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It’s a Part of Their Story

4 months ago

1436 words

Photo: Every once in a while, Google will really surprise me with a “Rediscover this day” picture that makes me go scrolling through my items. I had to really stop and stare at this one, which is dated 1/29/14. Major was newly 3. That means Minor was only a wee wittle one here. Longtime Readers will recall that we’d been a family separated for about 3 weeks while The Husband lived here and the boys and I lived at Mom’s. We were mere days into living here as a whole family and…. the house wasn’t even close to ready for us. What a mess. But now, four years later… wow. It’s a nice reminder that life is a slow build. Just keep swimming.

 

Last week, I picked up the boys from school for guitar practice, and Ursa Minor was fresh off of his first school lesson about Martin Luther King Jr. He blurted his newly learned information breathlessly, the language flowery and sterile:

“We learned about this guy, who was a king, but he wasn’t really a king, it’s just that his last name was King. And he was a great leader who knew that things in the world were unfair…. and, and, and… he was really brave and he changed the whole world because he fought for fairness and did some walking and, and, and… now things are better now.”

Ursa Major, who either didn’t get the same lesson in his first grade class, had totally forgotten the lesson he’d gotten in kindergarten, or probably a combination of both, leaned in and listened to Minor’s story with acute interest, the entire thing being breaking news to him. He asked clarifying questions and everything.

We were in the middle of the school parking lot and… I wasn’t really sure how I wanted to go about untangling, reworking… Former history teacher that I am, I had to stop and swallow. Don’t melt their faces off… don’t blow their minds too much.

And honestly… while “avoiding” isn’t quite the word I’m looking for… I’ve really been dreading the start of these lessons. We’ve spoken about Martin Luther King Jr. in this house, of course, and Black History has been part of their at-home life curriculum. I’ve read them stories, introduced them to many a historical figure…

But I have been really doing my best to tell them all the reasons why their Black half is beautiful and talented and resilient… showing them exactly what they get from the Black side of their DNA. I’ve been making space for their sense of self, their internal pride, their strong foundations… without introducing the oppression. They aren’t ready. We’re just not there yet.

And I realize that this is a fraught strategy. Eventually, we will have to confront history. They will have to learn the truth about the dichotomy of their makeup: half oppressed, half oppressor. They will have to learn how the world sees them now. How the world will see them later. What they will have to know in order to survive well into adulthood. What they will have do in order to honor the past while helping the future. They are not ready to fully know everything that their existence will ask of them. I am not ready to field their questions when the time comes. I knew all this when I married my white husband and gave birth to these children. Still… knowledge doesn’t protect from pain. Indeed, amplification is often a side-effect.

This MLK Day and upcoming Black History Month (with Major turning 7 in just one week, and with his social studies curriculum getting more sophisticated), I’m quickly realizing that I’m running out of time.

They are running out of time to be totally untouched by the full weight and knowledge of history, culture and context. Once they know it, they’ll never be able to go back. It will color their world forever. Every thought, every action, every choice, every word… every single thing they ever know from then on will be touched with the knowledge. That’s what oppression really looks like. That’s what oppression feels like. I’ve been holding off gravity, but it will all come down soon.

The well-meaning Massachusetts liberals I live around are so delighted to tell me about what they do with their children to teach them about “diversity” and history. I listen politely. It’s the right thing to do. I don’t disagree that children should be taught early and often to treat each other as equals, to see humanity first, to seek above all others kindness, fairness, justice… but we must actually follow the example of Dr. King: we must be thoughtful. Purposeful. We must let our actions speak for us more often than not, and when we do speak, we must choose our words carefully. Nothing without thought. Nothing without wisdom. We as individuals should teach these lessons not because the masses around us have demanded a sanitized version of events and virtues, but because we are choosing a set of values to affirm and pass down. It’s more than just one lesson over one designated weekend during the year. It’s a commitment. A program. A curriculum of life’s work. It’s taught on a spiral, over and over again, growing more complicated and sophisticated as the children get older.

And it should challenge them. I’m not afraid of the challenge this presents to my sons. It’s necessary. But again, we’re going to do this in a way that makes sense.

And it starts with me, telling them their story.

“So, we should clarify a few things,” I started. “Not that long ago, there was a time, when people who look like me–”

“Black people,” Major stated. He’s been exploring race and racial language lately.

“Yes. And people who look like Daddy–”

“White people,” Major said.

“Yes. We were separated. The special word for that is Segregation. We didn’t go to school together, we didn’t share the same neighborhoods. We could not be together because there were many, many laws in this country that made it impossible for us to be in the same places as equal people. And it wasn’t that long ago. Your [great aunt and uncle] were born in a segregated hospital. A hospital only for Black people. Your Nana [my mother] and [other great uncle] were born in a hospital where anyone could be born, Black or White. And that’s because the laws were changed thanks to Dr. King and all of the people he worked with. He didn’t do it alone. He was part of a big, wide network of hard working people. We celebrate him because he was a very strong, brave voice in a very long, long fight. But he wasn’t the only one, and we can talk about more people later if you want.”

“So Nana was alive for that time, too?” Major asked. This was him starting his grappling with history. Nana is a real person who he knows. Who he has touched and felt. And she’s not old. You could see the wheels turning in his head.

“Yes, baby. You aren’t that far removed. This all didn’t happen that long ago. Your Great-Grandy and Great-Poppy were alive during that time. And Nana started at schools that were separated by color, but then she ended up at a school that wasn’t separated. And it’s different now, sorta. We’ll talk about that later. Mommy and Daddy went to a school where everyone could go. Matter of fact, Mommy and Daddy met at school.”

