Daddy, what does African American mean?

Here’s a window into our family conversation last night before bedtime with the girls.  Even at an early age our 4 (almost 5) year old recognizes difference (lately gender differences have been a huge topic of conversation) along with race.

Riley: Daddy, what does African American mean?

Me: It means that we are both American, from this country, and also we are black.

Riley: I’m not black!  I’m brown.

My wife: Riley, what daddy means is that we each have beautiful shades of brown skin, but people call that black.

Riley: Me and Olivia we’re the same brown.  Mommy, you’re black, or you’re dark brown.  But we still love you anyway.

Kids are perceptive aren’t they?  While reading The Story of Rosa Parks by Patricia Pingry last night, I tried to explain to our daughters some of the hidden stories around Rosa Parks courageous act (you know, how she wasn’t the first one, and how she was a trained, planted protester, very active in the movement).  It turned into quite a discussion.  In our household, we talk about race regularly.  Years ago, when the girls were born we filled their library with books like I Like Myself, by Karen Beaumont (who writes a number of books featuring black girls), We March, by Shane Evans which tells the story of a family marching together on March for Freedom and Jobs in DC and others.

But the question, what does African American mean…that’s one that I haven’t quite found just one book for yet. Because it means so much to so many different people.  Yet, I feel the need to answer that question daily for my daughters, shaping their perspective before society gets its chance to define them in a negative light, before they’ve discovered themselves.  So we teach our daughters that to be black or African American means loving ourselves and loving the God who created us.  It’s not what we do that defines us, it’s what we believe about ourselves.  It means appreciating the skin that we’re in, and recognizing the beauty that lies within. It means knowing our history, and understanding the sacrifices that were made by those before us.  We try to provide varied examples of people who look like them, to demonstrate that people, even people of their race come in all different forms.  But most of all, we talk regularly about race so that their consciousness isn’t defined by a negative experience of themselves, but rooted in a holistic portrayal of all the complexities of what it means to be black.  Too much for a 4 year old and 2 year old?  I think not.  After all, they’re the ones raising the questions.


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