Talking to Kids About Slavery - Part I
While I made blueberry muffins and folded laundry last night, I turned on a documentary about Maya Angelou. Our four kids were playing and not paying much attention to the television, but once Brandon (almost 12) went to bed and we were snuggling on the couch, Betsy (almost 5) and Benny (3) started watching. They saw a scene from Roots showing enslaved people's chained feet on a boat and a picture of an auction after a description of people being kidnapped and forced away from their families. One of the voice-overs described mothers hitting their babies against trees to avoid their being taken into slavery. Their eyes were wide, and they had so many questions.
As I struggled to appropriately and honestly frame answers to their questions, I saw my own privilege more clearly. Without that documentary, I would not have been explaining how people with white skin once kidnapped and enslaved people with black and brown skin to my 3 and nearly-5 year old. Listening to recent podcasts where people of color shared about teaching their children about slavery and oppression, I have heard struggles about what is appropriate to share when. My privilege insulated me from even considering that a 2 hour documentary on Maya Angelou would of course have descriptions engaging enslavement and Jim Crow and oppression. Ignorance left me scrambling to find the right words to address with my kids what they had heard and seen.
Betsy asked about the description of the babies, and I told her that allowing their babies to be kidnapped and enslaved seemed like a worse choice to those mamas than killing them. It was the best I could come up with in the moment, and an awful moment for me looking into their big blue eyes and seeing them consider my answer. I was also deeply aware that those mamas were facing an impossible choice, and their terror and despair resonated inside me. Obviously, this is not the level of detail about this subject matter most parents would choose to put in front of their tinies. "But it ISN'T better to be dead" Benny told me firmly. "Those mamas were not right." I told him we couldn't know that for sure - those mamas did what they could to keep their babies safe from being hurt terribly. I couldn't give my three year old enough information to evaluate the horror of that choice.
Fresh from a recent viewing of 13th, I was deeply aware that I was telling my little ones half-truths when I said that enslaving people isn't allowed any more. But they are too young to understand constitutional analysis and the substitution of criminalization and prison labor for enslavement. I emphasized the whole truth that we must make sure it never happens again, and I recognized how very far I have to go in realizing the impact and depth of my ignorance and privilege.
I imagine these conversations don't come any easier to my friends whose skin is much darker than mine. As Benny turned his arm over to examine his white skin, he said "Those white peoples were bad humans! They should have helped those good guys get away. They should have helped the babies and not hurt them." I told him he was right, and it was important that we make sure we always help people and don't hurt them. I worked through answering questions about why and how and listened to them process out loud how terrible it was to separate families and steal people and hurt people. Benny asked if the white people were stronger than the black people, and I told him the white people had guns and a deep meanness, and the black people's weapons weren't enough. He told me some people must have been shot and then others couldn't run fast enough to get away. I could see his little imagination trying to work this through.
It strikes me that this is an even more significant part of our work than protests (although protesting is necessary, and I am committed to continuing to speak out publicly). Figuring out how to teach our kids the truth about our country's original sin and their responsibility to help in repairing the damage it has done is one of the foundations of our work as white parents. As we teach them that they must be kind, that they must not bully each other or anyone else, we must also teach them to stand up to those who aren't kind and to those who would hurt and oppress others, especially because of the color of their skin or their religion. The weight of that responsibility rests heavy on me today. The awareness that this is part of our work to do - mine and Brian's - as we advocate for justice, we are also responsible to educate our children so they will be prepared to do their part too. This is one way we join in making the world new. It has been old too long.