What?” They both exclaimed.

And that started a different sort of story. Their story. But their story is one generation removed from segregation. This is real, breathing history for me and for them. It’s palpable. It’s powerful. And it must be taken seriously. So while I’m grateful for the holiday, and the time to reflect and remember… I’m also holding my breath. History is inescapable and, for us, it’s inevitable.

 

I have a whole bunch of new Dear Readers thanks to a post I wrote last week about my love affair with my Moleskine. Welcome! I really must say, I had absolutely no idea that my little post would go viral at all. What a pleasant surprise! If you popped in for that silly post and have stuck around to continue reading, I’m really honored and grateful for your readership. Thank you. I hope that I will continue to write posts that you enjoy reading.

It’s the start of a fresh new week. I’m here for it. Are you? Let’s make wonderful things happen.

Until Wednesday, take care.

 

 

4 Replies to “It’s a Part of Their Story”

  1. I believe you are doing the right thing by not telling them yet. I wasn’t told about these topics until I was in 8th grade. How I managed to escape that long without knowing about these troubling times is incredible.

    But I will say this, because I had time to see people as people first and not as other things, I could stare others in the face without blinking and say we are all equal. I went to a school that wasn’t so diverse and still struggled with accepting other people, even me. I was oblivious to it for at least a year.

    I had changed many schools. One of my last schools introduced to me to the children and grandchildren of these troubling times. The ones who don’t like other people who are different from them.

    I didn’t blink. I was confident that people were people. Because my whole life I had seen it that way and had never been told otherwise, until I was in 8th grade.

    The only difference was there were those who did good things and those who did bad things. That was it. I still see it this way today. I was strong enough in that belief to take on theirs.

    For me, equality wasn’t something needing to be taught — it was a fact just as clear to me as the sky is blue. These fictional divisions are ingrained in older generations. They are constructs. And luckily for your two sons, they cannot separate one from the other. They are one.

    A radical thought for our world — there are no borders. There are no countries. These things were invented. Fictional divisions that have plagued humanity for a long time. Just like Democrats and Republicans. I have been both, but the reality is I am neither. If I lived in another country the two parties wouldn’t matter. They matter here, because we’ve made them matter here.

    After the 2008 election. I stopped associating with Republicans. Living in Texas, the language of some became so vile against President Obama that I could not be near them. There protests had nothing to do with specific policies… their comments of another kind.

    I recognize many do not know what they say. Some do, some don’t. The ones who don’t can be converted to a more enlightened view. But, it’s best that young minds never be tainted with the diseases of the past. But if they must, they must have the vaccine. They must know that all the evil things said in the past were lies.

    We are all people first. One planet. One ocean. (To quote the Sea World theme song).

    I never realized the world had only one ocean! All those names made me think they were separate somehow! The names were given to it. Following my finger around the globe, yup one ocean!

    1. See, I grew up in an extremely diverse place, and had a wonderful childhood growing up with peers of all sorts of different ethnicities. It was really special. So special that when I went to a HBCU for my freshman year of college, it was a cultural shock for me. I disliked it so much, I transferred. My college experience was very similar to my K-12 experience… then I moved here to Massachusetts and it’s… Lord. It’s like living on Mars sometimes.

      The town we live in has an interesting mix of different groups, but it isn’t like what I experienced as a kid. I see my boys working it out… but there will be a lot of conversations in the future. And then there is the Black/White thing, which is more complicated because of where we live.

      I don’t have a lot of answers. I’m not even sure if I’m making the best choices when it comes to shielding them/educating them/exposing them to truths while building up their sense of self. It’s an extraordinarily difficult line to walk. No matter what, I know that they are going to get to ages where they will have very poignant questions for me. I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready.

      In theory, I want to agree with you: one planet, one ocean. But in practice… it’s hard to practice… and it’s hard to responsibly raise kids with that world view… it’s POSSIBLE, but it’s delicate. Because they see the differences. They know them at a very young age. The language of equality is flowery and beautiful, but sometimes impractical, especially when we are the ones who have to teach them have to navigate the differences they see.

  2. I often wonder how I will approach topics like this when I have children with my partner, who is also a woman which adds a whole new layer to it. I feel like the way you are slowly easing them into it is a really good plan. They are so young you don’t want to overwhelm them and you want to let them be innocent children while they still can. It’s a tough balance. My parents told me from an early age that people would treat me different. I didn’t get a lot of history lessons unfortunately. Mostly warnings. :/ One day I’ll have to figure this as well. For now, I’m enjoying reading your perspective.

    1. My parents taught my the 3-times rule that I’m sure you also learned: I’ve gotta be three times better than my white counterparts to even get my foot in the door. 3 times better, every single time.
      It’s a rule that got me to the Ivy League, for sure. But Lord it was so exhausting. It’s still so damn exhausting. Because you can’t shake it once it’s instilled.

      I haven’t taught my boys the 3 times rule. Not yet. Not because I don’t want to but because, at the moment, it seems unnecessary. And because it is a rule that is a double-edged sword: I’m always, always comparing my worth with the men and women I encounter here. The 3 times rule colors every single thing I do. It makes me extra hard on myself when I make a mistake. It makes me question everything I’ve ever done when I fail. It causes many sleepless nights. It’s not healthy… but it was SO NECESSARY for me when I was a child.

      But the 3 times rule is, ultimately, a passing down of trauma, right? And you and your partner will have to decide about the traumas you carry and if/how those traumas will pass down to your children. It’s a hard thing. There are absolutely no easy answers. Perhaps there aren’t right ones, either. I certainly haven’t figured it out.

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