from a tree behind them. Then at the bottom of the stairs, as soon as you round the corner.

B.a. Parker

All right. So.

Sean Cole

Oh, boy.

B.a. Parker


Sean Cole


B.a. Parker

Um. Do you want me to descr--

Sean Cole

Oh, my god.

B.a. Parker

Do you want me to describe what's happening here?

In front of us was a husband and wife named Hayes and Mary Turner. They lived in Georgia. Back in 1918, a local black man had killed a plantation owner. And when the sheriff's office went hunting for the killer, they and a mob lynched practically every other black man in their path. Hayes Turner was one of the casualties in that massacre. A warning, this gets especially graphic.

Just as I was about to describe what happened next to Sean, the museum's educator, Imani Haynes, walked in, and I was grateful she did because she took over.

Imani Haynes

He had nothing to do with the situation, and unfortunately he was lynched. Afterwards, he was castrated. So what you're seeing in this scene in the exhibit is Turner lynched. He is wearing overalls. And we have his overalls opened up in his private region, blood dripping down.

B.a. Parker

Next to Hayes is his wife, Mary. After he was lynched, Mary bravely went seeking justice for her husband. She was eight months pregnant at the time. They lynched her, too.

In the museum exhibit, she's hanging from the neck, but in real life, they actually hanged her by her feet, set her on fire, sliced her stomach open, and pulled out her baby, which was still alive. That's what's depicted in wax. Then they stomped on its head.

The sign on the wall adds to the story that haunted me. It's also the only part that historians can't fully verify. It reads, "Walter White, describing the lynching of Mary Turner and her husband Hayes Turner, depicted in this scene, said that it was too horrible to describe the mob taking the time to sew two cats in Mrs. Turner's stomach and making bets as to which one would climb out first."

To the left of the Turners' bodies is a mantelpiece with souvenir jars. Sometimes the lynchers would keep pieces of their victims. In these jars were supposed to be the ears, locks of hair, and genitalia of black people, all next to a kid's baseball trophy. I'm not sure why that's there except to underscore the point that these body parts are trophies, too. It's a difficult room to process.

When I saw this at 14, some of my classmates didn't even know how to react. A few of them stoic, others awkwardly deflecting with, yo. I remember feeling angry because you couldn't escape it. There are signs around the room that anticipate your distress. They say, "Identify with the victims and martyrs and never forget them. But do not get bitter or despondent over what they endured."

Dr. Joanne Martin founded the museum with her husband Elmer in 1983, and when I told her all the kids in my third grade were crying and freaking out and holding hands, she was fully aware that happens. In fact, it's intentional.

Joanne Martin

For me, that's the point. When they leave shaken, when they leave crying-- and that's often the reaction-- I have no problem with those tears. What people are going to talk about years later is going to be our slave ship. And they are going to say, I never forgot your lynching exhibit.

And everything else, it seems like a movie, if you don't have a sense of exactly what people were fighting against. If you think that Rosa Parks, that what she did had something to do with the seat on the bus and you don't understand that that act was going to get her jailed, but it could have gotten her lynched, as well.

B.a. Parker

When Joanne and her husband founded the museum, they set out to create something they wished existed in the world, a museum that celebrated and preserved black history, created by black people for black people in a majority black city. They were professors at historically black universities in Baltimore, Elmer at Morgan State and Joanne at Coppin. But they wanted to reach more than just the academic class.

When they visited a wax museum in St. Augustine, Florida, they thought, yeah, wax figures. That's the way to go. They had money saved for a house but instead put it towards wax figures. It still wasn't enough. Wax figures are absurdly expensive-- $4,500 then, but tens of thousands of dollars now. They ended up with their first four black history figures-- Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Nat Turner, and Mary McLeod Bethune.

Elmer and Joanne would tour around with their quartet of wax figures at different schools, in churches, and expos.

Joanne Martin

We just would take the figures, set them up as exhibits, throw them into my Pontiac, take them back home to our two bedroom apartment. And so if you looked into the guest bedroom of our two bedroom apartment, you would have found Mary McLeod Bethune's head on the dresser and Frederick Douglass' parts over in a corner and so forth. And I just gave him an ultimatum. Mary McLeod Bethune has got to go. You've got to find a place for Mary McLeod Bethune.

B.a. Parker

Dr. Martin told me they're thinking of expanding the museum and making it more child-friendly, toning down the violence. Which surprised me. It doesn't seem like her mission at all, and it would only make sense if our history were a little more child-friendly, which it definitely isn't.

