My seven-year-old daughter is learning about slavery. It is Black History Month, and her second grade curriculum focuses on the Underground Railroad. Emily is a very bright, empathetic child, and I am watching her process this information in her imaginative play at home. She talks about helping slaves escape and creates plays with her dolls that feature slaves being led to freedom. Her impulses are sweet and her sense of fairness is strong. She aligns herself with those that helped slaves win their freedom. And I wonder what else she has internalized.
Does she now think, as would never have occurred to her before, that when she sees a black person someone in their family must once have been a slave? Is she starting to see blacks as needing white assistance to win their freedom and unable to win it for themselves? Can she imagine herself as the oppressed slave, or does she default to the benign but paternal role of agent of the slave's redemption? The obvious part for her in this particular version of history is that of the good Northern white person. What will she make of the far more complex history of race relations in America that does not spare the Yankee any more than it absolves the defenders of Dixie?
I do not fault the school for its simplified, even sanitized 2nd grade curriculum. Seven-year-olds are not ready to look at burned, lynched corpses and smiling white vigilantes. But my obligation as a parent, as an historian, and as one who knows deep in his private soul that I am not free of the taint of prejudice, prompts me to listen to my daughter and offer additional information, sensitively and straightforwardly, and respect her intelligence as well as her tender years to work through what we share.
There is a Namibian proverb that goes; "You cannot smell yourself; let another smell you." We become accustomed to our stench. How do we respond when we are told that we stink? Is soap and water sufficient to cleanse the body, or is it now a reeking corpse? Or is it more the offended person's issue, a pendulum swung too hard the other way? We are on perilous ground, bad enough for adult angst, let alone a growing child.
Over the next few days, Walking the Berkshires will take a hard look at the narrative of race in our family tree and our minds today. I am not yet sure where all this may lead, but I do know that it is not enough to deconstruct the myths that we tell each other about our pasts and prejudices, but to build up a new paradigm - more honest, less damning - if we have any hope of doing better. I do not believe in original sin, though some patterns run very deep and are very hard to overcome. It does not begin or end with the sins of our fathers, nor with personal responsibility though that has its part as well. It begins by looking hard at ourselves and in some very awkward places, but it cannot end there. Most of us crave redemption, and tend to project that desire on those we have wronged, but like the song goes; "None but ourselves can free our minds."