How Black History Lessons Cripple Our Children

I cringe to think that our ancestors suffered so that we could continually rehash their suffering. Yet, this is what we tell our children : “Once upon a time, sweetie, white people used to beat the hell out of black people. They raped us, starved us and treated us like animals because they felt that was what we were. We were less than human in their eyes. They made fun of our hair and our lips. They thought were had no morals, no intellect. They did everything in their power to make our lives miserable because they were convinced we were inferior. The End. Now carry that with you into life, pumpkin.”

I can honestly say that as a child, I hated going to school when we got to the portion of our history books that discussed slavery. Even though there were other black students in the same grade of elementary school that I was, I was, for several years, the only black person in my class. I was a happy child with plenty of books, toys and pets at home to keep me in a state of bliss. The last thing I wanted was for my classmates to see me in the role of the victim when I didn’t feel like a victim of life. But by the mere turn of a page, I became the token object of pity, with no other black student available to dilute my discomfort. It wasn’t that I had no curiosity about the subject of slavery. I did. But I preferred to flip through encyclopedias and learn about it in the privacy of my own home. As I said, I was a happy child. There had been nothing in my experience, including the stories about racism my elders shared, that made me feel as though I could relate to being a slave. The stories were painful to hear, but very foreign and distant. In no way can I be persuaded to believe I was an insensitive child. But I did possess, in my early years, before preteen insecurity and high school, peer pressure hell, a strong sense of who I was. And I was very protective of myself when it came to what I chose to bring into my experience. In those years, the pages of Time magazine were minefields, where I could run across a photograph of a Vietnamese person with a leg that had been blown to bits. The evening news was just as dangerous, with stories of tear gas, deadly riots and curfew. I came to know there was much about life I wanted no part of.

With equal certainty, I knew what I loved. What I was drawn toward. What made me, me.

If we adults were to think back, I’m sure we could all recall some period that felt like pure potentiality. A time when we felt unencumbered and authentic.

We often refer to babies as blank slates, meaning that they are open, absorbent and impressionable. I prefer to think of them as fully defined souls who are gradually sidetracked and diverted by adult obsessions, preoccupations and expectations. I believe that as adults, we consider our children’s sex, race and circumstances and proceed to tell them who they are or who life will allow them to be. 

I believe we must stop doing that. If we truly desired progress, enlightenment and evolution, we would stop passing down to our children their ancestors’ trauma.

“Oh, my God, it’s part of our history!!” Yes, it is. And it makes us miserable to contemplate it.

Unless the person doing the contemplating looks back at those times with longing. Someone who finds the image of black men in servant’s garb romantic and charming. “How dare they try to resurrect that foolishness?” we might say in response. “Times have changed. They need to move on.”

It’s so easy, when the tables are turned, to say that moving on is the answer.

I cannot think of any practical reason to take aside a child, fresh from the Other Side, filled with energy and creativity, boundless enthusiasm, curiosity and love for all it sees and poison their mind and their outlook and expectations with horror stories. I don’t care if it happened. I don’t care if it was reality once upon a time. The only reason it has any influence on our current reality is because we hold onto it. We carry it forward and pass it down as though it was a treasured inheritance, like Grandma’s poundcake recipe.

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