Mama, Were You a Slave Too?
This is the question my 6-year-old asked me during our recent visit to Philadelphia, PA. We were standing in front of the President’s House/Slave Memorial, right before viewing the Liberty Bell (a bell named as such by anti-slavery abolitionists in the 1800s). This controversial exhibit works to both expose slavery under the roof of our nation’s “Father of Independence”, President George Washington, while also making sure that those who served Washington and his family, are not ignored nor forgotten in history.
The arguments over this memorial as it was first being put in place, and how angry people are over it, proves that we aren’t done with the conversation on race – not by a long shot.
For me it served as the first time I had ever really had something visual to show my children that related to the topic of slavery, around the topic of “freedom for all”. I have talked to them about it in other ways, in ways that they could hopefully understand and take in to their little 5- and 6-year-old minds.
With my teen, I often talk about how not that long ago, it was against the law for his father and I to wed because of the color of our skins.
When my son asked me this question, I was trying to explain, as both he and his younger brother were confused, why it was that those of darker skin were so afraid, even as free slaves.
“But, why?” asked my 6 year old.
I paused, trying to find the words. “Well, for no other reason than the color of their skin” and without noticing I had been pointing at my own.
He looked at my gesture as I pointed at my arm, than looked at me with sudden sadness in his eyes, “Mama, were you a slave too?!?”
When it comes to the conversation on race with children, many parents struggle. Some parents struggle in talking about the subject while riddled with their own insecurities and discomforts. Some over-attempt to be politically correct and non-offensive, while others rather not talk about it at all and are too defensive to listen.
Other parents talk about it from the very personal perspective and also refuse to listen.
The fact remains that the fight against slavery, as well as the civil rights movement, were not efforts fought for only by the community of color, nor were only members of the community of color the ones to fall victim to hate crimes. For this memorial, the same needed to happen. Diverse groups came together to incorporating the history of slavery in with the conversation of independence of our nation, something new and recent in many of Philadelphia’s exhibits and memorials today.
We need efforts like these with the full picture portrayed so clearly, despite how uncomfortable it may make some feel. We parents need to embrace this new push to educate our children with the complete history, and not just the parts that make us feel proud and honorable.
Of course, if I had been a slave, and I am sure that someone in my lineage was, it wouldn’t be as part of this country’s history, as I am of Caribbean descent. But the conversation on race remains an important one in my family, because as much as we have moved away from the times of slavery, and “Whites and Colored Only” signs, pretending it is no longer a topic worth discussing only opens us up to repeat the mistakes.
We see this now in communities with a history of exclusion and persecution who now band together in doing the same to others who are different from them, or whom they don’t understand.
We see it still in the hate crimes happening all over our country, against immigrants, against religious groups, against so many people whose practices, looks, and culture we do not understand. All this is still happening in a country of immigrants, who came here for the chance of freedom to be and believe as they wished.
It isn’t always about race, and we are a more global community, but I have never heard some one of color say these things, just someone who feels very annoyed and uncomfortable about the topic and would rather it just all go away.
Because pretending that I am not brown, and that people don’t see that, is not my reality, nor that of my children. I prefer to take the path of teaching my children how ugly our history was, and how beautiful, courageous people, from all walks of life and races, stood up together, fought together, died together so that they could stand here free today.
We are an immigrant nation built on the backs of slaves. We can’t teach honor and pride for country, or self, without understanding what this meant then and what it means now. History does, and can, repeat itself.
I have said before that my hope is that race stops being a way to label us, and that the growing number of biracial babies born into this country each day makes it that much more impossible to label people. But we aren’t there yet, and regardless of where we are now, the history of how we made it this far as a nation, as a people, is one our children need to learn from so that they truly appreciate their freedoms and can stand in defense of it for others.