Friday, July 29, 2011

The Middle Passage

          I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to teach our children about enslavement.  A lot of time, like since I was about six.  I don’t actually remember when I learned about enslavement.  When the line between knowing and not knowing was drawn.  I don’t remember if I was surprised or if I’d had a hunch something pretty bad had happened.  But I do remember, as a kid, wondering what it felt like to learn about enslavement if you were black.
           I knew fewer than five black kids in my childhood, but I knew it must feel different.  To be sitting there on the carpet square in February, listening to the story about the little girl who has to run away from hound dogs, choosing freedom over being “sold” away from her family to another “owner,” and to know that little girl looks more like you than any of the other kids sitting on their carpet squares.  I wondered if a black girl listening to that story felt a little like a “slave” herself.  If she felt dirty, or ashamed.  And as I got older I wondered about the ethics of white teachers teaching black students about enslavement.  I wondered if it was fair, since the teachers couldn’t possibly know how it would feel to be a black child learning that white people bought and sold, whipped and raped their great, great, great, great, great grandparents.  And then I wondered if white teachers should even be allowed to teach us white kids about enslavement.  Because think of all the connotations, the assumptions, the underlying messages we don’t even realize are embedded in the language and the stories.  The romanticized half-truths.  Like how all the stories are about escaping enslavement.  Or about getting news of the Emancipation Proclamation (which is itself mostly mythology).  When of course most people who were enslaved were born into it, lived their entire lives beneath it, and died by thirty-five from the weight of it.  Or even the very words “slave” and “slavery” just the use of which feel to me like they condone enslavement, or at the very least take the enslaver completely out of the story.  How can we risk embedding these malformed messages into the brains of each new generation?
          But then I suppose it doesn’t seem fair to make black folks responsible for teaching our nation of children about enslavement, now does it?  So I have done it.  I, a white woman, have taught white kids and African American kids, and African kids about enslavement.  Not a lot of kids.  But I have done it.  And that’s good, because when the time came for us white moms to teach our black daughter about enslavement, it wasn’t my first time.
          And I thought it probably wasn’t ideal.  Or at least part of me felt that way.  Part of me remembered how I used to think white teachers shouldn’t teach black kids about enslavement.  But we were it.  We were what she had.  And secretly, even though part of me knew better, I was glad it was us who would get to her first because I believed I could do it well.  I wanted the first messages encoded in her brain, the ones that catch and sift all future information, to be our messages.  So that enslavers would be as present in the telling as those they had enslaved.  So that she would understand the era of enslavement to be defined not by the intellect of the founders and the tragic lives of their chattel, but by the wisdom and passions of all the humans who lived and thought during that time.  So that someday when some white teacher described Washington and Jefferson  as “men of their time” she would recognize it for the bloody-handed excuse that it is, because there were all those other men--black men--and all those black women, who surely, in that same time, understood that enslavement was immoral.
          And so beginning around age three (because that’s when we realized, oh no if we wait any longer we won’t be the first) that’s what we did.  And that’s what we’ve done for the last four and a half years.  We didn’t lay it all out from the beginning.  We talked about what it means to be able to make decisions for your own body and your own family and what it would feel like if you couldn’t.  We talked about the use of violence as a method of making decisions for other people.  We didn’t get into bloody details right away.  We left rape for another time.  But we allowed no romanticizing.  No colorful storybooks.  Just talk.  And over the years she’s brought home enslavement-related school work, assigned by white teachers.  It’s usually about Harriet Tubman, you know, because she’s a pretty kick-ass inspiring woman, and she escaped, and she helped a lot of other people escape, so it feels good to learn about her.  And we’ve watched Hot Shot’s brain sift through all the material and felt satisfied with the base we worked with her to build there.  And last year when we read the letters of Charlotte Forten and she talked of the thousands of enslaved people that had crossed the Ohio River to freedom Hot Shot said, “I wish the river could talk.”  And Darling Virgo asked her why.  And she said “because I want to ask it what that looked like.”
          But then this summer when Hot Shot came home from the second day of camp at the MLK Arts Complex talking about the “dark hallway,” we got a little worried.
          “We’re going on a tour of the building tomorrow,” Hot Shot said all atwitter.  “And we’re going through the dark hallway.”  She explained that the counselors keep telling them to stop calling it “the dark hallway.”  It’s really called “The Middle Passage.”