The four little girls killed in the 1963 church bombing in Alabama, they were all 14 and younger. The kids who marched in Birmingham's Children's Crusade were beaten and had dogs sicced on them. They were as young as 12. And Emmett Till was 14. He has a memorial in the lynching room, but he wouldn't even be allowed to go down there without a chaperone.

Even though the museum upset me, I respect it. It got through to me. Even as an adult watching right-wing pundits discuss the greatness of America, I still think of Mary Turner and her baby. When I left the museum, I had the same feeling I did as a kid, like I was in on a secret about what the country was really like-- like all of America's truths were in a basement on North Avenue.

Ira Glass

B.A. Parker is one of the producers of our program. Coming up, 40 questions that completely determine a small child's fate. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, Suitable for Children, stories about the random stuff that kids encounter that sticks with them for the rest of their lives, for good or for bad.

Act Three. The Questionnaire.

Ira Glass

We've arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, The Questionnaire.

Of course, the stuff that most affects children is not what they see in museums or what they see on television or what toys they play with. It's the stuff they go through in their lives. Over the last few years, you probably heard there's been a flood of kids who've arrived in the United States by themselves, with no adults at all. Some of these kids are teenagers. Some are a lot younger. How are they going to look back on that experience someday? What's it going to do to them?

The way it goes once they come to the country, if they turn themselves over to border patrol, they're put into this notoriously cold detention center called the icebox. Then they go to a temporary shelter and they start looking for their parents or relatives in the States to sponsor them. If they find them, they move in with the sponsors, and a few weeks or months later, they'll get a notice to appear in immigration court.

So they go to immigration court and then a judge, working with a translator, tells them that they have the right to an attorney, but the government isn't going to pay for an attorney. In other words, it's the kids' responsibility to find and pay for a lawyer or to find a pro bono lawyer. And organizations have sprung up to help with this, but there aren't enough lawyers to go around for all the kids.

For about a year and a half, Valeria Luiselli observed part of this process firsthand.

Valeria Luiselli

This is how it starts. It's April 2015 and the boy and I are seated at one end of a long mahogany table. He's 16 years old from Honduras.

I ask him, why did you come to the United States? It's the first question I ask all of the children in immigration court. My task there is a simple one.

I interview children the US government is trying to deport. I ask questions following a questionnaire, and the child answers them. I translate their stories from Spanish into English.

The questionnaire was put together by a coalition of lawyers to help them figure out how to build a case. A case for the child to stay in the country. I'm not a lawyer. I'm just a volunteer.

I started doing this kind of work when an immigration lawyer mentioned to me that the courts needed interpreters. She was actually my own immigration lawyer. I'm from Mexico. And at the time, I was waiting for my green card to be either granted or denied.

The green card questionnaire is nothing like the intake questionnaire for unaccompanied minors. When you apply for a green card, you have to answer things like, do you intend to practice polygamy? And are you a member of the Communist Party? There's something almost innocent in the green card application's visions of the future and its possible threats.

The intake questionnaire for undocumented children, on the other hand, reveals a colder, more cynical and brutal reality. As you make your way down its 40 questions, it's impossible not to feel that the world has become a more [BLEEP] up place than anyone could have ever imagined.

The first two questions at the top of the questionnaire are, where is the child's mother? Where is the child's father? The spaces after these questions often remain blank. All the children I interview come without their fathers and without their mothers, and many of them don't even know where their parents are.

Question 2, when did you enter the United States? Most children don't know the exact date. They smile and say, last year, or a few months ago, or simply, I don't know.

3 and 4, what countries did you pass through? How did you travel here? To the first question, almost everyone immediately answers Mexico, and some also list Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

To the second question, with pride and horror, many say, I came on La Bestia, which literally means The Beast and refers to the freight trains that cross Mexico, on top of which many of these children have ridden. Thousands of people have died or been gravely injured aboard La Bestia, either because of its derailments or by falling off during the night, or by falling into the hands of policemen, thieves, and narcos. But people continue to take the risk because there's no other route to take if you cannot pay.

The room where I ask these questions is in a foreboding building at 26 Federal Plaza in downtown Manhattan. Inside, the building branches into hallways, offices, courtrooms, and waiting rooms. There are few signs and few people you can ask for assistance or directions, so it's easy to get lost.

The screening room on the 12th floor has two large mahogany tables at which the children, lawyers, and interpreter sit for the interviews. Crayons and pads of paper are set out at the ends of the tables to entertain the younger kids. I have no control over the type of legal assistance the child will receive. I just listen to their stories in Spanish and note their answers in English.

