Friday, July 23, 2010

"You be the Slave": Explaining American Slavery to a Five Year Old

Yesterday, Lil' Bit had a playdate with her very best friend in pre-school. With the temperature soaring near 100 degrees, outside was out of the question, so instead, Lil Bit and her friend (we'll call her "Natasha"), the little girl's mother (let's call her "Nancy") and I met at an indoor playspace in our local mall. The girls had a blast, running and jumping and creating games the way that little kids do in a fun place with lots of activities. Nancy and I sat nearby, watching them, sipping iced coffees and chatting...the way mothers do.

We started chatting about vacations. I told Nancy about our recent trip to Portland, Oregon to visit family, where we spent the coldest 4th of July I think I've ever experienced. Then I asked about their holiday. Nancy sighed, then told me about their trip to Mount Vernon, in Alexandria, Virginia on the 4th of July to see the daytime fireworks.

Mt. Vernon was the home of George Washington and once was fully operational plantation, complete with five farms and 67 slaves. Today, it is a historical landmark. Many of the buildings have been completely restored and re-enactments and narratives of 18th Century life are a part of the program offered to its millions of visitors each year. Nancy and her husband took Natasha on the tour, which included a visit to the slave quarters. After listening to the presentation, Natasha turned to her mother and asked:

"What's a slave?"

Slave quarters, Mount Vernon Plantation

"I explained it as best as I could on the level that I thought she could understand. I said that people back then thought it was okay to own other people. That the slaves had to work for the people who owned them and they couldn't ever leave. That they could be sold and bought like cars. I told her slavery was very wrong and some people knew it even then, but it took a war for slavery to stop. I didn't explain that American slaves were all Africans. I just decided not to go there for now."

Of course, I asked "Why not?"

"Partly because we're Jewish and there is also slavery in our ancestry-- and partly because I know my child. I have an image of her walking up to some random African American person and blurting out 'Were you a slave?' or some equally potentially offensive thing. She won't mean any harm-- she's trying to understand-- but that's an embarrassment I don't need right now. I'll try to explain all that when she's older."

I know Natasha, too and her mother's assessment isn't wrong. I could clearly imagine the little girl causing a racial incident as she tested out her new vocabulary word in its racial context. Said to the wrong person on the wrong day and Nancy's "teachable moment" could have seriously negative consequences. Race is still a touchy subject for many Americans. Some would like to pretend that it no longer matters, or at least avoid discussing it. Others see the hands of racism and white supremacy in every shadow. Most are somewhere in between but, to paraphrase Forrest Gump, but bringing up race between acquaintances is like a box of chocolates-- you never know what you're gonna get.

Nancy continued: "I guess my explanation was seriously lacking because slavery is now a part of her play-talk. I've heard her in room with her dolls saying, 'Okay, so this one is the slave and this one is the owner.'" She shook her head. "Clearly, she doesn't understand that slavery was wrong or how awful it was to be a slave. Should I have just ignored her question? Said something else?"

It was an interesting delimma. For the record, if Lil Bit had asked me that question, I certainly would have given a similar explanation-- but mine would have included the role of race in American slavery, for two reasons. First, because Africa is a part of Lil Bit's legacy, and second because her personality is quite different from her friend's. Shy around people she doesn't know in any instance, Lil Bit's not likely to walk up to a brown-skinned stranger and ask "Were you a slave?"

But Natasha's situation is very different. Because she isn't African American, perhaps her mother did the right thing not to emphasize race. Perhaps in a little girl with white skin, adding race to the equation might have implanted a notion of superiority? I don't know. Instead, perhaps the appropriate understanding comes from putting slavery in the full global and historical context: that slavery is as old as human history and that no culture has been exempt from being subject to its confines, particularly as human beings have often been just another "spoil of war." Perhaps what Natasha needs to understand is that, as a Jew, slavery is a part of her legacy in the same way that it part of my Lil Bit's. Perhaps, too, the quick glimpse at slavery through the historical re-creation of Mount Vernon made it seem a little too benign to a small child.

