Black History Month and Our Mixed Kids
In a very gentle way, I have had several difficult conversations with my boys all month long.
Last year in kindergarten, our older baby was blindsided when his teacher began to teach the class about Martin Luther King Jr. and his work on the Civil Rights Movement. We are a mixed family, and while he saw the difference in the color of our skin, he was not aware of the horrific injustices that plagued our country. I remember picking him up from school one day, and as I was helping him get in the car, with a tiny, shaky voice, he asked "Mommy, which bathroom am I allowed to use?"
My heart shattered into a million pieces and it was all I could do not to break down and cry. It hit me all at once, that we did not prepare him for this. As a matter of fact, we did everything to shield him from understanding racism. We felt he was too small, too innocent to be tainted with the way to world can be.
But here we were, in the middle of the school rush, with me holding back tears as I looked into his big, inquisitive eyes, having the conversation that should have happened over time, in the comfort and safety of our home.
"So you're a white skinned person, and Papa is brown..." he said as he contemplated his next question. "And what am I? Am I allowed to go to all bathrooms or only the ones for brown people?"
He misunderstood the lesson. In his distraught state, he thought that Jim Crow laws still existed.
We talked about it the entire drive home. I clarified a few things, and explained to him that he and his brother are lucky because they get to be so many beautiful things. They are descendants of so many cultures and that in our home, we live in love and equality. We respect, celebrate and enjoy our differences, and each others backgrounds, religions and cultures. And as we drove and spoke, I could see the tension fade away from his tiny body. He was finally at ease with what he learned that day.
With all that I am, I wanted to avoid the same happening to our younger baby. So throughout the year, we have been pointing out our beautiful differences. We read books, and we mention here and there, how mixed and beautiful our babies are. We teach them about all of their cultures in little pint sized increments.
This year, I made the decision to begin explaining our country's sordid history in a more deliberate and well thought out way. I took advantage of MLK Day, and began teaching the boys about one half of their history. We talked about how in the past, people could not get passed the color of their skin and how unfairly African American's were treated. We touched on how even in this day and age, there are a lot of injustices, but good people in the world are working hard to continue to make it better. It is a delicate conversation, exposing them to the state of the world without stealing their innocence. I find the easiest way to begin these conversations is with children's books. They spark the most interesting questions, and are a great lead into a meaningful conversation.
Thus far, and by far, Henry's Freedom Box has sparked the most interesting conversation between the boys and me. It took a lot of courage on my part, to get myself to read this to them. Because, while we had learned all about the Civil Rights Movement ending segregation, we never spoke about the horrors that happened before. Explaining slavery, how people stole and owned other people. How they sold babies and children and mommies and daddies... it took a lot for me.
Our oldest had so many questions. Questions like, why didn't the slaves just run away? Why couldn't they fight back? Why did people want to own them?
We were later able to tie in President's Day and discuss Abraham Lincoln working to abolish slavery. The learned that not everyone wanted to end slavery, and someone shot and killed our 16th President. This sparked a slew of questions. "Why did some people not want to end slavery?" started a thirty minute conversation about plantation profit and loss, free labor versus paid employees and even indentured servants.
It has been a wonder watching the kid's little minds process and navigate the strange history of our country, and how it reflects today.
Next month, we will be tackling their mommy's side of the family. Are there any children's books on first generation Soviet immigrants, who are half Russian Jews and half Azerbaijani Muslims, born in Ukraine, but call themselves Russian to avoid lengthy explanations?
Nothing about our children's background is easy or uncomplicated. We are a multiracial, multi-religious, multicultural family. My goal for my children is that they know, without a doubt, who they are, where they came from and that they are close to their roots.
If you would like a list of the books that have helped us navigate Black History Month, click HERE.