Chittlin's and Chopsticks

Writer and mother, Terris McMahan Grimes, the Mother From Another Continent, an her friends share their slighty off kilter parenting views and their takes on a whole lot of other things.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Slavery and Dental Hygiene

Fourth Grade Slavery Lesson
When my 29-year-old was in the 4th grade, the curriculum called for a more in-depth study of American history. There were two African Americans in her class, but she was the only one there the day her class discussed slavery.

Unwelcome Spotlight
Apparently neither I, nor the well meaning, liberal, parents of her classmates had done an adequate job of explaining to our children that aspect of our shared history. The students felt burdened by the information. My daughter’s burden had to do with her being the only direct descendant of American slaves in the room--fourth graders don’t like to stand out, for any reason—and she was worried about her Nana and Poppa being in the clear (The class hadn’t gotten to the Emancipation Proclamation. I can imagine how the children of illegal emigrants must feel.)

Apology but No Reparations
Her classmate’s unease had to do with the unfairness of the whole slavery thing. A few of them even turned to my daughter and apologized to her for it. This only made it worse because 4th graders have a peculiar sense of justice.

Peculiar Sense of Justice
I had seen this justice come into play on my niece’s last visit. She and my daughter, two 4th graders, had been doing their morning grooming when the little girl unintentionally spat a mouthful of toothpaste suds on my daughter’s wrist. My niece apologized sincerely and, unbidden, held her wrist out to my daughter who, without hesitation or any sign of anger; spat her sudsy mouthful on to it. That equalized things for them, and they went happily about their day—cousins and best friends.

Please Don't Let Them Vote
Don’t ask me what this means for us in our current discussion of our American heritage and slavery. The only think I can think of is don’t let 4th graders vote on reparations.

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At 3/03/2007 3:50 PM , Blogger Dave said...

You know, I am glad that you bring this topic up. I am coming off a US History course a couple semesters back that left me feeling very ambivalent and confused as to where I stood.

What I mean is this, I went through K-12 like any other kid, and noticed the large rifts in the text where we should have been discussing Afro or Native contributions and involvement, and they just were not there, or it took up all of one week out of the year or 20 pages of a 500 page book.

I can deal with the educations hidden agenda, its always been there as long as I can remember, and so I come to expect it, and cynically, skeptically tune out most of what I read and hear regarding racial and social historics.

But now, 10 years removed from all that, I am back in school, and (at the college level at least) there has been a drastic shift towards realism. We didn't just talk about slavery, we spent weeks discussing the atrocities surrounding it. To the point that I began to feel a need to disassociate with my own race/gender.

To compound the issue, our text detailed how the Cherokee nation was threatening the Spanish with war, because the Spaniards did not want to allow them to participate in the slave trade.

Before I get all worked up, and go way off on a tangent here, I just want to say that we need to be careful about what we ask for, and the degree to which we teach the stark and naked truth of our sordid American history.

The truth not only destroys ignorance, but it breeds contempt for a system that has been bereft of morality for many centuries. I left that course feeling like the whole of human history was one long string of terrible crimes that man perpetrates on man.

Now I'm not saying ignorance is bliss, because I would much rather live my life eyes wide open, but the more truth I uncover, the more I weep for humanity. The more I grow infuriated at how many mistakes we as a society, as a culture, repeat, despite having learned so many times before that it is wrong.

At 3/05/2007 8:40 AM , Blogger Fredric said...

i feel you dave. one thing we have to keep in mind, however, is that frustration and anger never breed progress. despite the deep wounds of the past, it will always be the responsibility of the younger generations to foster dialogue and have open, honest discussions. it will always be the responsibility of the older generations to pass the stories down so that those who come later know where they come from.

ultimately, we all have to seek 'balance' when a topic such as slavery, reparations, racism, stereotypes, even homophobia tend to spark such emotional responses.

At 3/05/2007 8:40 AM , Blogger Fredric said...

sorry, every time i do a preview, my comment gets messed up.

the last part of that was, check out our site as well if you have time.

At 3/05/2007 3:23 PM , Blogger Mother said...

Dave and Fredric, thank you for your comments.

