A week that began with me reading in disgust a bill (HB 888-you can read the actual text here) currently being debated in the Georgia General Assembly, ended with a multi-hour research conversation on our family tree with the girls. In between, we officially kicked off our annual celebration of Black History Month. Now, in our home we certainly make it a point to ensure the girls understand that Black history is American history, it’s just that not everyone sees it that way. Hence, a designated Black History Month and the need to highlight the contributions that black folks have made to America since its inception. (For anyone looking for a few resources to help explain why Black History month exists here’s a few good articles here and here, we’ve used with our own girls. These resources walk you through the origin story, why February was chosen, and ultimately why we still need it today). But I digress.
The coolest part of being able to explore black history through the lens of our own family ancestry, is that the girls get engaged in learning about history through the experiences of people they know and admire. For example, while updating our family tree together tonight, we came across several ancestors whose birthdates were pre-1865, meaning they were born into slavery. In discussing the implications of this, there’s no need to sugarcoat what they were learning. We even came across a few census records labeled “non-population census records” meaning, for our ancestors identified as slaves, they weren’t listed as fully fledged humans, but treated like property. That’s messed up, voiced my daughter Olivia. Indeed. But, why would they even need to track them if they weren’t real people? Well, this gave me an opportunity to share a little known clause in the constitution referred to as the 3/5ths compromise. This clause counted slaves as 3/5ths of a person to provide southern states with the benefit of additional population estimates, without having to recognizing the full humanity of the people who they were enslaving. Funny thing happens when you teach children history in context, they gain perspective.
Another fun conversation was about my maternal great, great grandfather and grandmother. One was a white woman born in 1862, the other a black man born in 1850. Somehow, they got together and had 11 children. She came from a prominent white family, but apparently my maternal grandmother never got to meet them. She was disowned by her family, and given that there’s no formal record of their union (and given that it was illegal for black men to marry a white woman), their marriage would have been both illegal and highly dangerous for the both of them. Yet, my great, great grandfather, who was listed as property and almost certainly was born a slave, produced my great grandfather. He was a man who I grew up with, watching baseball across the street at his house well into my middle school years. I wish I knew then what I know now. I would have asked so many questions about his parents.
Looking at old pictures of him supplied by my Aunt prompted my daughter to ask, is this why we’re so light skinned, because your great grandpa was bi-racial? That led to a good conversation about the reality that for many black folks, dotted throughout our family history are likely black and white people. Though ours does take an unusual twist. It also led to the continuation of a conversation about colorism that continues to plague both our family, but also our broader community, a legacy of our nation’s racial history.
Granted, this was a conversation that my three year old and my 5 year old were interested in beyond a certain point (oh look- there’s grandma’s name on our family tree!). But, for my older girls (aged 9 going on 10 and 11 going on 12), this was not only something they were interested in, but they actually kept it going. At one point my daughter Olivia (admittedly a self-proclaimed history buff) said, oh, this is getting good. Anyone with tween girls knows to just take that as a win! Even my non-history buff daughter Riley was into it, and she’s usually only into animals and legos.
My broader point here is that exposure to open discussions about race, racism, slavery, and issues of systemic racism aren’t bad things. In fact, they can be great things if done in a way that helps us make sense of the world we live in today. Despite it perhaps requiring some difficult conversations, discussing our history shouldn’t be something we shy away from. If anything, understanding the full complexity of who we are and how we got here helps us to embrace our common ground. Here’s to more learning as we continue to explore who we are together as a family.