These topics come up because of something Ben is learning in school. Part of me wishes they would give us some warning. But then I realize that if they left it up to group rule, our poor kids wouldn’t learn anything, because adults would argue over when it’s appropriate to bring up certain topics.
Ben, in 3rd grade, was learning the story of Harriet Tubman, who helped usher people along the Underground Railroad to freedom. He started telling me the part of the story he knew, and what he’d heard about slavery. It was so hard to hear my eight-year old talking about such things, and hearing the anger in his voice. It was hard to see him turn against himself in just a moment, and experience white guilt right before my eyes.
I was unprepared to speak about this. In an effort to speak a moment of calm and beauty on my own heart before getting into this, I reached out for the book, Beloved, by Toni Morrison. I ruffled through the pages for the powerful moment when Baby Suggs (comma) holy, speaks her heart to the gathering of people in a clearing in the woods. She tells the children first to come, to let their mothers hear them laugh. Then to the men, she tells them to let their families see them dance, and they lift up their legs and arms and dance in the clearing. She tells the women to come, to cry, to cry for what they’ve lost, and to cry for what they love. The women cry.
Before long things get mixed up, the women dance, the men cry, the children dance and the women laugh,. Baby Suggs, holy, speaks to them about loving themselves, loving their hands, and arms and their necks, which the white man does not love to see free. It is one of the most beautiful, magnificently spiritual, holy encounters I have ever read. It makes me cry and it makes me glad that we are more now, we are better, we are learning as a country to be whole, to not see part of us as less than. We are not all the way there. We are nowhere close. But we have made progress.
My poor son rages against the inequality. He reacts with anger toward anyone who has ever thought they could own another human being. He wants to lash out. I have to help him see that this is not current in our country. This is not what we believe anymore. The seed has been planted in his heart, that people were once singled out for their skin color, and he knows that is wrong. He wants to be angry at all white people, then he wants to be angry at himself, because he is part of history, he says. He was born in the past, several years ago, so technically that means he is part of history, and this happened in history, and he is angry that he wasn’t able to stop it.
My heart is huge for this boy, with all his poet-warrior strength. I want to channel his energy into positive outputs. I cannot shield him from the ugliness of some of our history. I do not want to stop talking about it either. I explain that we do what we can with what we know, and it’s our job to continually be doing better and learning to be better.
I accidentally stumble upon the Maya Angelou quote that is lodged somewhere in my brain, and I search for it to share it:
“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” ― Maya Angelou
We talked about many of the improvements we have made as a people. We talked about science and how for a long time, people believed the earth was flat, and what a strange concept it must have been to even consider a sphere shaped planet. We have grown up with that thought – but really – that is a crazy notion. We talk about how scientists and great thinkers have helped change the world little bits at a time; as we learn more, and as we see things that need to be changed, ordinary great people have always come forward to help the rest of us see what needs to be seen.
It is an awesome task to be responsible for shaping a young man’s mind. I do not ever want to take that as anything less powerful and sacred than it is. It befuddles me and keeps me very much alert to teachable moments in his life. And the need to hug him madly for as long as he will let me.