How Black History Lessons Cripple Our Children

4 years ago

I cringe to think that our ancestors suffered so that we could continually rehash their suffering. Yet, this is what we tell our children : “Once upon a time, sweetie, white people used to beat the hell out of black people. They raped us, starved us and treated us like animals because they felt that was what we were. We were less than human in their eyes. They made fun of our hair and our lips. They thought were had no morals, no intellect. They did everything in their power to make our lives miserable because they were convinced we were inferior. The End. Now carry that with you into life, pumpkin.”

I can honestly say that as a child, I hated going to school when we got to the portion of our history books that discussed slavery. Even though there were other black students in the same grade of elementary school that I was, I was, for several years, the only black person in my class. I was a happy child with plenty of books, toys and pets at home to keep me in a state of bliss. The last thing I wanted was for my classmates to see me in the role of the victim when I didn’t feel like a victim of life. But by the mere turn of a page, I became the token object of pity, with no other black student available to dilute my discomfort. It wasn’t that I had no curiosity about the subject of slavery. I did. But I preferred to flip through encyclopedias and learn about it in the privacy of my own home. As I said, I was a happy child. There had been nothing in my experience, including the stories about racism my elders shared, that made me feel as though I could relate to being a slave. The stories were painful to hear, but very foreign and distant. In no way can I be persuaded to believe I was an insensitive child. But I did possess, in my early years, before preteen insecurity and high school, peer pressure hell, a strong sense of who I was. And I was very protective of myself when it came to what I chose to bring into my experience. In those years, the pages of Time magazine were minefields, where I could run across a photograph of a Vietnamese person with a leg that had been blown to bits. The evening news was just as dangerous, with stories of tear gas, deadly riots and curfew. I came to know there was much about life I wanted no part of.

With equal certainty, I knew what I loved. What I was drawn toward. What made me, me.

If we adults were to think back, I’m sure we could all recall some period that felt like pure potentiality. A time when we felt unencumbered and authentic.

We often refer to babies as blank slates, meaning that they are open, absorbent and impressionable. I prefer to think of them as fully defined souls who are gradually sidetracked and diverted by adult obsessions, preoccupations and expectations. I believe that as adults, we consider our children’s sex, race and circumstances and proceed to tell them who they are or who life will allow them to be. 

I believe we must stop doing that. If we truly desired progress, enlightenment and evolution, we would stop passing down to our children their ancestors’ trauma.

“Oh, my God, it’s part of our history!!” Yes, it is. And it makes us miserable to contemplate it.

Unless the person doing the contemplating looks back at those times with longing. Someone who finds the image of black men in servant’s garb romantic and charming. “How dare they try to resurrect that foolishness?” we might say in response. “Times have changed. They need to move on.”

It’s so easy, when the tables are turned, to say that moving on is the answer.

I cannot think of any practical reason to take aside a child, fresh from the Other Side, filled with energy and creativity, boundless enthusiasm, curiosity and love for all it sees and poison their mind and their outlook and expectations with horror stories. I don’t care if it happened. I don’t care if it was reality once upon a time. The only reason it has any influence on our current reality is because we hold onto it. We carry it forward and pass it down as though it was a treasured inheritance, like Grandma’s poundcake recipe.

Consider a few synonyms for freedom: disengagement, self-determination, ability, privilege, exemption, abandon.

Our children are born with a sense of all of those traits. Every baby comes here saying “this is who I am and this is what I want.” If we as parents guarded their intellectual freedom with the same level of zeal with which we guard our own need to be right, children would carve their own niche rather than find a space to fit in.

When my granddaughter is old enough to watch The Princess and the Frog, I vow to let her watch it with fresh eyes. My ego, my story, my excitement at what was, for me, a huge “first” is not going to cloud her experience. What if, left to her own devices, she takes it for granted that the President is black? How awesome is that? Taking signs of equality for granted. Isn’t that really what the Civil Rights activists fought for?

Freedom really isn’t freedom if you’re constantly reminded of how fortunate you are to have it. Such reminders bring with them a sense of obligation to make the most of that freedom, or to feel grateful for it, even though it is something we should all be able to take for granted. We will never succeed in spreading respect for freedom throughout the world if we feel obligated by or guilty for our own. Our hearts may be in the right place, but efforts made from a mindset of guilt or obligation are rarely effective or well received.    

Black children should be granted the freedom to start where they are now. Not where their ancestors were. “But history is important! History tells us who we are.” Bullshit. It tells us who a bunch of dead people were. Back in the 1960’s, when my older relatives shared their stories of bigotry and poked fun at racism, they were preparing us for life in the 1960’s, not the 1860’s.

Children will learn about their world and make observations based on criteria that we as adults no longer understand. How many times have we heard someone say “We kids didn’t even know we were poor growing up”?

Chew on that for a while. I think it’s safe to conclude that their parents kept their financial burdens to themselves because they did not want to trouble their children. Unburdened by labels and adult perceptions, kids will find countless sources of joy and amusement. Surely we all can relate to being oblivious to some negative condition or situation when we young.