Dave, I know it is hard to keep faith in human nature the more you learn about our true history and the atrocities of slavery, but do not despair and whatever you do, do not turn away.

I suggest you focus more on fiction for a while. Read Toni Morrison, Clarence Major, Zora Neal Hurston, Earnest Gaines, Walter Moseley, even me. Fiction puts history in perspective. Fiction is the only genre that allows you understand feelings, hopes, and beliefs of a culture. Read about the courageous Quakers, John Brown, the Underground Railroad, and Harriet Tubman. Read slave narratives. The human spirit is powerful and beautiful. We, have a rich heritage to be proud of.

And remember--keep it simple. Slavery was all about the Benjamins, money--getting something without working for it, without paying for it. A whole culture grew up in support of it, but it really was quite simple.

Fredric, I agree with you wholeheartedly. We must keep talking to each other just as you, Dave, and I are doing now.

At 3/06/2007 1:08 PM , Anonymous Pearl said...

I love that spitting toothpaste suds solution.

A class on slavery has got to be hard to do well. The teacher assumes that everyone knows how it all turned out but there's no relationship tying to now, at least not when I studied it either.

The only curriculum reference to Jews was pictures in Auschwtiz. The only reference to Irish was "no jews, dogs or irish" admitted sign, and fenian terrorists. The only reference to blacks in history courses pre-university was the underground railroad. There's got to be a way to frame things better.

At 3/06/2007 3:46 PM , Blogger Mother said...

Thanks, Pearl. Fairness means so much to young folk. Maybe we should retain a little of that as we age.

I think you've hit upon something, Pearl. American history hasn't been inclusive, the way it has been taught. The only time blacks, Indians, Jews, and others were mentioned was as an aside, and as helpless victims.

There is a better way. Before studying the "state version" of slavery, students should read and discuss slave narratives--nothing else. They would get a feel for the humanity of America's enslaved people. Students would learn about their bravery, perseverande and yearning for lost family.

At 3/07/2007 5:28 AM , Blogger Dave said...

Mother, even this approach would require the teacher to guide the student towards a certain perspective. From what I have noticed, even college level students seem either unable, or non-desirous of critically analyzing a work and feeling it. When they do internalize it to some degree, they usually keep it hidden from the group, afraid to speak up and be heard. Until the instructor pokes and pleads them into discourse. Either that or they flat out misinterpret.

If only our culture glorified the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, we wouldn't be in this mess. If we as a people were legitimately hungry to learn, we wouldn't even need exposure, we would seek it out.

Instead the impression I get, (and this could just be bad luck, or the fact that I am at community college at the time and have not yet experienced university attitudes)is that students just want to get through material as fast as possible, making snap reactionary, surface level judgments of a work.

Use August Wilson's Fences as an example. After reading that the students were asked what they felt were the underlying issues in the play, and the average approach was to vilify Troy Maxim. He's a bad father, a bad husband, so on and so forth. They completely glossed over the meat of Wilson's philosophy.

I guess my only point is that while I agree with the idea of exposure through non-traditional material, we need teachers to be aware that whatever that material may express, it is their (the instructor's) viewpoint that ultimately shapes the discussion, and sets the tone by which the students will process the material in their own minds.


At 3/13/2007 2:40 PM , Blogger Mother said...

Dave, I'm afraid you're right. What can people like you and I do?

Have considered teaching?

At 3/14/2007 8:26 AM , Blogger Dave said...

I have. One thing that prevents me is that I get nervous while speaking in front of large groups. I hear tell that it is different when you are in front of students than when before peers, but I don't know.

At 3/17/2007 3:32 PM , Blogger plez... said...

This is an interesting read, I have a post on my blog that touches on a move by Georgia legislators to create a Confederate History and Heritage Month in the state of Georgia. This bill will allow them to glorify the era of slavery and redefine the reason for the Civil War (state's rights and unfair taxation).

We must be careful that we do not loose sight of the inhumanity that slavery wrought on this country and its damaging effects on the psyche of the Black community to this day. Thanks mother!

At 3/18/2007 12:43 PM , Blogger Mother said...

Plez, thanks for the visit and the comment. I'm headed to your blog now.


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