          We were aware of The Middle Passage exhibit in the building.  I’d seen some photos online, and heard a little girl who went to camp last year talking about it.  “You go down in the basement and there’s a room that feels like your in the bottom of a slave ship, and there are hands reaching out” this girl had said, solemn and wide-eyed, in answer to my cheerful question, “how did you like camp?”  Hot Shot herself had heard about this hallway and gotten a glimpse of it at the camp orientation.  She’d immediately asked Darling Virgo if they could please go down a different hallway and avoid it.  Which they did.
          But here she was asking, begging, “Can I please go though it?  Can I please go though it?”
          I wondered if other families were having this same conversation that night.  If all the other kids (black kids) had gone home to their parents (black parents) and told them that tomorrow was the day they would walk through The Middle Passage.  I wondered if the parents were discussing it.  “Is it the right time for Rashawn?  Is Precious ready for this yet?”  Did it occur to the rest of the kids to ask their parents for permission?
          My guess was probably not most.  Most of the other kids were not home talking this over.  But we are lesbians; we talk everything over.  I was glad Hot Shot knew to bring it up, even though it was strange she was begging for something she had been too scared to do only a few days before.  But she’s allowed to be of two minds.  To want to fit in, and to want to be spared.
          I was ready to let her go through it.  Because, you know, I wanted her to fit in too.  And I wanted us to fit in.  I didn’t want to be the only family in the camp with two white parents and also the only family in the camp that didn’t let their child through the Middle Passage exhibit.  (Isn’t that just like white folks?)  And here she was, begging us to let her go though it, right?  So why not?
          Darling Virgo was wiser.  “She had three weeks of nightmares after 101 Dalmatians!” she gently reminded me.  “She’s asking so that we’ll say ‘no’ for her.”
          And I knew she was right.  We know our child best.  We know what she can handle.  We excused her from fire prevention videos for the same reason.  We forbade her from watching PG movies at school.  (Why are schools showing first graders PG movies anyway?)  She would not sleep for weeks if she walked down that hallway.  This is truth.  She wasn’t ready.  And when she was ready, we would go through it with her so that we could experience it together, and answer her questions, and hold her when it was time to fall asleep.
          So the next morning after dropping Hot Shot off in the cafeteria, Darling Virgo (likely the only white person in the whole building) quietly asked Hot Shot’s counselors to please allow our daughter to skip The Middle Passage part of the tour.  Hot Shot and Darling Virgo were relieved.  And so was I.  Well … partly.  I was relieved that the two of them were able to make the decision I couldn’t make.  But I’m allowed to be of two minds too, right?  And I was.  Because there I was, so clear, all these years, so steadfast and knowledgeable: no quaint images of enslavement for us thanks.  Only the horrible facts.  And there I was looking over her worksheets about Harriet Tubman with a smug little chuckle at her white teachers.  And there I was at six, and twelve, and seventeen, and thirty five knowing enough to wonder if it was even ethical for a white person to teach a black person about enslavement.  Knowing that no white person, not even me, her mother, would know what if felt like to be the survivors of enslavement, of the middle passage.  And here I was, now, saying to her black teachers (her first black teachers), “Thanks so much for teaching her The Wobble, but we’ve got enslavement covered.”
          I’m not sure how the choreography went, but Hot Shot’s teachers arranged it so that she was waiting for her class at the end of The Middle Passage hall when the rest of her group came out.
          “They were all shaking,” she told me later.  “And I saw the hands.  I’m glad you didn’t let me go through.”
          And of course I was glad too.  I know my daughter and I know what she can handle.  She doesn’t need cutesy storybook pictures and she doesn’t need graphic depictions.  She is knowledgeable and thoughtful and the images she creates in her mind will be at the level she is ready for.  I know that.
          But then, what about the part that I don’t know?  What about the part where I let my daughter experience a powerful and sophisticated portrayal of the horrors of the middle passage while surrounded by trusted mentors and shaking friends, all of whom know what I don’t: what it feels like to be a black person learning about enslavement?  What about that part?
