“One White Man Did Not Single-Handedly ‘Free the Slaves’” (Talking to My Kids About Histories of Racism and Anti-Blackness)

Last Thursday, on the way back from gymnastics and parkour classes, my two eldest children, Eva Luna (8) and Sun (10.5) told me about some of the history they learned in school over the past year. It was another session that was a prime learning moment to engage in a more anti-racist retelling of history. Again, I just have to keep on repeating and re-telling as they are consistently ‘taught’ mis-truths as facts. We have had these conversations before and will continue to have them. Lincoln as the man who “freed the slaves” had been in a conversation we had last year. So, here is how I tried to teach the kids about history and who counts and how it’s narrated. I explained why it is deeply problematic that they are force-fed the narrative, Abraham Lincoln , “Freed the Slaves!”

I hear the former, ad nauseam, from the mouths of K-5 children, who are simply regurgitating what they have been taught, which reinforces the trope of white male saviors. And this myth is contingent upon the other mythic trope that Black and/or indigenous people in the USA have no agency and intelligence to affect massive change during the antebellum period through Jim Crow Era (or even now!)

1. “No one white man (Abe Lincoln) single handedly ‘freed’ enslaved Black people, Sun. It took the work, lots of deaths, and strength of a gazillion Black people, indigenous people, and some white allies.” And I reminded him about Tubman and gave more than a paragraph of information of what she actually did and told them how intelligent and bad ass she was. I explained that unfortunately, K-12 mainstream curriculum does not want to guilt or scare white kids and make white teachers uncomfortable so they tend to explain figures like Harriet Tubman in a more sanitized version . “Do you know how strong, strategic, and intelligent you have to be to free enslaved Black people– as a Black ‘fugitive’ woman, over and over again? Think about that, Sun and Luna. Yea, Lincoln picked up a pen and signed legislation, but Tubman and many like her have been made invisible in your textbooks (And I don’t think most people in the USA understand/know that not all enslaved Black people were ‘freed’ with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation).”

And Lincoln was a white man embedded in that system of white male privilege. He did have his own investments in keeping that system alive to a large degree (though reforming it), and he was “the white man’s president”, was very ‘progressive’ for his time, but let’s repeat: he was still invested in his own whiteness. More folk should really read more about this erasure from most K-12 history curriculum in the USA.

Lastly, I reminded Sun and Luna to say “enslaved People” vs. “slaves”. “Slaves” did not ‘come over’ from Africa. They were human beings with rich knowledge in math, science, agriculture, art, music… Their knowledge AND labor built the agricultural economy of the USA but that was stolen and benefited landowning white men. “Do you think that is fair? And we talked about the white/black household wealth gap and similar gap for indigenous people. It was 450+ years of this taking of land and labor and our intellectual contributions…” so, i tried to explain systemic inequities and if you had 500+ years to Racially exploit and dehumanize people, the collective results for white people in the USA are privileges from that arrangement. White people collectively are able to have easier access to political power, getting a house, amassing monetary wealth, networking, etc. Collectively, Black and indigenous folk have been hurt by that history and that 450+ year system of bias. And it still happens today, it’s just not necessarily legalized slavery or Jim Crow.

2. “Mom, was George Washington a ‘good’ president because he was honest” (reference to the cherry tree being cut down)?” My response: “Well Sun, it depends. He believed in freedom for landowning white men with enslaved Black people like himself. Please think critically about this and ask yourself why your teachers and history books keep on sanitizing this instead of teaching students that his situation was complex and his privilege as a white landowning man influenced how he thought of ‘freedom for all’. He was living on indigenous land . Stolen land. Genocide. Extreme cruelty towards indigenous and African peoples BENEFITED him and I highly doubt he wasn’t aware of this. He ordered it!”

3. And this led into me talking about Thomas Jefferson and I explained, “Thomas Jefferson did not have a cute romance with Sally Hemings. He owned people and enslaved his own children born out enslaved Black women that he owned and had sex with (they didn’t have a choice). So, ask yourself what type human being do you have to be to think that’s okay? Ask yourself why he is continuously taught as a hero and “progressive” for his time. Maybe he was ‘better’ than other white men, but the question still remains: What kind of human being would do this to their own children?” I explained why their Grandma Pat’s side of the family are both Sales and Jeffersons and that he is a descendant of Jefferson’s immoral and unjust belief system and behaviors.

4. And question 3 led to me telling the kids how Great Grandma Emma came about. Incredibly poor in Jim Crow era of Mississippi, her mother (Great Great Grandma Savannah) needed a new pair of shoes. A White Scottish man told her he’d ‘help’ her if she allowed him to have sex with her. He couldn’t just be kind and give her a pair of shoes. He had to use her the way white slave-owning men used to ‘use’ Black women for sexual, reproductive, etc power which affected how most white men interacted with Black women during the era of Jim Crow. She ended up pregnant and completely depressed about the entire situation. She would just stare into oblivion during much of her pregnancy, too young and too depressed to cope with such a horrific situation to have had to be put into: her reproductive health and agency were compromised, and yes, this is not psychologically or physically healthy... especially when you are pregnant in an area of segregation, you are poor, and you don’t have access to the best Prenatal/maternal care because of gendered-racism embedded in Jim Crow laws.

