I can’t exactly recall when I developed this fear. I don’t remember ever seeing one in the wild. I’m sure I have seen one at a zoo or an aviary but I don’t have any vivid memories of that either. So, I was grasping for words when my son noticed fear creep over my face about bald eagles. With his four-year-old grip on the book about predators, he shot me an anime eyes look of concern. “It’s just a bald eagle, mommy.” I knew. I just wasn’t as delighted by this bird as I am virtually any other. Even the roadrunner is fascinating to me. And that thing eats rattlesnakes! I know what it is. I don’t really need to grapple with language. I just can’t bring myself to add this to the list of things I have to put on the list of race in America chats I must have with my pre-schooler who loves animals.
From a young age, I saw eagle insignias and symbols as symbols of hatred. Sometimes they were emblazoned above Hollywood Nazi images. Sometimes they were flying high above a flag on a truck that bore other signals of my inferiority. Sometimes they accompanied cold stares. Sometimes they accompanied t-shirts with bars and stars on them. In my mind eagles, and bald eagles in particular, became a symbol of white supremacy and American exceptionalism. I think the only one I could stomach was the one on a popular apparel brand. Still, I felt suspicious looking at the symbol on my daughters’ jeans. I thought “is there a hidden message I’m missing?” The answer is yes and no. The messaging is not hidden at all. The bird serves as the national symbol for the United States. But yes, the associations are somewhat more covert. The bald eagle has a menacing glare and bright white head. It’s a massive bird with soaring wings and talons that are often rendered in full-on catch you and eat you mode.
When my son and I were reading about them, all the heraldry flickered through my memory and surrounded me like gnats on a sticky day. Then something cleared the air for me. My son asked me to look up some real pictures of them for him. The wonder in his voice and fascination with the creatures gave me pause. He traced his finger down a gorgeous chocolatey feather with an iridescent glint bouncing back sunlight. In his eyes, the raptor was nothing short of brown and beautiful. He was quick to let me know that young bald eagles are typically all brown or at least mostly brown. Brown like him. This shifted my perspective as did my reading about the time the bald eagle population spent on the endangered species list. Not nationalized and not menacing brown and trying their best to survive in a hostile world. They were celebrated and used everywhere in American popular culture but systematically driven to endangerment by hunting and destruction in American reality. We have stopped that. We were able to remove them from the danger zone of extinction. I am not equating the ongoing need for anti-racist work and action with the activism done on behalf of eagles. I’m just sharing something that inspired me to have a bit of hope today. I hope the eagle’s nests continue to yield little ones for my son to marvel at and I hope this place where I am raising him and his sisters can value their lives and their contributions to society as much as we have come to value that of the bald eagle.