It's important to record even the most minor details from each story, because a good lawyer can use them to strengthen a case in ways it might not have been evident to an interpreter. She swam across the river. She comes from San Pedro Sula. She comes from Tegucigalpa. She comes from Guatemala City.

He has not ever met his father. Yes, she has met her mother, but she doesn't remember the last time she saw her. He doesn't know if she abandoned him.

No, my father didn't send money at all. I worked in the fields. MS-13 shot my sister. She died. Yes, my uncle hit me often. No, my grandmother never hit us.

If the child answers the questionnaire correctly, he or she is more likely to have a strong case, which will increase the child's chances of being placed with a pro bono attorney. An answer is correct if it provides an attorney with a legal argument for the child to stay in the US. So in the warped world of immigration, a correct answer is when, for example, a girl reveals that her father is an alcoholic who physically or sexually abused her, or when a boy reports that he was beaten repeatedly by gang members and has the scars to prove it.

Answers like that may open doors to potential immigration relief and eventually legal status in the US. But when children don't have enough battle wounds to show, they may not have any way to successfully defend their case and will most likely be removed back to their home country.

The little girls are five and seven years old, and they're from a small village in Guatemala. We sit together at the mahogany table, and their mother observes from one of the benches in the back. The younger girl concentrates on her coloring book, a crayon in her right hand. The older one has her hands crossed as an adult might. Spanish is their second language. She's a little shy, but tries to be clear and precise in her answers.

Why did you come to the United States? I don't know. Where did you cross the border? I don't know. Texas? Arizona? Yes. Texas, Arizona.

How did you travel here? A man brought us. A coyote? No, a man.

When the younger girl turned two, their mother left them under their grandmother's care. She crossed two national borders without documents and settled in Long Island, where she had a cousin. The girls talk to their mother on the telephone, hearing stories about snow falling and traffic jams, and later, about their mother's new husband and their new baby brother.

Four years went by. One day, their grandmother told them that, in a few days, a man was going to come for them, a man who would help them get back to their mother. She told them that it would be a long trip, but that he would keep them safe.

The day before the girls left, their grandmother sewed a 10-digit telephone number on the collars of their dresses. She told them they should never take these dresses off, not even to sleep, and as soon as they reached America and met the first American policeman, they should show the inside of the dress's collar to him. He would then dial the number and let them speak to their mother. The rest would follow.

The rest did follow. They made it to the border and were detained in the icebox. They said they were colder in there than they had ever been. After that, they went to a shelter.

And a few weeks later, they were put on a plane and flown to JFK, where their mother, baby brother, and stepfather were waiting for them. Some weeks later, they received the notice to appear. These girls are so young that, in addition to translating from one language to another, I need to reconfigure the questions, shift them from the language of adults to the language of children.

27, 28, 29, did you work in your home country? What sort of work did you do? How many hours did you work each day? I reword, interpret.

What kinds of things did you do with your grandmother? We played. But besides playing? Nothing.

Did you work? Yes. What did you do? I don't remember.

We go on to questions 30 31, 32, and 33. The older girl answers them while the little one undresses a crayon and scratches its trunk with her fingernail.

Did you ever get in trouble at home when you lived in your home country? No. Were you punished if you did something wrong? No.

How often were you punished? Never. Did you or anyone in your family have an illness that required special attention? What?

The girl's answers aren't really working. They aren't working in their favor, that is. What I need to hear, though I don't want to hear it, was that they had been doing hard labor, labor that put them in danger, that they were being exploited, abused, punished. If their answers don't align with what the law considers reason enough for the right to stay, the only possible ending to their story is going to be a deportation order.

The girls are so young that, even if they had a story that secured legal intervention in their favor, they didn't know the words necessary to tell it. For children of that age, telling a story in a second language translated to a third, a round and convincing story that successfully inserts them into legal proceedings working up to their defense, is practically impossible. It's going to be very hard with the answers I'm getting to even find them a lawyer willing to take their case.

The first person I ever asked these questions to was a boy from Honduras, age 16. Let's call him Manu. Why did you come to the United States, I begin. He says nothing and looks at me and shrugs a little. I reassure him. I'm no policewoman. I'm no official anyone. I'm not even a lawyer. I'm also not a gringa, you know. In fact, I can't help you at all.

So why are you here, then? I'm just here to translate for you. And what are you? I'm a chilanga. I'm a catracho, he says.

