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Gus Van Horn blog

Reblogged:The Fight Goes On

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I am home with my kids for the holiday and find myself ambivalent about the fact that my first-grade son learned about it when he did at school.

Image by Ebony Magazine, from National Archives via Wikipedia, public domain.
When I was his age, I attended a racially-mixed Catholic school in Jackson, Mississippi. In the 1970's -- when there were still plenty of people who felt comfortable using epithets in conversation, and nerves could be a little raw. Nevertheless, I also recall not really being aware of such a thing as "race" until something like third or fourth grade. (A girl's older brother and an adult female made this real for me, one by glaring at me and the other by teasing me in their efforts to get me to conform to the norms of the day.)

Based on past reading, I am pretty sure that most children that young aren't aware of race, either, and my general plan for addressing this issue was to tackle it as I thought I needed whenever it eventually came up. In other words, I wanted, as far as possible, for my son to remain innocent on this matter for as long as possible, and to experience himself and other children as individuals, and not as members of collectives. (Of course, an important part of this for me is being ready to discuss the matter in a way he can understand if circumstances dictate. Maybe I have to start earlier than I had hoped.)

"He taught white people and black people to get along." The intention is good, but ... this was the first time he ever used the term "black" to describe anyone: Before then, if skin hue factored in to how he described someone, he'd use terms like "pink," "white," and "brown." I had hoped he could continue to treat such attributes properly -- as noticeable, but accidental -- for a little bit longer, so as not to pollute his mind so early with the idea of classifying people into groups based on them.

And maybe he still can. Time will tell, and I know to keep an ear out in the future.

But on top of that, I am also not sure that much of what went on then would make sense to a child. (And that's even after glossing over the ugliness and brutality that occurred due to racism.) There are ways to essentialize and simplify, but I don't trust many people to do that well.

In sum, I think in normal circumstances, children haven't yet acquired sufficient knowledge or developed a matrix of concepts necessary to understand the full significance of the holiday.

But maybe I am being pessimistic. You can say that about all of the holidays.

Perhaps something like, "Martin Luther King helped us learn to treat each other fairly, no matter what we happen to look like," is the way to start. As I write, that's how I think I will frame the issue, should it come up. The positive lesson is bigger and more important than race, anyway.

-- CAV

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