“One day,” I told J while hammering a political protest sign to our dining room wall, “you can sell this to the American History Museum and make a million dollars!”
Apparently, this declaration was too absurd to merit even a dismissive remark from my 13-year-old. He walked away.
J knows his mother can be silly. He also knows that social activism is central to our family values.
I have been taking J on political campaigns since he was 5 years old. As a child, he played superheroes while I called registered voters. During the 2008 election, J read on the floor while I called voter protection lawyers at phone banks. Another time, I took him on a long day of canvassing in Virginia. I was thrilled to show my son democracy in motion! Unfortunately, J’s strongest memories of the day involve people slamming their doors in our faces. Nonetheless, it was still democracy in motion. And for that reason, I was excited that he could watch.
My family’s history in activism goes back generations. My great-grandfather was an itinerant minister in Alabama who was also opinionated and charismatic. Like so many African American World War I veterans who had witnessed racial equality overseas, he was frustrated with the discrimination he experienced upon his return to the United States. With his legendary blue eyes and very light skin, he could have passed for white, but he identified as Negro and focused his ministry on promoting the advancement of African Americans.
As you might have already guessed, being an outspoken African American minister in post-war Alabama was asking for trouble.
The Ku Klux Klan came to visit one night. They killed a toddler. My family left town within hours.
Would my great-grandparents ever have imagined that someday life would bring one of their descendants back to the South? That descendant would be my mother.
She participated in Greensboro’s first sit-in when she was 11 years old. While studying at Palmer Memorial Institute, a finishing school for African American girls, my mother was permitted one trip to town each month. On their trip in February 1960, the girls saw a group of “big kids” picketing in front of Woolworth’s. The big kids urged passers-by to boycott the store due to its discriminatory practices. Around lunchtime, the college students announced a plan to sit at Woolworth’s lunch counter and ask to be served. One of the Palmer girls volunteered to participate. (“It wasn’t me!” says my mom.)
Bravely, the girls and college students took their places at the counter. Sodas were ordered, but none served. Eventually, the manager appeared. “You Palmer girls had better leave or else we are going to call the school!” The girls exited immediately.
As courageous as I find these family stories, J regards them simply as “history.” What our kids see us doing matters more than what we tell them.
My mother devoted her career in social work to protecting sexually abused children. Despite the low pay and high stress, mom was fiercely dedicated. I vividly remember her enthusiasm when preparing to serve as a witness for her clients in court. My mother, my heroine.
By engaging in social activism with my son, I have tried to convey the values my mother demonstrated. I want him to know that one person can make a difference in the world and that, if he works with others, he can make a big difference.
J follows the news and has political discussions with peers and adults.
“I should know what’s going on in case my politician does something stupid,” J explains. “Even though I’m a kid and I have no rights, I can convince a grownup it’s stupid and maybe they can write a petition.”
This month, I will be taking two weeks off work to volunteer for President Obama’s campaign. I can hardly wait.
Every person and every family can work toward achieving societal change. We have not brought our sons and daughters into a perfect country or a perfect world. It’s up to us to make things better and show our children the way.
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