That’s the question I fielded not so long ago from the back seat of the car, while we were waiting to pick up Ella’s brother from preschool.
I was not unprepared, but really, how do you explain institutionalized racism to a 6-year old? Ella, of course, had been excited about the election for every reason but race, but clearly, now she had figured out that there was something else exciting and different about his victory.
For a long time, I avoided the slavery issue by carefully picking the books we read. But last year, I felt she was ready because Ella had specific questions, raised by Lincoln’s birthday celebration and the Civil War. We had long discussions about those things and racism and about Martin Luther King, but it was all on a need-to-know basis, and directly related to concrete examples that had surfaced in books.
So now I responded by asking her a question, “Do you remember how most Black people first got to this country?” And I asked her to retell me the story we had just read which she did with precise recall.
“Alec’s Primer” is one of the most excellent, invaluable books for children you could hope for. It tells the story of a young boy, born into slavery, who is secretly taught to read by his master’s granddaughter, and which skill–reading–helps him to escape to freedom. It is a true story, based on historical documents, and it avoids completely the kind of sentimentality and soft-peddling of slavery that can happen in some fiction books. It offers some of the most brutal facts–beatings, thwarted escapes, restriction on education, separation of families–without overwhelming a young reader with the sheer horror of it. It made an enormous impression on Ella in many ways–the hard, horrible facts of slavery, the extraordinary bravery of Alec, the vital necessity of reading and education.
So, as she remembered Alec’s story, we talked about what happened after the slaves were freed by Lincoln, and that even though they were free, they still weren’t equal. She learned then about separate counters in restaurants, separate drinking fountains, separate restrooms, separate schools. The ban on interracial marriage, the danger of friendships across the color line. We didn’t get to the back of the bus, but I imagine that Rosa Parks will take care of that very, very soon.
She was thoughtful. She wanted to know if Obama’s family were once slaves, so I had to explain no, not in American, but maybe some of his family was stolen from Africa a long time ago. I explained that at all times in our history white people had treated dark skinned people hatefully–Chinese in the late 19th and early 20th Century, Japanese during WW II, Latinos, still.
She asked about “good” white people, who didn’t own slaves, who worked the underground railroad, about Lincoln. Then the spiral began. She wanted to know about war. Was there a war now? Do we know people in it? Were people dying? Yes. Yes. And probably. We briefly touched on the concept of “just war”–though not in those terms, since I had to explain that soldiers, innately & by profession, were not necessarily bad. Sometimes, I said, people had to fight wars. Which is a concept I still wrestle with.
And then the clincher: Why did people fight wars anyway? Lots of ways, I said. What’s the main reason, she wanted to know. Tell me the main reason people fight wars. Power, I said. And resources. More land, more water, more oil. By this point, we had moved well beyond race, and the dialogue had gone well beyond the back seat of the car. I figured my point had been made well enough for the time being. “Need to know” is a tricky concept with a voraciously curious child, their education ongoing.