I started the day filled with thanks. Another MLK day has come and I meditate on the details of a struggle that I never participated in, but of which I am the proud benefactor. As I allow my thoughts to drift through the details, the history I can claim thanks for, the ungrateful brats, a.k.a my children, cross my mind. I am fully aware my children will inherit a world that is not invested in their equality or their individual success. I have raised them in an environment devoid of the harsh realities that await on the other side of my front door. Have I failed to teach them the crucial life lessons?
Scrolling through the various posts commemorating the holiday, I come across a friend who was apparently thinking something similar to myself.
What’s this I’ve found?
Her post precipitated an unexpected chain of thoughts. Her message is thoughtful and clear but subtly communicates far more than she shared textually. The undercurrent of sad responsibility washes through the subtext of her post resonated and resonates with me. I respond with ” I started that lesson with my girls early…” but the reality the lesson is an ongoing conversation with an ending I cannot foresee.
Her simple statement calls attention to the inescapable duality in the conversations between African-American parents and their children. Consider what it feels like to attempt an explanation about one of America’s great black historical figures, while simultaneously trying to preserve the child’s innocence and sense of pride for a nation they will live in for the foreseeable future. When we talk to our kids about “the way things used to be” we are sharing things we’ve learned and things we’ve experienced.
At best, the advice and explanations we share with our children are tedious. We acrobatically walk the fine line between teaching them and coloring their perceptions with our personal baggage. I have heard several parents from other heritages share their egregious opinions on the way African-Americans relate to American history, and the way those parents teach the gritty details of the “black experience” to their children.
They assume that makes us somehow less patriotic than families from other designations. Additionally, that we as people are unnecessarily passing down a legacy of hate and misery to our children who will never experience that reality first hand. Their assertions are remarkably false. We are passing down experience. Justifiably, we are removing the hi-gloss shine lacquered over a story created by historians who were more adept at fiction than they were at expository narratives.
I have no intention of perpetuating feelings of hate or misery in my children. It is my responsibility as a parent to make sure my children have an accurate understanding of their legacy as black women, with as much detail as I am able to provide. This means it’s my job to unwind the rosy histories they learn in school and to supplement details of the things omitted altogether.
Should we avoid discussing it at all?
The question is how do you educate your family without undermining the relationships they have established with their teachers and classmates. Communicating the complexities of American history to children is ridiculously difficult, but it still has to be done. We have to offer them grace and an opportunity to learn at a pace that is commensurate with their age. Take the time to explain that “our” pioneering warriors for justice paved the way for the semblance of equality we have today. Remind them that things taken for granted contemporarily were unavailable historically.
Recall Ralph Ellison’s classic novel, Invisible Man.
The narrator finds himself working at a plant in Long Island. Ellison’s allegory reveals the lie at the heart of America’s idea of itself: that no matter how we try to paint the history of this country, black people give it color and depth. That fact has been and is often hidden from view, because America, no matter what it says about itself or what demography portends, still holds on to the idea that this country is a white nation.
Tell it softly but tell it true
It would be a grievous mistake to hide truths or remove obstacles that can only strengthen the resolve of our children. As parents, we must let them experience the discomfort of growth if we ever expect them to develop the coping skills necessary to navigate their pending adulthood successfully.
When you find yourself feeling ambivalent about how to proceed, or you are watching them wince at concepts foreign to their understanding, take comfort in the redemptive nature of their youthful resiliency. Do your best to answer their questions with candor and sensitivity, and remind yourself that what you share with them today, will travel with them from now on. It may not seem like it, but they often hold on to the things we say when we think they are listening least.
I share these words with the hope that those who found discomfiture in the truth will one day dance in its revelation.