So we were enemies. And anyway, he's right. I'm from Mexico City, and he's from Honduras.

Yeah, I say, but only enemies in soccer, and I suck at soccer, anyway, so you've already scored five goals against me. He smiles, perhaps almost laughs. I haven't won his trust, but at least I have his attention.

We proceed slowly and hesitantly. Although I try to convey my words neutrally, every question seems to either embarrass or annoy him. He answers in short sentences, sometimes only silent shrugs.

No, he had never met his father. No, he did not live with his mother in his home country. He had met her, yes, but she came and went as she pleased. She liked the streets, perhaps.

He doesn't like talking about her. He grew up with his grandmother, but she died a few months ago. His aunt is sitting in the back of the courtroom.

How do you like living with your aunt? He likes her. But even though she's family, he's never really known her. She had always been just a voice inside the telephone.

I got to question 34, the one that often opens Pandora's box but also gives the interviewer the most valuable material for building the minor's case. Did you have trouble with gangs or crime in your home country? Manu pulls a folded piece of paper from his pocket. It's a copy of a police report he filed against gang members who waited for him outside his high school every day. He's held onto the report for years now, guarded it during his journey north like a passport or a talisman.

One day, some boys from the gang Barrio 18 waited outside school for Manu and his best friend. There were too many boys for Manu to fight. He and his friend walked away. The gang members followed.

Manu and his friend started running. They ran for a block or two until there was a gunshot. Manu turned around, still running, and saw that his friend had fallen. More gunshots followed, but he carried on running.

That night, he called his aunt in New York. They decided he needed to leave the country as soon as possible. He didn't attend his friend's funeral, didn't leave the house until the day the coyotaje arrived at the door.

Question 35. Any problems with the government in your home country? If so, what happened?

My government? Write this down in your notebook. They don't do [BLEEP] for anybody like me. That's the problem.

The next time I see Manu some months later, we're in a large room on floor 20-something of a corporate building next to South Ferry. We can see Staten Island from the window and, if we stretch our necks, the Statue of Liberty.

An organization has found him pro bono lawyers in one of the most powerful and expensive corporate firms in the city. Thanks to the material evidence Manu has of his statements-- the folded slip of paper-- he has a strong case. Stronger than usual, at least. They've called me in to continue translating for him.

We sit around a large, black, lacquered table. Manu, his aunt, three lawyers who speak only English, and me. We are offered coffee and snacks. Manu's aunt and I say yes to coffee. Manu says he'll have some of everything if it's free.

I translate this into, just a cookie, please. Thanks. That's very kind of you. Everything runs smoothly until the lawyers ask if Manu is still enrolled in school. He is, he says. At Hempstead High School on Long Island, but he wants to leave as soon as possible.

Why, they want to know. They remind him that, if he wants to be considered for any type of immigration relief, he has to be enrolled in school.

Hempstead High School, he says, is a hub for MS-13 and Barrio 18. Barrio 18 knocked two teeth out of his mouth. He's missing two on the top row. MS-13 boys saved him from losing the rest of them.

Suddenly, perhaps, we all suspect Manu and want to ask questions 36 and 37. Have you ever been a member of a gang? Any tattoos? No, he has no tattoos. And no, he's never been part of any gang. MS-13 in Hempstead wants him, but he's not going to fall for it.

Hundreds of thousands of kids have made the journey north. Tens of thousands have made it to the border, thousands to New York. Why did you come to the United States, we ask.

These children might ask a similar question. Why did we risk our lives to come to this country, where we find at school, in our new neighborhoods, the very things we are running from? Hempstead is a [BLEEP] hole full of pandilleros, Manu says, full of gang members, just like Tegucigalpa.

Ira Glass

Valeria Luiselli. This is an excerpt from her book Tell Me How It Ends. She asked that I mention here on the radio that MS-13 and Barrio 18 are gangs that did not originate in Central America or in Mexico. They're originally from Los Angeles.

Act Four. Rocket Boy.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Rocket Boy.

So we close our show today with somebody who was just a teenager when the army ordered him to report to Camp Desert Rock, which was next to the Atomic Energy Commission's bomb testing range in Nevada in 1955 to do something he was totally unprepared for, though I think maybe nobody could be prepared for. He was 19. His name is Paul Zimmer. He grew up to be a writer and a poet. He wrote this about what happened there. Paul was under the weather this week, so his account was read for us by an actor, John Conlee.

