A Disquieting Dream: Talking to your Kids About Racism and Civil Rights
If your child attends school, perhaps you know: every year approaching the third Monday in January, our nation ritualizes the white-washing of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, one is hard-pressed to find a children’s book about Rev. King that doesn’t end with the warm fuzzies of his dream coming true now that schools are supposedly desegregated (they’re not, but that’s another essay) or the whittled half-truth that our personal dreams are an extension of his. In a season of American life when white supremacists are marching with torches in the streets; when walls and travel bans seek to keep out those on the run from persecution, war, and brutal poverty; when cell phone videos of police brutality go viral and yet it’s still controversial to say Black Lives Matter—we can no longer afford to dilute the message of King and twist it into something palatable for the majority. To address the very real inequities in health care, housing, education, employment, and the criminal justice system, we must begin by talking openly with our kids about our nation’s original sin of racism. But where, and how, do we begin?
1. Consider a story they already know. It might be the enslavement of the Hebrew people in Egypt found in both Christian and Jewish scriptures; it might be a story of bullying or discrimination from their classroom or daily life; it might be the lesson from a recent television show or news report, but use whatever interests them to link to the story of our nation’s history. Kids appreciate frank honesty and can smell our discomfort and avoidance, so be blunt and simple. Name the conquest and violence of the colonizers against Native Americans. Define slavery, talk about how it would feel. Affirm their moral judgement that it wasn’t fair, it was brutal and horrific. Then move on to the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights’ Movement. Take these eras piece by piece and spread them out over the course of a few weeks or a month, connecting them back to slavery like pieces of a puzzle.
2. Talk about black brilliance and courage. Tell the story in the round, each year introducing a new black activist, change agent, intellectual, preacher, musician, artist, or teacher. Tell them about Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. Read to them the words of Frederick Douglass and WEB Du Bois. Let them hear Billie Holiday and Fannie Lou Hamer sing. Familiarize them with the sound of King’s preaching. Tell them the stories of brave black children like Ruby Bridges, and brave black youth like the Greensboro four. Talk about sit-ins and freedom riders, Freedom Summer and voting rights. Read together about what John Lewis sacrificed and Ella Baker’s student leadership. Learn about Bayard Rustin’s role in Civil Rights as an openly gay man who worked closely with King. Consider Mohammad Ali, an activist athlete. Explore how Malcolm X and King critiqued each other’s philosophies, but both grew closer in thinking by the end of their lives. Follow their lead, and if one particular person or issue interests them, go deeper.
3. Complicate Martin. Move beyond snippets from his well-known speeches and explore other aspects of his legacy—how he stood with sanitation workers and connected economic injustice to racism; his risky sermon about the Vietnam War at Riverside Church. Read his letter from the Birmingham Jail in its entirety and share quotes from it each day over the span of a week or two. Present him as the brilliant scholar that he was, invite your kids to listen to his oratorical genius. Tell the truth about his evolution that grew more radical each year and sought to connect racial inequity to economic injustice, militarism, and federal budget priorities. Be prepared to disentangle racism from economic injustice, explaining that they are two separate things, but they often walk hand-in-hand.
4. Talk about white supremacy. Don’t shy away from using those words. Explain that racism is not simple discrimination, it’s not just something that happened back when crosses burned and churches were bombed, and there’s no such thing as reversing it on white folks. Tell them that Race-Based Discrimination + the Misuse of Systemic Power = Racism. Or, for our youngest ones you could say Bullying Someone Because of their Race + Power = Racism. What is systemic power? It’s the ability to install racism into our institutions, so that schools, churches, health care, housing, and criminal justice all reflect racial bias. If you have an older child, look into disparities in any of those categories and follow it historically. Use the metaphor of an iceberg to explain racism--the part you see is small compared to what goes unseen. If your child asks a difficult question, and you don’t know the answer, tell them. “That’s a great question, and I’m not sure how to answer it. I wonder how we can learn more together.” Be sure to let your child know: racism has not ended. Disparity and inequity are alive and well today. King’s dream has not been achieved, which means that they too are invited into the work.
5. Talk about white resisters, especially if your kids are white or your family is mixed. You may not know their names, so seek them out. Tell your children about Myles and Zilphia Horton of the Highlander School, Clarence Jordan of Koinonia Farm, and James Zwerg, the freedom rider. Talk about old Jim Brown bent on lighting the fuse for a violent revolution, and how he wasn’t afraid to die for freedom. Tell the story of Richard Loving who fought for the love of his life, and his marriage. Tell how Anne McCarty Braden defied racist real estate practices. Remember that Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner lost their lives during Freedom Summer. Tell about Ruby Bridge’s teacher, Mrs. Henry, and Iowa teacher Mrs. Jane Elliot who wasn’t afraid to tell the truth about racism to children. Speak of the white pastors and Rabbis who marched with King, like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who connected the liberation story of the Jewish people to the freedom struggle of civil rights. Help your child, if they are white, self-identify with the history of resisters, tell them this is their lineage.
6. Use multi-media resources—books, music, digital media, and film to explore one or two new names and stories listed above. Give your children a full cast of characters so that they know that the social movement was larger than one man. Check out the resource lists below. Ask what they learned in school, or church, or on television, and critically engage those messages, returning to a definition of racism beyond individual actions.
7. Take action together. Attend a march, a prayer breakfast, a spoken word contest or musical concert with your child. Take them to worship with a historic black congregation. Make a connection locally to a black-owned business, community of faith, or cultural arts center. Deepen that relationship with financial support. When the tragic violence against black bodies plays out on the national stage, reach out to those places that support black life and culture to tell them you stand with them, that Black Lives Matter. If you grieve with them, show up with flowers, along with your child. Send prayer flags made by the kids in your church. Invite your child to write a letter to their member of Congress and Senators about an issue related to civil rights, voting rights, or the disparities reified by white supremacy. Encourage friendships that cross boundaries. If your child is white, take them to places where they don’t speak the language, where the food is different, where they get the chance to experience being in the minority. Tell them about how you are taking action in your life or, if you’re not sure how to take action, discern how your family can act together.
8. Explore today’s leaders in this chapter of the movement to end racial injustice and white supremacy: the Rev. William Barber (Poor People’s Campaign), activist Bree Newsome, Congressman John Lewis (still at it!), writer Ta Nehisi Coates, author Alice Walker, activist athlete Colin Kaepernick, the Rev. Traci Blackmon, Tarana Burke (Me Too), