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.