5. My 5 year old was singing about Columbus Sailing the Ocean Blue. The older two kids noted how and why Columbus Day is “indigenous people’s day”. I said it’s only in certain places (like the SF Bay area where we live) and I asked them to understand larger issues of colonization, creating nations and borders and then I spoke of how California used to be part of Mexico. And of course there is the history of demonizing Mexican people by mainstream white America and racist logic that ended up turning these human beings into ‘subhuman’ . This was the same type of racist system that defined Africans as ‘animals’ or 3/5s human….and then we started talking about legalized racism and xenophobia to the present , and mainstream USA’s “disgust” of Mexican immigrants who are actually on their own land (but, since it was ‘taken’ by the USA, borders and constructions changed and now they are labeled as ‘illegal’ on their own land… and then again, borders are constructs.). I reiterated that white supremacist racism makes it okay to exploit, enslave, etc nonwhite people so the mostly 1% wealthy white folk over the past hundreds of years in the USA can continue to ‘rule’ and convince mainstream America that it’s okay to treat nonwhite people in such a cruel way.

6. Colorism. I asked Luna to be mindful of always being complimented for her ‘pretty eyes’ (Sun too ) because they both have light colored eyes. I said, “How do you think Kira(their younger sister who is 6) feels who is darker and has brown eyes and NEVER gets complimented about HER eyes right after you are complimented and she is standing right next to you ?” I reminded them about colorism again and “You aren’t ‘pretty’ because you have lighter colored eyes and skin. ” Sun asked , “Why is it like that mom?” We talk again about all the images received about who is ‘beautiful’ and the books, movies, ads, teach mainstream USA that fair and lighter skinned people with lighter eyes are the standard of BEAUTY– even when it comes to nonwhite people, lighter skinned Black people are depicted as ‘prettier’. I told them to remember that they benefit from this colorist arrangement even if you aren’t actively colorist– and I benefit as a lighter skinned Black person in comparison to mom(my mother is much darker than me). It’s a spectrum. The closer to ‘whiteness’ the more ‘human’ and ‘prettier’ you are perceived by the mainstream.

7. And then I re-explained race and why it’s different from ethnicity. We went over again how Irish Catholics, for example, are now considered part of the ‘whiteness’ club in the USA when they were not considered ‘fully white’ when my grand father was a child. Granted, Irish Catholics were not racialized as Black and did not have the same unique history of antebellum slavery and Jim Crow, however, me noting this was more of an exercise in thinking about race, why it’s strategized in certain ways, and which demographic ultimately benefits from this whole ‘whiteness club’. Race is ‘made up’ but it has very NEGATIVE and REAL consequences. It doesn’t make sense. The categories change depending on how the 1% can benefit (in terms of capitalism) and how those who are considered white (or close enough) can benefit — because hey, capitalism is contingent upon racialization and racisms to work effectively. (He’s too young for us to get into Black Marxism and racial capitalism, as it relates to Black people…but, one day, though).

8. “Mom, are all white people racist?” Sun asked me this question and asked if his father/my husband is racist since he is white. “No, Sun, it isn’t that simple.” I then explained to Sun and Luna that there are plenty of white people who are either non-racist or anti-racist (both concepts are not the same). That whether white folk like it or not, they will be treated better and get certain privileges (in terms of RACE) just because they are white (similar to colorism and Sun and Luna’s treatment). “Papa doesn’t get pulled over by the police or denied a job, and this is due to assumptions about white men as ‘civilized’, ‘heroes’, and ‘intelligent’ which have been narrated so much that when mainstream society thinks they are thinking without bias, they still are. Papa isn’t racist, but he has benefited from how society is arranged in these racist ways and Papa knows this.”

So yea, this is a long post. I get a lot of parents asking me, “How can I talk to my children about racism?” The above are examples of how I do it. My parents did the same with me (of course they did, they are Black ). Mostly, it is white parents who tell me they don’t know how or when it is appropriate. Don’t keep on holding off. I like www.embracerace.org . Also, the SPLC “teaching tolerance “ series.

About A. Breeze Harper,PhD

Dr. A. Breeze Harper is a senior diversity and inclusion strategist for Critical Diversity Solutionsa seasoned speaker, and author of books and articles related to critical race feminism, intersectional anti-racism, and ethical consumption. As a writer, she is best know for as the creator and editor of the groundbreaking anthology Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health and Society (Lantern Books 2010). Dr. Harper has been invited to deliver many keynote addresses and lectures at universities and conferences throughout North America. In 2015, her lecture circuit focused on the analysis of food and whiteness in her book Scars and on “Gs Up Hoes Down:” Black Masculinity, Veganism, and Ethical Consumption (The Remix)which explored how key Black vegan men use hip-hop methods to create “race-conscious” and decolonizing approaches to vegan philosophies. In 2016, she collaborated with Oakland’s FoodFirst’s Executive Director Dr. Eric Holt-Gimenez to write the backgrounder Dismantling Racism in the Food System, which kicked off FoodFirst’s series on systemic racism within the food system

Dr. Harper is the founder of the Sistah Vegan Project which has put on several ground-breaking conferences with emphasis on intersection of racialized consciousness, anti-racism, and ethical consumption (i.e., veganism, animal rights, Fair Trade). Last year she organized the highly successful conference The Vegan Praxis of Black Lives Matter which can be downloaded.

Dr. Harper’s most recently published book, Scars: A Black Lesbian Experience in Rural White New England (Sense Publishers 2014) interrogates how systems of oppression and power impact the life of the only Black teenager living in an all white and working class rural New England town. Her current 2016 lecture circuit focuses on excerpts from her latest book in progress, Recipes for Racial Tension Headaches: A Critical Race Feminist’s Journey Through ‘Post-Racial’ Ethical Foodscape which will be released in 2017, along with the second Sistah Vegan project anthology The Praxis of Justice in an Era of Black Lives MatterIn tandem with these book projects, she is well-known for her talks and workshops about “Uprooting White Fragility in the Ethical Foodscape” and “Intersectional Anti-Racism Activism.”

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