          How will I know when she’s ready?  How will I know when I am?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Big Report Card in the Sky

          Just back from a trip to New England where we saw wonderful old friends and surrounded ourselves with family.  But the best news is that when we returned to Columbus, I actually felt like I was coming home.  Aaaahhh!  More on that and our trip to come, I’m sure.  But for now a story from June:

         Hot Shot spent three weeks of summer camp at the King Arts Complex last month.  The Complex is an African American museum, theater, gallery, Head Start, education center, you name it.  Totally cool.  It’s located in the area of town that was once the heart of African American culture in Columbus.  The murals that peel off the walls of boarded up buildings along Mt. Vernon and Long Street offer images of what this part of town used to look like.  With big bands and dance halls and lots of heads flattened down with lye.  It doesn’t look much like that anymore.  There are attempts here and there to stir up the ghosts that once lindyhopped on these streets.  And some are successful.  The King Arts Complex is one.  And there’s the Lincoln Theatre down the street.  And Urban Spirit coffee shop, where I have high hopes of becoming a regular.  And the book store next door.  Forgive me if I’ve missed one or two; I’m still new here.  But I think that’s pretty much it.
          Anyway, when we first told Hot Shot about the camp a few months ago, she was sad it would not be Camp Ketcha back in Scarborough, Maine, which will always have a special place in her heart because it represents so many firsts: first school bus ride, longest days away from home, first hikes through the woods without moms to let you rest or make you drink your water or tie your shoes or whatever else we know best.  So like many things this year, learning about her new camp was a moment of loss.  But we had her attention when we started telling about the visiting artists at her new camp.  “You’ll have dance and art and music and drama every day,” I promised.  “With real professional artists.”  And she couldn’t help but love that.  Hot Shot is, above all else, a creator at her core. 
          So she was already starting to get a little excited and then Darling Virgo told her a bit about the King Arts Complex.  How it’s a building that’s all about celebrating African American History and art and culture and all that, and Hot Shot grew a big grin, showing off that beautiful gap she got from her father, right there between her two front teeth.  “Ohio’s all about African American pride,” she said, all starry eyed.
          And then we laughed.  (Don’t laugh at your children!  Don’t laugh at your children!  Don’t laugh at your children!)  But we laughed, picturing as we did the cornfields that surround our city and all the good white folks who grow all that corn and go to Bob Evan’s for brunch after church on Sunday mornings.  And Hot Shot’s eyes were suddenly full of questions.  That’s why we moved here right?  Because there are more black people?  Because you wanted me to live someplace where I would be with black people?   She had learned our rhetoric and was returning it to us, wasn’t she? Why had we laughed?
          Darling Virgo was quick and full of care.  “Is that how you feel here?”  She asked Hot Shot.  “Does it make you feel proud of being African American?”
          And then our girl considered the question given back to her.  Forgoing, for a minute, the two scripts she has in her head.  The first being her allegiance to Maine.  The second being the words we have taught her to explain our decisions.  But she seemed to be letting go of these and actually considered how she felt about her blackness, here at the nine-month mark of our sojourn. 
          “Well,” she said.  “I guess I’m starting to feel normal.”
          And yes, though we did laugh earlier when we weren’t supposed to, here we managed to contain ourselves while in her presence.  But let it be known that minutes later, safely secluded in the kitchen, Darling Virgo and I offered up a small dance of joy, letting ourselves believe, for a tiny second, that this was it.  The big gold star.  The verdict.  The final report card in the sky.
          But of course this is not the final report card.  Maybe it’s a mid-term progress report.  Or a little note home from the teacher saying it was a pretty good day.  Because, alas, there will never be a final report card in the sky; this is a grading period that will never end.  There have been signs along the way and there will be more--moments that tell us we’re on the right track or we better get our act together--but never a final grade.
          So we took it for the joyous second that it was.  And moved on.
          But when the end of school came and Hot Shot started camp, it wasn’t everything we hoped for.  There weren’t as many different art and dance and drama classes as I had told her.  And it was mostly the camp counselors, not guest artists, who were leading the activities.  And it was kind of like school in that, well, there was a lot of yelling.
          Yelling has been one of the unforseen challenges of our move.  And none of us are ready to put our finger on why.  But there’s more yelling here and we’re not used to it.  Parents yelling at kids.  Teachers yelling at kids.  Bus drivers yelling at kids.  Lots of yelling at kids.  It was the hardest part of Hot Shot’s transition to her new school last Fall.  “All the yelling,” she would say.  “The more the yelling the more the disrespect.  The more the disrespect the more the yelling.”  She came home from school unraveled by the angst of it all.  And it didn’t take her long to hypothesize that the yelling difference ran along racial lines.  She saw some parents in our mostly black neighborhood yelling at kids.  And she heard her mostly black friends at school talking about getting spanked.  And her afternoon bus driver was black.  And the disciplinarian from her school who had to ride the bus because it was so out of control was black.  And they were both yellers.  So she decided she didn’t want to go over any one’s house if their parents were black.  And here was another one of grades on the big report card.  We didn’t run into the kitchen and do a happy dance, but we weren’t surprised either.  That’s why we moved here right?  Because we don’t know enough African Americans.