John Conlee

I'd paid attention. I'd seen the newsreels of Hiroshima, but just watching atomic bombs go off, I thought it was going to be kind of cool. I thought the story would be a way to interest girls.

They didn't tell us anything about what was going to happen, no initiation, no training. And the first time I had no idea what to expect. We travel by convoy and buses in the middle of the night to assemble at the site. We shuffled around in the cold, chain-smoking, till we were ordered into the trenches.

The trenches were long, thin slits in the desert earth, only wide enough for us to line up single file. We wore our steel helmets but were not issued earplugs, eye covers, or any protective clothing. Then they told us to get down.

I did not become fearful until the countdown was broadcast over the loudspeakers. And I only became terrified when I saw the flash, bright enough where, even with my eyes closed, I could see the bones of my hands over my eyes. A shock wave crashed over the trench top and we were ordered to stand up and look. We did and saw the mushroom cloud glowing purple and changing colors, rising, rising up.

I saw eight atomic blasts in total all on different days. Some devices dropped from airplanes. And some detonated from towers. There was an aerial burst and an underground blast, as well.

Sometimes during the shock wave, the trench sides caved in and buried us alive, so we had to claw our way out from our own graves. Some poor doggies in Jeeps were assigned to drive forward with Geiger counters and radio transmitters. When clearance was radioed back, we were ordered to walk forward into the blast area to bear witness. Far as I could tell, bearing witness was the entire reason we were there.

The largest bomb I witnessed was called Turk. It was almost three times the size of the Hiroshima bomb. It was dropped from a 500-foot tower, and our trenches were approximately 2 and 1/2 miles from ground zero. The blast yield was bigger than expected so the brass ordered us to retreat to the buses, where we swept each other off with kitchen brooms and hustled into our seats. The next morning, some of us were bussed back into the area in our fatigues and ordered to walk forward to bear witness.

There was still a heavy smell of ozone in the air. Vegetation shredded, scorched, torn out by the roots, and small animals and birds were scattered, dead, crippled, and blind, lurching about, some still trying to find a place to hide. We walked past crumpled vehicles and artillery pieces that had been placed in the open.

Mannequins staked out, khakis torn apart and melted grotesquely. Caged Cheshire pigs that had been dressed in specially-fitting army uniforms were dead or mangled, the latter still shrieking their last. Herds of blasted sheep and cows were mangled together, dead or moaning. Staged houses and barns were splintered and scattered.

We never had to write reports, nor did anyone ask us what we saw because it turned out they were looking at us. They wanted to see how young men reacted to an atomic blast. Apparently, that's all they wanted to do. I was not selected because I was special. I had no need for qualifications, aside from being a 19-year-old boy.

Over the years of America's open-air atomic bomb testing in Nevada, a few thousand army men participated. It does not matter anymore that only feeble attempts were made by the government to find out how these experiences affected us. Lately, I've begun to realize that I am one of the last people living in America to have actually experienced close-up explosions of atomic bombs. We're all dying now, and most of us are already dead.

I'm not aware of anyone's health being affected by the blasts, but some years ago I did check with the Veterans Administration about the possible radiation dosage I received during my participation. I was informed that the radiation film badge that I wore throughout my four months at Desert Rock had been burned up in a government warehouse records fire in St. Louis some decades ago.

Now in my late years, when I can conjure that brief, surreal period of my youth, I try in vain to make some sense of it. In some ways, it has become my responsibility to at least recollect and tell how that great flash and blast permanently reached into my very young mind and heart, how those enormous sounds deadened my ears and still ring in them to this day, how the crush of shock waves sometimes buried us alive in our trenches. I feel it my duty to tell the reckless absurdity of it all.

In August, our president threatened to unleash fire and fury like the world has never seen. We keep threatening to unleash these bombs, and so I suspect that one day we will. Most of us have forgotten what we are capable of. I have not.

Ira Glass

John Conlee, reading an essay by Paul Zimmer. A version of this essay was first published in The Georgia Review.



Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Jonathan Menjivar. People who put our show together include Susan Burton, Ben Calhoun, Zoe Chace, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Whitney Dangerfield, Neil Drumming, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, Mariya Karimjee, David Kestenbaum, Miki Meek, B.A. Parker, Robyn Semien, Lily Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Nancy Updike, and Diane Wu. Our senior producer is Brian Reed.


Our website, This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks, as always, to program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, I got a traffic ticket and I said to Torey, hey, gringa, can you represent me in court?

Valeria Luiselli

I'm not even a lawyer. I'm also not a gringa, you know.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.