Black History Month is a beautiful celebration of the accomplishments and contributions to the American Culture by African Americans. Over the past couple of years, we have enjoyed this learning experience with our oldest son as he entered his charter public school. We have seen the ads on TV, all the commemorations and honors presented to different African Americans.
I grew up in Colombia, where we have our own tragic history of discrimination and inequality. The struggles have been similar but some of the conditions and processes highly differ. During my years in undergrad, I spent a lot of time studying the African Diaspora in Latin America. I also learned some of the issues shared with the African American communities. The resilience, the resistance and all the cultural contributions to what we call today the Americas, is something that needs to be highlighted and the achievements celebrated. I was happy to start sharing what I know with my boys and learn about new things in the process.
So history, what should we teach?
When my kids were born, I started to think about how we as a family would talk about history at home. My husband is from Spain, so we have different perspectives on what we refer to as pre-independence history. We agree on the overall issues but I have stronger opinions in some areas. As a result, we figured we would wait and let the boys build their own narrative. We would provide them with the information and proper exposure to the topics and let them arrive at their own conclusions.
“Mami, I was kind of sad because my dad’s ancestors were European”
Recently, as I picked my oldest from school, his teacher gave me a heads up that they were going to be covering slavery as the starting point to the greater discussions on Black History Month. I was thankful for the heads up but immediately panicked. I could see that my boy already had lots of questions. As we left the school and walked over to the car, I asked him what he had learned about slavery. He turned to me and said: “Mami, I was kind of sad because my dad’s ancestors were European.” I froze. I knew I needed to give him a good answer, but decided to start with quick and light history 101 with him, trying to be as objective as possible. This was definitely a challenging task for someone who is very passionate about history.
So, how should we teach it?
When my husband came home, he continued to explain to our son how the slave trade happened. That it was something that happened hundreds of years ago. That it was indeed wrong and that it has taken society a very long time to repair our wrongdoings. Our son’s biggest fear was that it would happen again. We emphasized the importance of learning history, in part to stop it from repeating itself. We didn’t discuss modern-day slavery because that’s a longer and deeper conversation that we are just not ready to have and don’t think he will really understand at this point.
Slavery, and everything that follows, is very difficult to subject for a six-year-old to understand. All of this is, of course, taught with age-appropriate materials and thankfully led by trained professionals. But the teachings don’t stop at the school’s front doors. We live in a very diverse city. Our friends are from all backgrounds, so for our son, it is hard to think that there was a time in history when those friendships were not allowed. It is also important that he learns that there are some things that he might take up for granted but others are not as fortunate and we should work together towards a more equal and just society.
What do we celebrate?
Sharing history is also a great opportunity to celebrate how our cultures have mixed, and the wonderful things that have emerged such as great artists, charismatic leaders, athletes, inventors, engineers, and business leaders. The rich culture that we have because white, black and brown have mixed. The music and dancing as an expression of both mixing and resisting that represents people from different countries, beyond their race.
In the weeks ahead he will be learning about abolition, reconstruction, the civil rights movement and modern times. They will also be discussing race and racism now and through history and about the great leaders who have fought for justice. This all might be too much for a six-year-old to digest all at once, but I guess we will find a way to get through it.
Why does Black History matter?
Sharing history with our children is important, as difficult as it appears and as uncomfortable as it might make us. It is important to share all aspects, especially the painful ones. It is also a great opportunity to teach about compassion, love, and resistance. Highlight that even during the darkest times of our history there were those who spoke up, who didn’t comply and who helped those in need even if it meant risking their lives. Those things have changed and that the actions of our ancestors are not always a reflection of who we are, as such is the case from those at the forefront of the slave trade.
Walking the fine line between justice and heritage has made this topic especially challenging. There is black and white in my worldview. However, when contrasted with someone from the “other side,” like my husband, things get more complicated. At no point, does this mean that we are going to sugarcoat history. This means that we will build the narrative together. This is especially important given our current state of politics. For us parents raising the new generation to help build the future by building a responsible narrative that unites us rather than split us based on our past. Black History Month is a time to learn, share and reflect. Our chance to educate each other in order to repair the shortcomings provided by our history. To make our society stronger and our children defenders of justice.
*If you want more information or are looking at resources on what to read to your children, these are the recommendations from our first-grade teacher:
Heart & Soul: The Story of America and African Americans