Talking to Your Kid About Black History Month: First Grade Edition

February 18, 2021

I have a thing about Black History Month. I really get into it but I wish it was on a longer, warmer month. June seems logical. My students are reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X right now. I try to make sure black authors are in front of their eyes each winter. There’s just a binge on learning cool stuff. Did you know that the ice cream scoop was invented by an African-American named Alfred L. Cralle? No scooped ice cream for racists!

My love of the black history binge might have had something to do with a white supremacist moment I had in 1979. In my tenth grade journalism class had an assignment to write an editorial. The title of this editorial, written by a white kid in a historic Klan town was… ready…?, “If They Have Black History Month, Why Don’t We Have White History Month?” That’s how my 15-year-old brain was processing the state of race in ’79. My teacher’s response was, “That’s a very strong opinion, Randy.” It should have been, “Every month is ‘White History Month,’ you racist twerp.” So maybe my affinity for Black History Month is a penance for that sin, or the many others.

This year’s Black History Month is a bit more meaningful, in wake of the massive BLM protests last year. But also because my daughter, Cozette, is ready to dive in herself. I was where she is, first grade, in February, 1970, which was the very first Black History Month. The closest I got to knowing that I should think about race at 6 was staring at a “Black is Beautiful” poster in a shop on an a family trip to Niagara Falls. The women in the poster was topless, with a massive afro and a clenched fist. I was transfixed. Cozy is more familiar with images of Breonna Taylor that are painted on murals in our city.

Unlike me, Cozy is growing up in a house with plenty of black heroes. MLK is on the fridge and Motown Magic is her go-to cartoon. (I did have Fat Albert but I don’t know if that undid any racial stereotypes in the 1970s. I’m looking at you, Mushmouth.) But even better, Cozy’s teacher has her first grade class on a healthy diet of Black History Month stories. She’s started her winter school days with lessons about MLK, Malcolm X, Ruby Bridges, Harriet Tubman, and Louis Armstrong, among others. 

Her school is sponsoring a Black History Month art show, in which students complete portraits of African Americans that have inspired them. Cozy’s already done portraits of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, so she chose Louis Armstrong, someone who gets a lot of play in this house. (Fun fact: Cozy’s grandma met Mr. Armstrong after winning a saxophone contest when she was 16. In awe, her main memory was that he swore like a sailor.) At 6, Cozy pretty much captured the greatness of Satchmo. She’s a true jazzbo. As much as she loves Louis’ “wrinkly” voice, she prefers Miles.

Having a teacher who explains why Black History Month matters has been a wonderful thing. How do you explain to a six-year-old the horrors of slavery? “People owned other people just because of the color of their skin.” When I asked her what slavery meant, she grew silent and talked about her black friends and how it made her sad. Kids her age are quite aware of race, especially if they are not white. Cozy’s Mexican genes are talking to her European genes, while across the street from her African-American friends and in a house where her parents are always talking about racism. It must be a lot for her brain.

To help her out, I bought her a copy of The ABC’s of Black History by Rio Cortez, brilliantly illustrated by Lauren Semmer. D is for diaspora. She fell in love with the vibrancy of it, especially the entry on George Washington Carver (she loves peanut butter) and the “M is March” section, featuring BLM posters, like the ones she made last summer. In addition, PBS has made a point of centering black history in its children’s programming. She’s been glued to a cartoon called Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum, learning about Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglas, Zora Neal Hurston, and Ella Fitzgerald. (The 1956 Ella and Louis album is now on repeat play, which is a very good thing, and Cozy has taken up scatting.)

At 6, I think Black History Month is about celebrating how African-Americans have made life so much better in America. She has an understanding of the pain caused by racism, but it’s not time yet to wade into the torture, trauma, suffering, exclusion, and dehumanization the begs us to make black lives matter every month. I can see her processing it through her peers. Generation Z kids not only have more diverse friend-groups than their elders, they themselves are more diverse. Where “mulatto” was a pejorative a hundred years ago, bi-racial+ is just the norm now. But these kids still live in world that pushes a white supremacist worldview. Despite Motown Magic, the majority of the cartoon, book, and TV characters she sees are white. And male. So while it’s certainly too soon to sit her in front of the TV for a screening of 12 Years a Slave or 13th, she can definitely start picking up on the whole unfairness of racism story and that people who look like her father benefit from it and that people who look like her friend Jaden are challenged because of it.

It’s a tricky path. What I knew about race at 6 came from horribly racist norms. People who lived in the city (i.e. black people) were savages compared to those of us (white people) outside of the city. The urban jungle was framed in contrast to “civilized” society. Cozy lives in the city with plenty of black friends, so that hateful dichotomy is gone, but the complexity of racism remains. It seems like the “primary school” agenda is simply that black culture is amazing and that our black friends have faced unfair struggles that we are committed to fixing.

