Protecting the Fragile Self Image

Jim Crow
Flickr by 77krc

So daughter number one (Thing One or T-One) complained to me the other day that she had to do yet another paper on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She then went on to explain how she’ll have to do a paper a year all the way up through middle school. Still being of single digit age, I doubt my daughter has any real understanding of King’s significance, especially in the Obama era.

I asked her what was wrong with writing a paper a year on King. She responded that she was running out of things to say. Mind you, each paper so far has been a one paragraph essay. She went on to explain, “All he did was help end segregation!” (As if that’s some small feat.)

My mother (The Duchess), who was in earshot, gasped. “All he did?” My mother grew up in the segregated south, participated in sit-ins and marched on Washington in ’63. So to her saying that s all King did was, well, a little disappointing. But my mom wasn’t so disappointed in my daughter. She was disappointed in me. Somehow I had dropped the ball in making my daughter aware of her history. Where we had been as people of color in this country and how far we had come.

“That little girl needs to know!” 

Immediately I began to cull together some things on the internet about and by King. The goal was to gather and compile material to convey to my daughter the greater significance of King’s life beyond what he did in fighting segregation. My first stop was his “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” in which King wrote to his fellow clergyman after being jailed for civil discord. The letter is famous for explaining why we could not wait for justice. In it he explained the difference between just and unjust laws.

A couple of weeks ago I had had a conversation with T-One about rules and why some should be followed, some can be bent and others should be broken. King was basically having the same conversation with the clergymen. I felt in good company. As I was reading the letter for my daughter (and re-reading for myself) I was struck by King’s examples.

“Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait’. But… when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality… when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’ then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

King was talking about the immediate effects of a terrible institution. But I wonder if he anticipated or could even fathom the long term effects. My parents always told me I could be anything. But if I am to be completely honest, something deep in me did not allow me to believe them fully. Although I have never lived during the time of segregation, the “history” I had been taught told me my parents weren’t quite telling me the truth, unintentionally or not. America was against me I thought. Self-doubt was in me.

This isn’t a unique feeling. Doubts run rampant. No matter how confident each of us as dark brown people (we are all some shade of brown) in America feel there is a nagging doubt that we can have it all. One of the most asked questions of prominent dark brown people the days leading to Obama’s inauguration was, “Did you think you’d ever see?” To a person they all said no. That includes Oprah, Jesse Jackson, Colin Powell, Whoopi Goldberg, John Lewis and Mya Angelou and anyone else you could name. Although most of these people lived during the segregation era, many others including Will Smith, did not. But Smith felt the same doubt. On Oprah’s show Smith exclaimed that he always believed in the American ideal that anyone can do anything in this country. But, he didn’t really believe it until Obama was elected president. This cat makes $80 million a year! And he had doubts!?

So here I am wondering how much my daughter should be told about her, our “history”. I would not want the simple knowledge of where we’ve been as a country and how she would have been treated because she’s a little too brown to become ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky. Or for her to feel even on a microscopic level the need to fight a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”. I’m thinking her ignorance is a blessing. At least for now, and hopefully forever, there is nothing in her mind that would tell her a dark brown person (thanks Barack!) or a woman (thanks Hillary!) can’t be the thing she wants. I don’t want to put those thoughts in her mind by trying to teach “history”.

Does that little girl need to know? Maybe. But maybe some things are better left unsaid.

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  1. This is a really insightful, emotive piece, Ben. I probably shouldn’t attempt to intelligibly comment on this at 12:30am! However, you ask a really important question-does Thing One really need to know the history of African American people-the degradation; the errant injustice in treatment, perception, conception, of people whose only “fault” was one they had no control over-the color of their skin. I’ve pinballed through a myriad of thoughts and feelings in regards to our history and my lack of knowledge of it. We, my sisters and myself, always grew up being told that we were African-American. However, most of the resentment or negative vibes we experienced, in terms of race, were from our brothers and sisters because we were light-skinned. We were perceived as stuck up and “not really black”. I don’t know if this is why I have never really thought in terms of race, of “defining” myself as an African-American or if it’s just me being me. But, as I’ve aged, I’ve realized a connection with “my people”, in general, that is inarticulate. Of couse, I have connections with people from all races and backgrounds, but this is different. And I would go so far to say, that a lot of that has to do with where we came from and the struggle that our ancestors endured and overcame. I think this struggle is such an underlying part of who we are and is so ingrained in the fabric that weaves us together that we feel it and know it without having to acknowledge it all of the time. It just is. And I think that that energy is something that is applicable to any group of people who have struggled or are connected to a struggle. Maybe Thing One doesn’t have to know about the past right now, maybe only in easily digestible bits at this point in her early life, but it may make her life that much more rich and her purpose that much more certain. Or maybe not. I think, as a parent, the goal is to teach your kids what you think will benefit them, but, at some point, know and accept that they will use the knowledge or decide that it isn’t beneficial to them. I think you feel strongly about imbibing her with her ancestral history and, that’s ok. Does this make any sense or did I just babble for half an hour!!??

  2. Ben,

    I feel your plight brother. A couple years ago I gave my niece a book about Malcolm. It was a biography written for children that I gave her because she saw a poster of Malcolm that I had up on my wall and began asking me about him.

    Back in December, I asked her a question about Malcolm and she couldn’t answer it, so I took her to Barnes & Noble and bought her her own copy of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and tasked her to read it.

    The schools are always going to teach our kids about Martin because historically Martin was not deemed a threat. I believe that as black parents we need to fill that void and make things balanced for them.

    Next on my niece’s reading list …
    “Dreams of my Father” by (President) Barack Obama

  3. I have 5 minutes before the next patient walks in, so I can’t say all that I want to say. As I was reading what you were writing, I thought about the fact that my Jewish friends do not contemplate telling their kids about the holocaust…I think it is all in the way that you talk to you children. Our history is our history, the good and the bad. It is the struggle that makes many of us strive – we should never forget to pass on the story of why we can do the things we can do today. And don’t forget, it can be argued…has all that Martin and Malcom fought for really come to fruition yet. We can’t get comfortable because Barack made it, and neither should our children. For every Barack Obama, there are at least 10 Pat Robertson’s and our children need to be informed of all that we can do in the face of racism and in spite of the hatred.

  4. Our history is tragic, yet triumphant!
    When my son was 11 or 12 he was profiled outside the corner Pack-a-Sack. Imagine–your 5th grade honor student being interrogated by the township police, while waiting on his friend inside the store. Just because (you can fill in the blank :). He didn’t quite understand our outrage.
    When my son was 21 he was given the opportunity to vote for a black man as President of the United States. It was first time voting in a presidential election. He didn’t quite understand our joy. (I am cheesing as I write this!)
    Situations will present themselves, organically, that will push you to provide your daughters with your take on our complex history and it’s legacy. Be glad–our history is a beautiful one of strength, perserverance and overcoming. Thank you Dr. King!
    And, thank you for your post and that excerpt–it’s an excellent reminder of why Dr. King deserves our remembrance.