Before my lovely little girl arrived, I used to think of how fun parenthood was going to be.
I have done a lot of teaching--from toddlers to retirees and everyone in between--and I love that kind of work with people. It's fun to be part of someone's growing experience and/or learning process. It's fun to watch a toddler learn about ants and fun to watch a teenager learn how to question authority (even mine) and fun to watch a grown up learn that something in the Bible that's bothered her all her life is not the awful thing it was represented to her as when she was 12.
But having my own child was going to be this opportunity to have a front-row, center seat on the whole process in the same person. In fact, just like teaching--perhaps even more than teaching--it would be a chance to be there with someone and learn to see things in new ways through her new eyes. I was really excited about all the things I would get to tell her and teach her and I was, frankly, excited about the fact that I would get to tell her my version of the truth first (well, alongside my partner's version, and they're the same anyway, often enough); that even as she grew and rebelled and learned other perspectives and perhaps changed her mind, I would at least be there to give her the groundwork, to provide the launching pad for the process.
What I never really thought about was the bad news. It never occurred to me that of course, I was going to have to figure out how to share some pretty tough information about this world she got born into without being asked if she wanted to be here. But now that she's here, I find myself worrying about this job from time to time.
Uncle Sasha will sometimes talk to her about how, as "brown women" they have to stick together. Once, she said something like that to Nat, looked up at me and said, "she doesn't know she's Black, yet!" Well, no, she doesn't. And as I've preached here, ad nauseum, she certainly will know it and she'll be proud of it if we have anything to say about it. But what we have to say is not the end of the story.
And thus I found myself bawling in the children's book section of our local bookstore last week, when Cole handed me a picture book about a little girl escaping from slavery with her family. I had an (adult) Harriet Tubman biography right there in my other hand, so my reaction took even me by surprise. But I hastily put the book back on the shelf and said "not yet, not today" while Cole wondered what the heck my weird mood swing was about.
It's not that Nat is Black. That fact changes the dynamics, of course, but I'd be sad having to break the news of American History to any child of mine of any race. It's hard enough breaking it to children who aren't mine, when they're not even quite children anymore. I have had college students look at me with tears streaming down their faces asking me why no one ever told them--in their 12 years of privileged education--what Columbus did to the Arawaks. And it's not as though I gave them some melodramatic lecture, I just assigned them chapter one of Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States.
But no child of mine is going to college without that information, and that means I get the job of telling her. No book can do that for me. Not that I don't think the picture book about the underground railroad is a great thing. I'm really glad such books exist, as they certainly haven't always been around. But the book, if it's a good one, will probably raise questions more than give answers and the story isn't a child's fairy tale, however happy the picture book's ending. Telling Nat the kinds of things that people have done to each other throughout history not because of racial difference, but just using racial difference as an excuse to treat each other as less than human--for profit, for sport, for sheer power--is not a job I relish. I'm just glad she's too little to know quite yet. It gives me time to come up with a plan.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe if I had a white child, I wouldn't have burst into tears at the bookstore. The news that your ancestral ratio of slaves to slave-owners weighs heavily (though doubtless, not exclusively) on the slave-owner side is bad news indeed. But it's bad guilt-inducing news. White guilt, in my opinion is entirely useless except as a starting point for getting serious about racial justice, but guilt is not the same as the thing I fear might happen to Nat when she hears the news that her ancestral ratio of slave to slave-owner weighs heavily (though doubtless, not exclusively) on the slave side. That little girl in the book looks like my little girl. And as much as I hope she'll read a book like that and see the little girl as the American hero she is, and be proud of her, I freeze when I contemplate how I, the mother who loves her beyond infinite treasure, can possibly explain to her that she--or anyway little girls who looked like her, 200 years ago--were regarded as subhuman property.
And in addition to freezing at the thought of breaking that news, I squirm with the knowledge that not having to break that news to my own child is a white privilege that I've lost. Does that make my tears in the bookstore whiny tears of entitlement vanished? Probably. Black parents have to do this sort of thing all the time. I remember the first time I realized that. I had a teacher's assistant in my preschool classroom who was black, and her kids came to the school with her some days. I overheard her once, talking to her children about a racist epithet someone had shouted on the playground and I thought "God what an awful thing to have to talk about with your kids!" I felt so sad for my colleague that her kids had to go through that. But I didn't think it was my problem, though of course, it was. It would be years before I realized that racism is more my problem than hers or any other of its targets.
Meanwhile, I realize that being the geneological decendent of people who struggled against oppression successfully for centuries and thrived and told the tale in beautiful art and literature is not all bad news. After all, I'm the teacher who tells my guilt-ridden white students that they might as well identify with Frederick Douglass as with Andrew Jackson; they're not related to either of them personally and they're both famous, dead Americans, but only one of them shares my students' professed values. I'm proud to say Ida B. Wells is my hero because she was an American fighting for justice and so am I.
But the little girl in the book looked like my baby and hard as it is for me to admit, it tugged my heart, not my head.