In no way would I suggest that a five-year old of any ethnicity should be submerged in the horrors of the history of slavery. Later, when she can better comprehend the inhumanity of that system will be soon enough. And, as I said to Nancy, her fascination with her new vocabulary word will surely fade in time, too.

But in spite of how uncomfortable the explanations are, I think Natasha's "What is a slave?" question shouldn't be the end of the lesson but the beginning. On the level that they can understand, I think it's absolutely appropriate to teach our kids their history--and American slavery is as much a part of Natasha's history as it is Lil Bit's. Nancy and I made plans to be on the look out for age-appropriate opportunities for both of our girls to learn more about history-- and to commit to teaching them together to understand and appreciate the cultural foundations they are standing on. We live in an area rich with historical landmarks and cultural opportunities. Since we already get together to go the the playland, why not get together to visit the Frederick Douglass home, or to take in a children's play about Harriet Tubman? When they are older, why not go together to the Holocaust Museum or Gettysburg?

For her part, Nancy was all for it. "I think that's a great idea," she said, as the girls ran over to beg for ice cream. "The best way to teach about difference to give them the opportunity to see that there really isn't any. We're all One, right?"

Amen, sister-- I couldn't have said it better myself.


  1. I've had discussions about slavery with my kids too. When they asked, I tried to put it in terms they could understand.
    I told them about the company where their father works. Asked them to imagine if everyone who worked there, instead of getting paid enough money to live in a nice house, buy quality food, buy shoes and clothes etc....

    Imagine if instead they worked so hard and got paid nothing. If they couldn't leave, had to live there in tight, uncomfortable surroundings, they and their children had to wear whatever inadequate clothing provided by the boss, and eat whatever cheap junky food he gave them. They got it.

    It also helps in discussions such as these to draw parallels to other times and places in human history, as you said.

  2. American slaves were not all Africans. It's a common misconception. There were a great many white slaves up until the late 18th century. About half of all the people coming into the colonies during the 17th and 18th century were white slaves. Up until the late 18th century white slaves outnumbered black slaves.

    Like the black slaves you learned about in school, many white slaves were slaves for life, sold at auction, and separated from their families. Many of these people had been kidnapped as children abroad. The poor were often made into slaves. Indians in America also practiced slavery and of course they predated even the colonies.

    During the entire time slavery was practiced in America, it was also present in nearly every other part of the world. Only America though fought a war against its own people with massive numbers of causalities to put a stop to slavery.

    I think it's because white slaves were enslaved by white people that the history of it isn't covered well in our children's history books. For some reason, slavery seems to only be worthy of any historical attention when one race enslaved another race.

    Of course there is much more to the history of slavery than this. When I explain slavery to my son (6 and autistic), I think I will have to explain it in it's full context. I don't want him to feel guilty for being white. I want him to feel proud of his country for having sacrificed so much to put a stop to slavery.

  3. Nancy can also teach Natasha about slavery in the lead-up to Passover. The seder service reminds us that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt until the L-rd, in His mercy and according to His promise, caused a chain of events that -- for a brief moment -- caused Pharaoh to release us and cast us out. Pre-school and kindergarten Sunday School classes for Jewish children include some of this story, and sometimes role-play, as well as familiarization with the foods and rituals of the seder (and teaching the children to sing the Four Questions).
    Ironically, when I was a grade-schooler, our Sunday School class taught us the spiritual "Let My People Go" as a Passover song -- it wasn't until a year or two later that I'd learned about Harriet "Moses" Tubman and the real intent of the lyrics.

  4. Good points, all. I'm so glad you posted these ideas, since I think we all look for ways to explain slavery to young children-- and older ones--in ways that resonate for them and enable them to place that history in a context that maximizes understanding and minimizes guilt.

    Speaking of guilt, I haven't given that concept much thought and I think it has particular bearing in mixed race families. I think I feel a blog post coming on... LOL! Thanks for the idea.