Photo: I had to be outside yesterday. It was cloudy, but warm enough. We popped by the Discovery Museum for a little while and spent time in their Discovery Woods. The play area has changed a little bit, which made for fun exploration for both boys. I know that some of ya’ll Dear Readers are in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Make the trip to the Discovery Museum, especially now that it’s warm enough to take advantage of the treehouse outside! I’m really enjoying having this amazing destination just a couple towns away!
Like a good Hamilbaby, Ursa Major is pretty interested in all things Revolutionary War. Seeing as we live on a Minute Man’s land and Patriot’s Day is coming, it’s no surprise that questions have perked up lately. I’m sure there has mention of Revolutionary War stuff in school. Last week, Major came home with two books from the library. First was about the Wright Brothers and the other one was an early reader chapter book set in the Revolutionary period. On the cover was a young Black man standing on a boat, surrounded by Red Coats, looking very uncomfortable. Uh oh.
The Husband was doing Boy Scouts stuff, so I had to put the boys to bed last Friday night. Major asked if I would read a chapter out of the Revolutionary period book, though Minor was much more interested in the book about airplanes. I told them I’d read a bit of both, starting with the chapter book. Well, I open up the first page and read the following:
“James Forten was born September 2nd, 1766. His parents were free African-Americans. His grandparents were slaves.”
As soon as I read it, I cursed under my breath, because:
Major: “What’s a slave?”
Now look, I’m not an idiot. “Slave” is a word that my sons have encountered before. But, because their are so young and their interests are all over the place, it’s been a word that has come up and then flown by, and I haven’t pushed. My philosophy is that they have an entire lifetime to reconcile the oppressive and criminal histories of one half of their family and the dehumanizing histories of the other. Right now, their jobs have been to learn and grow, knowing first and foremost that they are loved and they are capable of anything as full equals to their peers. I know that other parents take a more direct approach to this history, but given the circumstances of my two sons, surrounded by whiteness in almost every portion of their lives, this was a lesson I wanted them to learn on their terms in their own time. So, this word “Slave” was a word that Major’s mind wasn’t ready to access until last Friday.
I took a deep breath, but also thanked God for my time as a history teacher. This is my subject and I am prepared. There is so much to tell, but that moment was for the basics in clear, concise, accessible terms.
I started with a definition. Slavery is when a person takes another person away from their home, against their will, and forces them to do work without pay and often under conditions that inhumane. The boys latched onto “work without pay,” identifying that as grossly unfair. Minor stuck on that for a long time. That’s developmentally appropriate. I let that be for now.
But then it was time to get to the “who” of it, and I knew that would suck. I found an access point with what history they’ve already learned in school. We started with the Pilgrims, which is vocabulary they are familiar with. I rolled that back to “people from Europe” or, basically, “people who look like Daddy. White people. You know what that means.” They agreed they do. I briefly explained how white people got here and figured out there was more labor they could handle. They tried to enslave Native Americans but that didn’t work for certain reasons. Then they tried to bring over more white people to do that labor, and that didn’t work, either. So they started to go to Africa and take people from there. Those people are people who look like me. “Black people. People who have ancestors who came from the continent of Africa.” I explained that there were a lot of people in early America who were “both,” just like the boys are, and those people were sometimes slaves and sometimes free, depending. I did it in a way that illuminated the situation without exposing them to the gruesomeness that will inevitably have to be digested.
Ursa Minor was stuck on the economic injustice of it. Major, who is naturally quicker on the uptake on these sorts of things, was a bit horrified. The inevitable question came:
“So, were you a slave?”
I explained the no and the why. I explained how hard people worked, over many generations to assure that I wouldn’t be and neither would they. They asked if my parents were. “No.” Great-Grandy? “No.”
“But, you had a Great-Great Grandmother, Nanny, who I knew very well. I think that her parents might have been born slaves. You are far removed from this history, but not that far removed. And you should know that on your father’s side of the family, there were people who owned slaves. This is all part of your personal history.”
The horror didn’t leave Major’s face. That’s a sad thing for me, but it’s important. I let him sit with it.
But I also reassured. “I don’t want you to feel scared or ashamed. You two, right here, right now, are completely and totally free to become whoever you want to be in life. Multiple generations of people have done a whole lot of work to make that possible. You have no idea how much you’ll have to take advantage of because people who couldn’t know you loved you beyond measure anyway and gave everything they had to make sure you’d be right here, right now, totally free to be whoever you want.”
My Quiet Thoughts tonight are about the bleakness of the world. Ideas have consequences. All ideas have consequences. I want to believe that for every bad idea and resulting destructive consequences, there are four more that are good and provide hope. My two living, breathing hopeful ideas sat in their beds and were shown a small glimpse behind the curtain that is this modern, comfortable life. They had to face a bit of history and themselves. They will never quite look at me the same way again. This was the start of their changing understanding of the world and their place in it, and a history wrapped up in shaded skin. As we dive deeper, they will inevitably feel all the emotions that people with our history feel about slavery in America. What will be interesting (and what terrifies me) is how they interpret their place in the legacy, and where they will place me in it. I suppose I should consider their father, too. He will represent something to them as well. I don’t have any control over where they land. I cannot and will not deny them this history. Indeed, I must be their first history teacher. This is too important to leave to suburban teaching… but it absolutely must be done as they are ready for it.
It is a night after the first above average day. I decided not to declare this the First Good Day, because I absolutely know we can do better. To have declared this the First Good Day and taken a bloggy skip day would be to lower the bar. Spring, I expect better of you. I know you can deliver.
Wishes can never be sub-par if they are sincerely given, right? Right. That’s why I’m wishing you sunshine this weekend, Dear Reader. I’m talking the real deal: fully blue skies, uninterrupted rays, the sweetness of the warmth on your bare skin and, yeah, a little bit of color as a result. Get a tan line this weekend, Dear Reader. Drive to find it if that’s what you’ve gotta do! I wish you time with a better than average book (I’ll share to-be-read list next week!) and some excellent coffee to go with it. Really do your best to fall into another world this weekend without care and without guilt. I wish you a fuzzy surprise this weekend: a rabbit? A chipmunk? A fox? I wish you a bit of mother nature in a (friendly!) unexpected way. Bonus points if you get a picture! Hairy spiders do not count. I wish you fresh smells and a pop of color. Enjoying the thawing rich soil and emerging Spring plants while on a nature walk would certainly do the trick. I wish you a loving kiss on the forehead, a bit of laughter at a story well told, and a smile from across a room reserved only for you. A little bit of intimacy can brighten the world, Dear Reader. Enjoy some of it this weekend.
As ever, I remind you that you are loved. You are so loved that someone out there, known or unknown, has gone to extraordinary lengths to make your life better or even simply possible. While you might not be able to imagine your own extraordinary acts in service to others, do try, at least, to open your heart to the possibility that you can. Commit to using your time and talents to create a world worth living in. Your light shines, whether you notice it or not. Shine as brightly as you can, peeling back the darkness one act at a time.
Thank you for spending your week with me, Dear Reader. Until Monday, take care.