Archive for the ‘parenting’ Category

Testing the Ice

February is coming to an end and I have failed to have the conversation that I had hoped to have with my daughter about racism and black American history. She’s heard poems by Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni, knows the lyrics to Leadbelly’s “Good Morning Blues” and we just read a story by Jackie Robinson’s daughter called Testing the Ice, a beautiful parable about everyday courage that features the famous ballplayer in an unexpected role. But I have yet to connect the dots.

It is one thing to share third-person stories about other dark-skinned people who weren’t treated fairly or overcame incredible odds. (It is one thing to cuddle up to black dolls with names like Harriet, Ida, and Sasha.) When the perspective changes, when the story is about you, me, and us – our family, our lives – well, that’s another thing.

I once considered the implications of “Creative Freedoms and the Not Now Book” and the choices parents and teachers must make when it comes to introducing controversial material to children. My little one is turning four in a few months and she’s become more observant, more inquisitive. Whether I like it or not, now is the time to talk about racism.

In Jonathan Liu’s recent post on GeekDad called, “How to Raise Racist Kids,” he offers disturbing sltatistics about the larger consequences of our reluctance to talk about race in America. It’s a great piece, and while it’s mostly aimed at white parents, this passage struck home:

We’ll say things like “everybody’s equal” but find it hard to be more specific than that. If our kids point out somebody who looks different, we shush them and tell them it’s rude to talk about it. We think that simply putting our kids in a diverse environment will teach them that diversity is natural and good.

I winced at this last sentence. It applies just as much to me, a black parent (with advanced degrees in African-American Studies, for heaven’s sake) as it does to the rest of the nation. Though I know better than to make romanticized claims for preserving her innocence, I worry that her recently developed sense of fairness and mutual respect will be shaken. I worry that she’ll turn on her non-black preschool playmates with anger or shame. I worry that her first understanding of history – the stories of past realities that shape our present – will be tangled up with confusions about prejudice, difference, and hard-won triumphs.

Liu’s post directed me to an article by Sasha Emmons at Parenting.com that I’ve since found quite helpful: “5 Tips for Talking About Racism With Kids.” Reading the suggestions from Dr. Beverly Tatum in the piece made me realize that one of the biggest obstacles that I’ve not fully acknowledged until now is the fear that my daughter will learn about racism the way I did – not with screaming racial slurs and burning crosses, but through hushed words and stern glances.

Do you remember how you learned about race and racism? I recall the moments as puzzle pieces. One of your great uncles lets something slip. Your classmate makes an ignorant joke. You begin to unravel the subtext in all those re-runs of The Jeffersons and Good Times, and you see your mother wiping her eyes as she watches Roots on the tiny black-and-white TV in the kitchen. A librarian gives you a copy of Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and the truth that has been creeping on you for years becomes very real. You’ve been oppressed, enslaved, hated for nothing more than the color of your skin. And the problem still persists today.

It’s tough. Even as I look for ways to simplify these conversations (plural, because I realize this is an ongoing thing), I am also wary of limiting the scope of her knowledge to what NPR’s Sam Sanders calls, “the peanut gallery.” Nevertheless, as I head out to a local Harambee Festival today on this last weekend in Black History Month, I am letting go of the notion that my daughter will learn what’s important simply by our proximity to drum circles, gospel choirs, and MLK posters. Instead I’m going to keep the very first step of Dr. Tatum’s advice in mind: “Don’t be afraid to bring it up.”

I’d love to hear about your experiences and any suggestions in the comments below!

Creative Freedoms and the Not Now Book

song-of-solomonI’ve been banning books from my daughter’s library since before she was born.

I always encourage family and friends to fill our bookshelves with preschool favorites, and yet I can make certain books disappear in a moment, sometimes to Goodwill, sometimes to the dumpster. Baby Bibles with pink cherub-cheeked Eves and button-nose Noahs. Fairy tales featuring Disney princesses who always need saving. When I’m in a bind, I’ve learned how to redact the troubling scenes of death and loss from bedtime stories so that my 3 year old can sleep better at night.

I’ve always considered myself a champion of creative freedoms. (I still remember how hurt I was in high school when my Stephen King and Anne Rice books began to sprout legs and walk because my mother believed that I was “dabbling in the occult.”) I celebrate Banned Books Week and I often include these controversial texts in my university courses. As my daughter grows, I want to teach her how to become responsible for her own reading choices and ultimately, no book will be off-limits. So, perhaps then, the books I’ve donated to Goodwill aren’t really banned books, they’re not now books.

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Uniqua’s Post-Racial Backyard?

Rethinking the politics of identity is more than just an intellectual exercise when you become a parent. These days, my anxieties about raising a black child with a healthy, well-rounded sense of self has lead me to unusual places and unexpected insights. Take, for instance, The Backyardigans:

Virtually every American preschooler knows about Nick Jr.’s animated show, The Backyardigans. My toddler is no exception. The show’s five friends share a suburban backyard and an adventurous imagination.

The music initially caught my daughter’s attention. The impressive mix of musical genres are inventive, fun, and provide the show with a rare kind of cultural diversity. In one episode, Pablo the Penguin imitates James Brown’s soul music. Tyrone the Moose often croons country-western songs, and in space, the Backyardigans sing contemporary African pop music with a Martian mom (voiced by Alicia Keys). Click here to open the Nick Jr. video player and search for Backyardigans clips.

But for me, Uniqua is the show’s main attraction. She is the pink, plump, and perceptive polka-dotted creature who inspires others with thoughtfulness and bravery. And while Tasha the Hippo is often cast as the princess or the diva, Uniqua is not bound by traditional gender roles. She is the brave knight, the graceful Egyptian Sphinx, and the chest-thumping Viking. Her positive energy and assertiveness are qualities that I have been trying to instill in my daughter since she was a blip on the ultrasound screen! So it also matters, you see, that Uniqua’s voice and mannerisms are that of an African-American child.

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