When I consider the black children who live in danger and neglect, it seems cruel to saddle them with additional burden. If children and young people are feeling good about life, allow them to do so.

There is great creative power in our feelings. Abraham Hicks said “An urgent need for something to be better in order for you to feel better, will hold you in an endless loop.”

“What about the positive aspects of black history?” some of you may be saying. “What about the stories that made me feel proud back in 1980?”  Well, keep in mind, such stories are framed in context. What tends to make the stories exceptional is the fact that a black person was able to accomplish such a thing, given the odds they were up against. If we give our children the impression that it is somehow remarkable that a black man performed the first open heart surgery, what is that telling them? Even though it was remarkable given the times, it’s not remarkable in the now that they inhabit, and that is what counts. Always, always remember the present moment. That’s where children focus. That’s where they and we form the impressions and make the decisions that shape our future.

Yes, many of our children face crushing odds. For the young men armed to the teeth, and the girls who love them, it may be too late. Because we can’t unteach them whatever stories contributed to their lack of self worth. And we all know that’s what it is. Victim mentality left to flourish unchecked. Hopelessness, despair, rage against the machine. It turns young parents into drug addicts and their children into resentful, sad, broken little souls. In many communities, there is no faith in good. There is only faith in trouble.

I do believe there is an answer for our embattled streets, a way to restore respect for self and for other life. A way to help young people recognize that through their violence and cynicism, they are resisting their better selves.

Some people insist the answer is better education, better jobs. But when we stare those problems in the face- drug addiction and dealing, the trivialization of women and sex, the availability of guns, the lack of sympathy and compassion, schools and jobs don’t seem like suitable weapons.

We tend to focus on what these kids are doing with their bodies and to their bodies. But it really goes back to what and how they’re thinking. They need a new philosophy. One that helps them understand who they are, not who their distant or even recent ancestors are. They need an alternative way to think.

Thought can destroy. Thought can renew and repair. Thought can take a victim mentality and turn it upside down. Our thoughts influence our health and wealth and general well-being. Why? Because they direct the way we interact with the world and determine what we take away from our experiences.

Let’s face it, good schools and jobs are only of value to those who value them. Only those who value life value opportunity and believe in the possibility of good outcomes. That’s why I think we have to get into the heads of at-risk youth and show them something new. If telling them how powerless their ancestors were and how powerless their race remains is constructive, I’m sure not seeing any evidence of it. 

Every thought of victimhood has the potential to imprison the thinker in despair. It’s not just a waste of time. It’s a waste of the power of our attention. It’s a diversion of power that steers us way off course from our natural tendency to desire good things for ourselves. The victim mentality does not exist in a vacuum. It influences what we expect for ourselves and what others expect from us. 

And don’t for one minute think that I am referring solely to black people when I speak of the victim mentality as it pertains to racism and economic disparity. As blacks hark back to the past, so do white people and vice versa. This behavior perpetuates the perception of the black race as victims. It’s not only what causes black people to suffer high blood pressure and low expectations. It causes white people to see us through a flawed lens. We don’t need pity. We’ve always only wanted to be treated equally. But we can’t create and sustain an atmosphere of equality if we persist in unearthing our unequal past.

For an example of how some whites insist on seeing blacks as victims, consider my experience in 2002. I was trying to find a literary agent who would represent a novel I’d written about upscale blacks living in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. It was something I’d witnessed firsthand, but hadn’t seen reflected in literature. This earned me some crabby, handwritten rejection letters that insisted that a story about the social life of a group of black doctors, attorneys and bank presidents living in that time in history, sending their children to private schools was too far-fetched. Basically they told me that what I had actually lived was a lie. They wanted me to write about “the struggle.”

Then we have well-meaning liberals who reach out a helping hand to some black person they’ve encountered. Maybe they want to give them a job or help them pay for school or whatever. But often the do-gooder is blinded by race. They don’t size up the intended recipient of their generosity the way they would if the person was white. They overlook warning signs left and right. Later, these same people stand around at cocktail parties saying “I can’t believe they ripped me off. But, I tried. I guess you can’t help people who don’t want to be helped.” No, you helped someone who had also sized you up as a victim. It sucks, doesn’t it? 

Because we keep lugging around history’s carcass, people who are otherwise reasonably intelligent and functional prefer suffering over success, mistake bad people for good and good for bad. People, we can’t see straight when we gaze through the lens of past or present misery or guilt.

The only way any of us at any age can overcome any obstacle is to take what’s going well in our life, and focus on that until it looms large enough to cast the negative stuff into shadow. Yes, this requires us to give up our stubborn, willful attachments to the ugliness of the past and the tragedy of today. It requires us to resist the urge to “arm” our children by demoralizing them with the gory details of battle. But given a chance, it raises our expectation and appreciation to the point where we see solutions that were previously inconceivable. It won’t hurt to give it a try. Gaping at history’s train wrecks hasn’t done us much good.

I welcome your comments.

Donna Butler is the author of "You Blanking N-Word Cracker", a fresh look at race relations.

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