Are We Afraid to Teach Black History?

This Monday we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. People in pockets all over the world feted his life and work by doing community service and imparting the lesson of equality. I’d wager that anyone over the age of 40 could share a personal story centered around the civil rights movement, either as a result of personal experience or first-hand accounts from parents and grandparents who suffered the malice of discrimination that plagued this country for centuries.

But what about the children of those people over 40? How much do they know about Black History, including the Civil Rights struggle? I’ll be the first to admit – with much shame – that my own children know nothing at all.

To be fair, Nadjah just turned 7 years old, so it’s unrealistic to expect her to know how many millions of human souls where shipped from Africa and died in the middle passage. Nor can one expect her to rattle off an account of what slave life might have been like in the deep South, or what it might have felt like to sit in a school kitted with the barest amenities in classrooms and communities that were 100% segregated. Or is it?

For decades, children just like mine were segregated and forbidden access to all the incentives that they enjoy today. My children can swim with Arabs, Caucasians, and Asians in the same pool. They can all eat at the same restaurants. They all share pencils and crayons with kids who look very different from them. But once upon a time, and not so long ago, it wasn’t always so…and more recently that you might suppose. I had a chat with a man a few weeks ago who told me that his elementary school in Alabama wasn’t truly desegregated until third grade. He’s 42.

The kids and I spent MLK day on a play date with friends who live in a predominately white community. During the course of conversation, my friend mentioned that a number of children in our church didn’t even possess a remedial knowledge of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. She had asked them to tell her what they knew of why they had the day off on Monday.

“Isn’t he the guy who did civil rights, and ummm, equality?” said one ninth grader shakily.

My friend was appalled. As the director of the children’s ministry, she vowed that some sort of lesson on civil rights, or in the very least, Martin Luther King, be added to the curriculum.

“But girl, if I’m honest, even my own kids don’t know so much,” she admitted.

“Shoot. Mine neither. I’ve never even brought it up,” I echoed.

Perhaps they’d been taught something of value in school? We decided to bring them down and quiz them. She summoned her eldest three, who are 10, 9 and 6. My 7 and 5 year old came traipsing in with them.

“Girls, why do we have the day of today?”

“Because it’s Martin King Luther day,” said her 9 year old.

Martin Luther King day,” she corrected. “And why was he important?”

At this point there was silence among the congregation. Finally, her 10 year old ventured an answer.

“Because he worked to help people with….”

Her voice trailed off.

I couldn’t bear anymore of this train wreck. As I fixed my mouth to launch into the details of church bombings that killed elementary girls, and fire hoses, and dogs sicked on protestors, my friend cut me off at the pass.

“Ok girls. Thank you. You can leave.”

They all scampered off, confusion plastered on their faces. What had been the point of this brief conversation, I’m sure they wondered. Only her 6 year old remained behind.

“Didn’t you get a book last year about Martin Luther King?” she asked him.

He nodded and went to his room to retrieve it. She took the manuscript and began to leaf through it. Her son is a kindergartener, so I don’t know if can read. If he can, I can say with some confidence that he’s never read that particular book. Kindergarten boys on care about Cars and Wii games.

I was pleased that Scholastic had published a book that told the story of Martin Luther King in a child friendly way. I waited expectedly for her to read the book to him. To my horror, and a bit of shame, she glossed over the majority of it, watering down the parts where children of different races had to drink from separate water fountains or play in different play grounds. When she was done summarizing the book, she smiled at her son and said “You’re doing alright boy! You get to play in the same playground as everyone else! Did you know that kids in those days couldn’t sit in the front of the bus? They had to sit in the back. Can you imagine that?”

“I get to sit in the front of the bus!” he said brightly.

Then he confessed that that was because he had assigned seating. I don’t know that he got the full impact of the intent of the lesson. Like his sisters, he soon fled to do something more interesting than sit with a pair of cackling biddies.

When my friend turned to look at me, the hurt and confusion I was feeling must have been evident on my face.

“I just don’t want my kids to feel bad,” she said quietly. “You know, all of their friends are white, and I don’t want them looking at their friends any differently.”

“Right,” I conceded. “It’s a hard predicament.”

“Plus, I don’t want them running up to their friends saying ‘Hey! You’re people discriminated against my people, etc etc.’ I don’t want them going into the world expecting discrimination or a certain type of treatment based on their race. Because I believe when you walk into the world expecting something, that’s exactly what you’re going to get.”

I nodded silently.

I get that, and I agree with that to a certain extent, but I cannot take pride in facilitating this level of ignorance on a subject so important.

When I was taught about Black history, it was instructed with a spirit of hatred. I was bombarded with the details of what White folks did to my people, and consistently reminded of the evils of the ‘blue –eyed devils’. When I teach Black History to my kids, I want them to empathize with the impact of slavery, feel pride in our ancient cultures, and understand how the rise and fall of each dynamic has gotten us where we are today. But I certainly don’t want them to feel hate.

Is it possible to teach Black History and not instill hate in a person? I posed the question a little differently on twitter:

Can we effectively teach Black History to our children without evoking the pain of that struggle?

My brother tweeted back:

Sure we can. But that would be like talking about Jesus without the whole crucifying thing. It wasn’t all sunshine and gumdrops.

How poignant. Isn’t that the point, in either case? When was the last time you went to a Black church and heard the pastor preach about Christ’s crucifixion? How his death was meant to bring us eternal life? We preach Jesus as though He’s a mythical fairy who  died so that we could drive a big car and live in a big house. And when was the last time a Black parent sat down with their child and talked about the many martyrs of the civil rights era? The truth is, we can’t teach Martin without teaching Malcolm, Marcus and Medgar. They are all equally important. As a culture, we seem to avoid both topics as though they were the flu and leave the lessons to loons who have hijacked them to their own personal gain.

Why are we so scared? Those who do not learn from history…