During the last few years, I volunteered to teach a Black History Month lesson to my bonus daughters' 3rd- and 4th-grade classes. We live in a suburban community where our family comprises half of the African-American population for the entire elementary school.
When visiting each girl's class, I was nervous about making the presentations. I did not want our well-adjusted daughters to suddenly be ultra aware of their otherness. My fear was overcome by my desire for our children and their peers to be knowledgeable about the impact of race in America.
I started by discussing slavery and ended with positive achievements and contributions of black people. In all three classes, the first question came from an innocent white kid. Every kid wanted to know why white Americans did this to black Americans.
Now my 1st grader is old enough to ask the same questions. During Black History Month, he became obsessed with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Aside from a book about looking different because of chocolate skin, I had never engaged him in deep discussions about discrimination. When I was his age, my Black Panther parents had prepped me heavily about how hard it was for a black person to get ahead in life. My own parenting choice is not to scare my son about all the worst things that can happen, but to prepare him as best I can.
Last week, we were reading a book on the subject of MLK together. I asked tentatively, "Did you know that Martin Luther King was a hero?"
He answered, "To you and to me."
I asked, "Why?"
He said, "Because we're chocolate."
Once we got to the last page, which talked about the assassination, Lex asked me, "Mom, why did they kill him?" I explained that someone people did not like the good work that he was doing.
He just discovered his chocolate. I did not want to make his new identity melt.
Lex asked again, "But why not? I love Martin Luther King. Why didn’t they?”
I thought about the Obama poster that hangs over my fireplace as a representation of how far we have come. Then, I thought about the Southern girl that was recently set on fire because she was black. The truth is that when it comes to racism, it's complicated.
He just discovered his chocolate. I did not want to make his new identity melt. But I wanted him to be prepared for real life. I thought about the fact that we have playdates with white neighbors who think he is super cute. Ten years from now, when he picks one of their daughters up for Homecoming, they may consider him the enemy solely because of his brown skin. Obviously, that speech can wait until high school.
Then, I considered telling him the core truth. They hate us because we're black, because we are the country's permanent baggage, and because they think we're inferior. In the silence, he must have sensed my hesitation. He answered his own question, "The only way to stop hate is with love. That's what Martin Luther King said."