          It reminded me of the afternoon years ago when Hot Shot was pretending to run a vegetarian restaurant and announced that Christians were not allowed.  You know, because they eat meat.  We spent some time sorting out the Jews and the Christians we knew and examined their eating habits.  And now here we were doing the same with the whites and the blacks and the yelling.
          “What about your principal?”  I asked.  “Does she yell?”
          “And she’s white.  Right?  And what about your teacher?”
          “She yells all day!”
          “And she’s white.  And what about Kanisha’s mom?  And Mr. Chat?  And Ms. Ruby down the alley.  Do they yell?”
          “Noooo,” she groaned.  “Okay, okay I get it, they’re black and they don’t yell.  Enough!”  
          So it seemed as though the change was regional, maybe.  That back in New England where everyone’s all free-speech, closed-curtains, and democracy, we make room for our kids to have feelings and opinions and don’t dare impose authoritarian rules and regulations just because we happen to be parents.  And then here in the Midwest where everyone’s all stop-crying, here’s-a-Twinkie, go-Bucks, it’s pretty clear that the expectation of adulthood is to call the shots.  And it’s not like her teachers and principals back in Maine didn’t hold or wield authority.  But it’s definitely a different flavor of authority.  And so it’s taking some getting used to.
          For the first few days of camp I felt reluctant.  I was supposed to be sending her off to a happy land of creative discovery where all the good fairy artists were black and waiting to discover her talent and take her in as an apprentice, and….  Instead I felt guilty for sending her away when she could just as well be at home with me and Moon Boy and Ankle Biter, complaining that she’s the b-word (bored) and feeling like I should stop spending my time refereeing the boys’ wrestling matches and start building actual electronic robots out of the contents of our recycle bin and a few sticks from the back yard.  We would see how camp went.  Give it a week before deciding for sure if we sent her back for more. 
           And then, of course, Hot Shot taught us (and herself) how much she's learned about adaptation.  That, yes, there was yelling, but there were also popsicle stick collages, and paper mache Earths, and friends who know the same hand clap games as she does, and friends who taught her some new ones.  And she learned that the best part was recess, when one of her teachers would bring a boombox out to the playground and teach the kids dances like the Cupid Shuffle, and the Cha Cha Slide, and (Hot Shot’s favorite) the Wobble.  I got to see some of the dancing at the second recess when Moon Boy, Ankle Biter, and I arrived to pick her up every afternoon.  “Be appropriate!” her teacher would yell when the music for the Wobble came on.  And then thirty girls with cornrowed heads and bouncing ballies would pump their hips forward and giggle with the delight that is the line between appropriate and not.
          So I’m learning, little by little, what it means when I say I want my kids to know (actually know, not just experience) how to be part of their community.  I want them to be able to attend a camp where all the teachers and all the kids are black...  and feel welcome. And at home.  And like they belong.  Normal.  Right?  Isn’t that the thing we want most for our kids?  Just plain normal.  So even though I wanted it to be the best, most enriching arts experience ever, and even though it wasn’t, there is my girl: doing the Wobble, surrounded by proud friends (black friends) and smiling teachers (black teachers), and I remember that if I want her to know other ways of being I have to loosen the reigns on my own ways just a little.  So I dismount off the back of my attachment parenting high horse and take a look at the view from the ground.  I see a girl who has learned she can handle it.  She knows now, at least for today, that people who yell are also kind, and fun, and good at making art out of trash, and can teach you the Wobble.
          And I think about that big report card in the sky.  I’m always checking it to see how she’s doing.  How the boys are doing.  How’s their body image?  Their racial identity development?  Are they happy?  As if my work, the work of surrounding my family with our children’s people, will only manifest in their development, not my own.  I'm expecting them to be my yardstick, when all the time I’ve got plenty of room to grow myself.  So I look up at that big report card in the sky and decide to send home a little note to myself today: it’s been a pretty good day.