Before There Was Slavery

The title of this post is not addressing the time before humanity ever began enslaving one another (if there even is such a time), nor is it referring to the time before the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. What I’ve been thinking about lately is the time before a Black American child is ever told about slavery, about Jim Crow, about the lynching parties, about the experiments on black bodies, about the complete annihilation of the cultural identities and inheritances that should have been ours by birthright.

Personally, I can’t remember a Before. By the time we discussed slavery in school, I already knew about it. I have to assume that my family told me, but I don’t even know that for sure. My education regarding slavery in school was pretty much along the lines of: “There were slaves, and then Lincoln freed the slaves because he was so kind towards black folks, and then there was Jim Crow, and then white people saw the error of their ways and ended that out of the goodness of their hearts (oh, and MLK wrote one speech, which was helpful), and now everyone is equal, yaaay!” As I mentioned in Raising a Woman of Color, Part III: History, the stuff that we DIDN’T learn about greatly outweighed the amount that we actually did learn about.

I’m thinking about Eve, and I wonder how I’m going to tell her. I don’t want her to learn the pathetic, watered-down, can’t-really-blame-nobody version that I learned in school. Leaving it up the the schools is simply not an option. But, like most parents, I also don’t want to hurt her. And how can I possibly tell her the truth without hurting her?

When it comes to sex ed, I feel very confident. There will be no singular “sex talk” with Eve; we will be talking consistently and comprehensively about her sexuality and how to keep it healthy for her entire life. I’ll introduce certain topics in a way that is appropriate for her level of understanding; I hate to call it “age-appropriate” because children vary so wildly in their development, and what is appropriate for one 7-year-old may not be for another 7-year-old. I guess the discussion will be more Eve-appropriate, since her own mental, emotional, and physical development is what will help guide us in educating her about her sexuality.

But when it comes to this, I feel a lot less confident. I want to do the same thing, to make race and racism and our cultural heritage a lifelong conversation, but I am at a loss when it comes to deciding what is Eve-appropriate and when to introduce it. Is there ever a good time to tell a child that hir foremothers were raped, beaten, mutilated, and murdered for fun and profit? That this country was built on our backs and that the whites in charge will never admit it and will never pay us for that labor? That every time someone refers to America as “a nation of immigrants” they are lying through their teeth?

I don’t know. I don’t know if Eve should hear that at age 7, when she may still be very much be focused on learning through play (and how do you learn slavery through play? On second thought, don’t answer that.). Or at 12 when she’s just starting her period for the first time and dealing with the changes that come with menarche. Or even at age 17 when she’s struggling through that eternally long in-between stage of childhood and womanhood.

I know that I said earlier that I can’t remember Before. That was true, in that I don’t remember ever being unaware that once upon a time, a long time ago, black people were forced to work for white people, which according to some whites “wasn’t that bad.” But I do remember Before I learned the full extent of the horrors that were visited upon us, Before I read about Emmett Till, Before I discovered Mississippi appendectomies, Before I learned how IQ tests were weaponized against us.

I didn’t learn about all of that until well into adulthood; and rather than feeling grateful for having been spared the knowledge as a child or teenager, I was angry. I AM angry. I spent so much of my life being so completely ignorant of what really happened, and I think of that former self – of the me that was Before – and I don’t think too kindly of her or the way that she regurgitated the racist memes that she internalized. Whether or not that’s fair is a topic for another day.

I just can’t help but feel that there is no age-appropriate or Eve-appropriate way to tell a child what has happened to us. I can’t help but feel that whether she is five or fifteen or fifty, she won’t help but feel wounded, as I did at first, and then angry, as I do now. The fact is that as a mother of color, I owe it to my child of color to educate her about her oppression and to arm her against her oppressors.

The truth will hurt her, but I owe her that pain. It belongs to her in the same way that it belongs to me.

That is our cultural inheritance now. That is our birthright. That is the mark (one of many) that slavery has left on us.

After.

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9 Responses to “Before There Was Slavery”

  1. LIE Links | Love Isn't Enough - on raising a family in a colorstruck world Says:

    […] Before There Was Slavery  [She Has My Eyes] […]

  2. Choleandjo Says:

    I have a lot of thoughts but I want to think them out more. Anyway, interesting post and you’re right, there is no “___-appropriate” way to talk about the realities of slavery and oppression, particularly when they are not just bygone days that no longer have any bearing on her (and your) life. I think being the awesome educated person you are will go along way, because you can provide information alongside information she may learn in school. Not in gory detail, particularly when she is younger, but certainly in more accurate detail than ever will be provided in school. You can also influence her through literature and art and music and museums and all the ways we all learn our (over glorified, unrealistic) histories.

    My feeling reading this is the feeling that it’s the battle between providing a sense of hopefulness/optimism for a child and a grasp of reality. Or maybe it’s the battle of sharing honest emotion versus protecting Eve in some ways. Or something. Clearly I need to think this through more!

    • August Says:

      Give me all your thoughts! I’m greedy!

      My feeling reading this is the feeling that it’s the battle between providing a sense of hopefulness/optimism for a child and a grasp of reality. Or maybe it’s the battle of sharing honest emotion versus protecting Eve in some ways.

      I suppose it really is about balancing everything that you mention here. I feel like my duty as a parent means I need to do all four to some extent simultaneously (provide a sense of hope, grasp of reality, be honest, AND protect her).

  3. Mamita Mala Says:

    I never have lied to my children about their history and how we ended up in this place called the United States. When my older daughter was younger, her history, the history of colonization, rape wasn’t told to her straight up in stories. I told her the stories that our ancestors weren’t allowed to tell or were told in whispers. The rest I exposed her to little by little by allowing her to witness struggle, that is the ways that we are still fighting the legacies of colonialism and the new battles. I carried her to rallies, she colored at political education meetings, and babbled into tv mics and bullhorns. She played at the edges of stages at rallies an bars as I spit political poetry. So that as horrifying as the truth is, it is the truth and not revealed as a horrific surprise when she is older. Now at age 13, my older daughter may not be an activist but I am proud that she is wise and is armed with the truth. I am proud that she looks at the world around her with a critical eye

    Wow sorry for the long comment.

  4. lifelearner Says:

    Wow! Beautifully written. I share the burden and I too learned later in life the true history of being African-American in this country. I have 2 sons, 4yrs old and 14mths old, I ask myself the same questions, being an African-American mother. I will teach them, no doubt about it, through the subtly, I guess. Thank you for your words.

  5. theroamingnaturalist Says:

    What is the solution and compensation to the pain and the rage?

  6. poeticdesires Says:

    I think if you just stay who you are, calling out the BS of your everyday, pointing out the small injustices, and taking note of how different our lives are to the fairy tale that is post-racial America, you’ll do a better job than most parents, mine especially included.

  7. theroamingnaturalist Says:

    I don’t know if it applies, but I wanted to mention something I’ve seen with kids when it comes to all the environmental destruction they’re seeing and being taught around them. They’re heartbroken by the injustice and they don’t understand why rational adults would make such poor choices. What happens, at least with the teens, is they get really hopeless – so what we try to do is encourage them to also see what people ARE doing about, that change IS being made (even if slowly, at a grassroots level) and most of all, that THEY have the personal power to make change.

    I know it’s 2 totally separate ideas and topics and whatnot, but I find that teaching kids hope and self-empowerment in the face of senselessness is paramount to them getting through it. Not that you need to know that, just musing.

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