With Black History Month not too far behind us, the question of when to introduce children to the harsh realities of slavery is one that’s popped up on my Timeline more than once. I get it. It’s an extremely delicate balance between being honest and stealing our children’s innocence.
When I look my son in the eyes, I want him to always believe the world is a magical place filled with happiness; a place where old, fat, bearded men sneak into chimneys and bring gifts to all the good boys and girls and bad things never happen to good people – but we all know that isn’t true. I’ve always been an advocate for honesty. Nonetheless, I don’t want to be the Grinch that stole goodness either. That said, how young is too young to approach the topic of slavery?
Honestly, I don’t believe there’s one right answer to the question, and to tell someone else how to parent their child would be out of line. What I will say, however, is that it is of the utmost importance to introduce our children to our narratives and our truths before society attempts to.
I’ve always strived to talk openly with my son on a level that he could understand. After introducing African-American history as a part of our in-home studies, my then-4-year-old took it upon himself to ask what slavery was. The question was a natural progression, as we were in the midst of learning some of the most common black history facts. It never crossed my mind to shy away from the question.
I explained in very simple terms that slavery was when people who looked like us were forced to work long hours and do hard work, but were never given any pay. The concept of money is one that is very familiar to my son since the time I had to break down why we couldn’t go on an all-out Toys R Us shopping spree every weekend. At first, I wasn’t quite sure he understood. That’s when he looked up at me and said, “So they worked all day and couldn’t even buy any Thomas?” Bingo! At the time, Thomas the Tank Engine was a staple in our home. I knew then that on some level he understood.
I didn’t feel the need to go into the heart-wrenching and ugly atrocities that made up slavery. My baby understood that working all day with no reward wasn’t fair, and for the time being I was content with him equating slavery to “no toys.” In his mind that’s a vile injustice and, well, so was slavery, and that’s all he needs to know. How much you reveal to your child (on any subject) is largely about meeting them where they are. As parents, we know our children’s maturity, their ability to apply new concepts and ideas, their sensitivities and also our comfort levels as parents. When approaching subjects as harsh as slavery, it is imperative to take all these things into consideration.
I’ll never forget, I must have been only about 9 or 10 when my mother purchased The Black Book by Middleton A. Harris and Morris Levitt. She told me it had been one of her favorites and, as we stretched out over her bed, I thought we were in for a nice afternoon of reading. Black history has always been one of my favorite subjects, so I was eager to explore our newest read. She casually flipped the book about midways – and opened up to a page depicting the charred remains of a black man, surrounded by the smiling faces of a white audience. I was horrified. She explained that it was important for her to be with me when I came across that picture. She didn’t verbalize it, but she knew that she was my safe space and determined that I could handle the image, with her by my side, of course. After all, the picture portrayed reality; a reality that I’d escaped simply by time. I knew then if I ever had kids, I would be as honest with them as my mother had been with me.
Although some might perceive her methods as drastic, I assure you, I wasn’t scarred – well maybe a bit, but only in the way that type of thing is supposed to scar someone with a soul. My mom is a true ’60s baby, one with childhood poems concerning the unedited frontline images she watched from Vietnam every night and black velvet posters of afro-clad women riding panthers on her walls. She is the epitome of love, peace and soul, complete with a quirky, incense-burning Badu-type vibe, so she does things a little different. I love and appreciate her even more for it now that I’m older.
But more importantly than “keeping it real,” my mom always kept me informed. As African-Americans, our history didn’t start with slavery and it doesn’t end there either. Talking to children about slavery may be a little tricky, but talking about black accomplishments, history, inventions and culture never should be a challenge. When our children are faced with the bleak circumstances of the oppression of the past, it should be regarded as the dark period that it was, not a defining factor. Even as a little girl, I was proud to be black – simply because there is so much to be proud of. Although slavery should never be our shame, it’s essential to share all of our history with our children. Purchase the books that aren’t available in school, teach them about the important and unpopular figures in black history, introduce them to the customs and traditions that are significant to you, take them to museums that highlight our culture and contributions, talk about your family history, buy them toys that look like them and embrace the forums that represent the images of us that you want to see.
Slavery will always be a dark topic, whether you discuss it at 8 or 88. The important thing is to approach the subject in a way your child understands – and be willing to answer any questions that may arise. More than likely, you know your child better than anyone else in the world; use that to your advantage and meet them where they are.
But don’t just stop at slavery. Be sure to include all the magnificent history that is ours to claim. We’re amazing beyond measure.
TANITH RICE-HARRIS IS A SELF-PROCLAIMED AWKWARD BLACK GIRL AND ROMANCE NOVELIST.