Updated: Apr 15
We were slaves. We were freed. That's all behind us.
I hung black history in a 5 x 7 frame on the wall of our home. It was to be passed by - floating in a sea of smiles. It was not to be taken in but rather to be stumbled upon in curiosity. As a mom, I struggled with giving my kids the complete picture - knowing full well that painting it would require a canvas so large and sturdy, not even a museum, a morgue, a church, and a hill could contain it. Truthfully, the sky would be the only thing big enough to hold the painful triumph and exhausting struggle.
We sat down, as many of you, to watch the docu-series on Mamie and Emmet Till. As my husband queued up the video, I scooped the buttered rice and greens on our plates. My daughter saw the opening title and said, "who is Emmett Till?" Shame filled my insides, and I turned my head to continue busying myself in the kitchen. My husband looked perplexed as he questioned my 11-year-old daughter, "You never heard his story?" Of course, he would react this way - he was the purveyor of all things Black. He made sure our history studded the walls in his man cave. Most men hang their favorite sports teams above their bar, but my husband hung black and white pictures of protestors being attacked with water hoses by the police. The entire area wasn't as heavy - he aimed for balance - filling it with our brilliance. Books by black authors stood tall on the bookshelves, wondrous athletes posing snapped in triumphant poses, faces of the world's greatest musicians and artists peppered the wall. Surely those ghosts made a place in our house and nestled in our children's curiosity. But my daughter, whose cherubic face showed signs of growing and chiseling, shook her head no, as her eyebrows furrowed in question. So I quickly piped up, mostly wanting to get it over with.
Setting down the plates, I said in a very matter-of-fact tone, "White people killed him for whistling at a white woman." I secretly hoped she missed some of it above the silverware clanking on the table. Instead, she looked at me, even more puzzled, and said, "Why?" Explaining the unexplainable was what I had been avoiding ever since she was born.
Black History month was a big deal when I grew up at my elementary school. The all-white administration made a point to spend the month teaching their predominantly African American student base the following: 1. You guys were slaves (SAD), 2. President Lincoln freed us (YAY!) 3. Martin had a dream, and 4. then we were fine! Just fine! So with the teaching of that history done in less than a week, we spent the rest of the month preparing for the Black History Assembly. After toiling over my weak memorization skills, I stood in the mirror reciting select poems by Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks. I worked so hard to get a spot, and, finally, the day had come when I did it. I remember coming home, throwing my bookbag down, and running into the kitchen to tell my parents the good news. My mother, always loving, hugged me tight and squealed, "Baby, that's great!" Her excitement expressed itself in our embrace. My father, with a half-smile, said, "They got you doing a poem, huh?" "Yep!" I said, smiling so hard, making the balls of cheeks touch my eyelids.
"Binky," my father said, kneeling beside me, "they are only teaching you a tiny bit of your history." He stood up. My eyes took in his six-foot-three frame, "It's not all pretty." "Jerry, don't scare her!" My mother said, grabbing me close. My father shot back, "I'm not trying to scare her, but she's older now, and she needs to know who she is." My mother reluctantly loosened her grip. Each night after that, my father would take me on a journey through the terrible awful. He would lovingly censor as much as he possibly could, but how do you redact the truth? I was haunted and fascinated, proud and panged - and I was only 9. I wanted to run from it and towards it at the same time. From that point forward, I embraced my history as a well from which I would draw confidence and strength, but I could find myself drowning in sadness and pity in its depths. So I partitioned it off, to be visited only and not to be lived in. It simply hurt too much.
Fast forward to our kitchen - where I sit watching my daughter walk blindly, stumbling into her whole self. At that moment, I realized that I was doing a disservice to her and myself. Black history is beautiful, uplifting, and, yes, traumatic. But its importance is integral to the success of children, our communities, and our world at large. When we keep a piece from them, we leave out an ingredient in their makeup, the leavening from which they rise. So, as my dad took me on the journey, I allowed my husband to take my daughter's hand and walk her through all of her history, allowing her to pause, cry, ask, and embrace all of who she is. We were slaves - that is all behind us - but we have a responsibility to give our children the rearview so they can create what's in front.