I’m supposed to be an expert on this topic, but when it’s your kid, it’s a real challenge. You really want them to value everyone as fully humanized but also recognize the forces that have stood in the way of that simple truth. It’s harder than I thought. But she’s smart. I think she’s getting it, complete with the soundtrack. Thank you to all the great teachers who make February matter.

Do We Have to Burn Down America to Save It? Rethinking Rioting

May 31, 2020

Vuitton

As rioters ravaged Portland Friday night at 2 am, a local news anchor lamented how sad it was that the Louis Vuitton store was being looted. I thought Luis Vuitton Incorporated would survive, unlike the man named George Floyd.

There was a time when the lure of an exciting riot would have drawn me to the street. The belief that social justice could be advanced by screaming at authority would have inflamed my voice. Then I learned how deeply social evils, like racism, were woven into our society and how broadly complex anything approaching a solution would be.

Let’s start with the obvious, the murder of George Floyd on May 25th was a racial lynching by police. It took Minnesota authorities four days to arrest one murderer, Derek Chauvin, the officer who had his knee on the neck of Floyd for nearly nine minutes, including three minutes in which Floyd was unconscious. The fact that in took law enforcement four days to arrest this murderer must have surprised a lot of black people that it was so hard to get arrested in Minneapolis. The other three officers that participated in Floyd’s murder, well, we’ll see, I guess. And arrest does not equal conviction; the track record favors the murderers in these types of cases.

But we’re supposed to have faith in the system. After generations of George Floyds, I’m not 100% sure why.

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I’ve written so much about this issue and I want to write something now, but I’m glued to the TV watching another night of America convulsing as it tries to marshal that antibodies to fight the pandemic of racism that’s ravaged its body since its birth. I’m trying to explain this to my five-year-old and trying to find evidence that anything will be different this time. My thoughts are disjointed. Do I support the rioters? Do I invite a cop out for beer and race talk? Do I make a bid on Ebay on a looted Louis Vuitton bag, a souvenir of the great uprising of 2020?

So here are some random thoughts as America burns. Again.

  • America was founded by rioters and looters (read about the Stamp Act of 1765), when they are white and want freedom they are called “patriots.” When they are black and want freedom, they are called “thugs.”
  • This not about George Floyd or “honoring his memory.” This about the thousands and thousands and thousands of George Floyds and the inability of black people to have a right to just be alive in America.
  • White people act shocked when black people let them know they are sick of this shit.
  • The “coded” language the president is well understood by people of color even if his base pretends that “MAGA loves the black people.”
  • I had a brief fantasy that the protestors in Lafayette Park stormed the White House and dragged Donald Tump out by his ankles, but then I realized he was probably hiding in a vault, crapping in his diaper.
  • There should be no doubt that Trump is a white supremacist, no goddamn doubt. But racism is woven into complex systems, including the police.
  • The economic strain of this pandemic has added to suffering of those who are marginalized day after day, and are understandably at their breaking point.
  • The history of police officers who are arrested for murder rarely leads to police officers who are convicted of murder (less than a third of cases). The history of riots often lead to tangible results, including Watts (1965), DC (1968), LA (1992), and Ferguson (2014).
  • If you feel like your city doesn’t care about you, why would you care about your city?
  • It seems like a lot of privileged violent white protestors, who call themselves “allies,” think they are “smashing the system,” while simultaneously bringing the heat down on the peaceful black protesters they think they are defending.
  • I worry about how right-wing extremists might exploit this moment or even be working as agent provocateurs to push their racist agenda.
  • There are so many police officers that were disgusted by actions of Derek Chauvin and his three fellow Minneapolis officers. I wonder if any are currently engaged in the police assaults on protestors I am witnessing on TV right now.
  • As hard as this is to explain to my 5-year-old, I can’t imagine how hard it is for black parents who must prepare their children for life in a white supremacist country that refuses to do the work to change things.
  • It would be nice to hear local reporters and anchors express as much concern for the historical trauma of black people as they do for Chase Bank and the Apple Store.
  • Someone said lawsuits filed against abusive police departments should collect their awards from police pension funds. That might get their attention!

I’ve spent a career a partnering with law enforcement to work on issues like hate crimes and domestic terrorism. I’ve worked on trainings for law enforcement and helped to develop policies that help police understand the trauma experienced by crime victims. I went from “cops are pigs” to “police reform” as I matured and understood the social work aspects of law enforcement and the healthy communities well-intentioned peace officers can help create.

But now I’m not sure that’s enough.

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While we still have departments that allow various choke holds, and don’t immediately arrest officers who are accused of the murder of unarmed civilians, and defend a macho police subculture, it seems like Eric Garner, and George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and all the others will just be names on an ever-growing list that only magnifies the trauma of black America. The murder of black civilians by police has not significantly decreased since Ferguson even with the important changes that have been made. Maybe it’s the very structure of policing in America that’s the problem. Maybe we should start figuring out how other countries keep the peace and chase the crooks. Maybe we should burn the old system down. Out of the ashes…

I really don’t have the answer. I just know it’s up to white people to do the work to end racism.