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?


  1. I once had a friend tell me that it was wrong for me to have a mixed race kid, because if my husband died, I wouldn't be able to raise my child with the knowledge of the other culture. Sighhhh....

    No, I don't know what it's like to be black and don't pretend to - but I know that I would just continue to do what I've done since she was born - the best I can. I'd buy her books, and do research and surround her with people who were from other cultures and when she asked questions I didn't know I'd look them up or ask.

    I think the best we can do is to raise our kids to know that there's another side to the story, to know that other people have different life/cultural/historical experiences and to instil a sense of curiosity and generosity and compassion towards other people. There's no right time to be passing on those fundamentals and the rest happens when it happens.

    On a related note, if your daughter ever wants to find out stuff about the West African end of the story, I'm living in Ghana and would be happy to track down information or pictures/stories etc for her. We've been meaning to take our daughter down to see the slave castles so perhaps there's an opportunity to get the two of them together to talk about it.

    Just an idea...

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful words Fiona. Finding the balance between the hypothetical/intellectual steadfastness and the nuance of love and learning ... that will be my journey forever.

    As for your offer ... I'm fascinated as is my girl. Yes, please keep us in mind as your travels to the coast. I/we would love to learn with you.

  3. We have not yet talked about slavery with our three-year-old and I've started to wonder when the right time will be. If she'd entered our home as a baby or under different circumstances, it might be part of the discussion now the same way we've mentioned that it would have been illegal for the two of us to be using the same water fountains in some places not too long ago, but the foster care side of things makes it so much harder. She already knows very viscerally what it's like for her family to be ripped apart and to be forcibly separated from her siblings. Obviously there's much more to slavery than that, but that's part of what's holding me back right now.

    Thanks for writing this, though. I plan to have my partner read it. We've been talking about how her family talked about black history, black nationalism, black identity as she was growing up and how we can incorporate that into raising Mara. It's all still very much a work in progress.

  4. I can kind of relate to the desire of wanting to be taught about certain aspects/histories of blackness/black experience by a black educator, as a student. Except, these feelings didn't come to me until I was in college, being taught about the history of hip hop by a white jazz enthusiast, and about black feminism by white feminists. Not the worst experience in the world, but I actually went into one of these areas expecting to be taught by a black woman, and was just a little shocked to find that not to be the case, and even more shocked that there were no black professors in my department at all.

    Anyhoo, having said that, the teaching of enslavement, jim crow, racism, and everything else to your black kids, even as a black parent, is difficult. Most difficult, I think, because children are trying to situate themselves in the world as they grow, and as parents, its hard to teach them about a hurtful past that directly and/or indirectly affects them. I have not yet had a sit-down 101 conversation with my 8 year old about black history, beyond what we work through within school assignments. I guess, you just have to take each experience and teaching moment as it comes.

  5. Ah Barbara, White feminists teaching black feminism? It all sounds so, so... so feminist! :) I do love academia... perhaps the place where I feel most at home, and boy is it a white landscape!

    @ Mother Issues: You are balancing a lot and so is she. Would love to learn more about your deliberations on this subject.