It was the same shock I experienced when, in high school, a white classmate said he did not want to attend the Black History Month assembly I had planned. “Learning about Black history should be voluntary,” he whined. I could not understand. I had listened to Elie Wiesel address our entire school and considered his words part of my education. While the Holocaust had not ravaged my family, how could I ignore that it had nearly destroyed my neighbor’s? How could hatred not be personal?
When I met with my principal to discuss the pushback from the boy I had thought was my friend, he said, “I’ve had students coming up to me in the halls asking when we are going to have White History Month.”
I listened, waiting for the one-two punch. Surely, he had set them straight.
“I told them we can have White History Month, too!”
Black bodies, it seems, absorb shock. My principal went on about his business that day. I was the one left untethered and unprotected.
I chose to chaperon my daughter’s field trip rather than keep her home from school. Maybe I would be pleasantly surprised by the tour guide’s ability to make this country’s haunting legacy of slavery relevant to curious first-grade minds.
Plantations can have historic and educational value. But not without pain, not without a reckoning. I know plantations are the sites of weddings, corporate picnics and family gatherings these days. Where some people see beautiful gardens and trees, I cannot help but see the strange fruit hanging from them.
I had to prepare my daughter. She could not wear her special class T-shirt and load the school bus thinking she would visit a botanical garden. “As a black parent, I feel like we are often interjecting the facts that are conveniently left out or are uncomfortable to discuss,” my best friend texted me. Her daughter had also visited a plantation on a school field trip in North Carolina. She had come home talking about cotton fields and tiny houses and native crops — with no mention of slaves who worked the land.
Especially on the heels of the white supremacist attacks in Charlottesville last summer, my daughter and I have talked more frequently about racism, slavery, inequality and violence. Because she is 7, the timeline does not always stick.
“Will we see slaves there?” she asked days before the trip.
I had to tell her no, but then yes, she would have been a slave, and then circle back to the caveat, a nuanced Freedom Song for Black parents today, filled with the same longings of yesterday. The structure goes something like: “Even though blacks aren’t slaves and blacks and whites can go to school together, blacks still are treated unfairly and face discrimination.” I can change the words to reflect the details of the most recent atrocity. The song endures; its bare bones never break.
Even as I signed in at the office the morning of the trip, I could not help but think of the other excursions that might have inspired my daughter’s mind: maybe a visit to the National Air and Space Museum or a local animal park or a dairy farm or a bakery. There had to be a way to meet statewide learning objectives without making her feel like an outsider or afterthought. She will have a lifetime filled with opportunities to see herself distorted through the white gaze.
As I entered my daughter’s classroom, and her teacher explained what students would do on the trip, including performing chores and playing games children long ago played, a white student jumped up on his chair and shouted, “I wanna do slavery!” Apparently, I was not the only parent talking to my child about plantations, or historic houses with gardens.
I made the most of that day. I cheered my daughter on when the girls faced off against the boys in a game of tug-of-war. I watched her play “cup and ball” and barrel of monkeys and choked down the thought that my baby would not have been playing those games. I watched her take a class photo and beamed that the quiet girl who once feared going to school now felt at ease with her classmates.
When we visited the last station on our trip, the “big house,” I listened intently. Speaking of a white landowner, the tour guide said, “But he didn’t build all this on his own! He had help from slaves.” She asked the kids who slaves were and finished the quick lesson with, “We don’t have slaves today.” That happened on the porch. Then we entered inside and spent a long time looking at portraits of slave owners and their families and imagining what their lives must have been like.
When I asked my daughter later what she learned from the trip, she remembered the slave owner’s name. He had lived in that big house, she said. Resentment radiates from my chest when I consider how places of pain for black people are still places of pleasure for whites.
Still, I was all set to absorb the shock and pain of the day. By standing alongside my daughter on the trip and interjecting historical truths along the way, was I doing anything other than teaching her to quietly absorb the shock, as well?
In the Marvel hit Black Panther, T’Challa’s vibranium suit is extraordinary because it absorbs the kinetic energy of an enemy’s attack and holds it until T’Challa is ready to redirect that energy at his target. Virginia is no Wakanda, and I do not want my daughter slaying people with her words or actions, but as her parent, I can redirect the blow of the status quo in constructive ways.
I do not have to teach her to swallow down microaggressions like cod liver oil. One of our family friends simply confronts people in the moment. “That’s a microaggression,” he’ll say to the offender. He refuses to hold the wound for them.
As a nonconfrontational introvert, as someone who grew up being told White History Month could be a thing, I would like to just stew in my corner and then move on. But my daughter’s watching, and she deserves more. So I asked for a meeting with her teacher, who planned the field trip.
I like my daughter’s teacher, which makes this conversation even harder, but more important. It is often not the card-carrying white supremacist who upholds the status quo. It is my hope that, as parent and teacher, we can start to wrestle with the pain of the past, the persistent inequality of today and the goal we share of creating an educational space where my daughter feels safe and relevant. We should not need to live in Wakanda for that to be a reality.
Taylor Harris is a writer and stay-at-home mom living in Virginia. Her work has been featured in Catapult, Longreads, New York Magazine, Narratively, McSweeney’s, and other publications. Find her on Twitter @thurris.
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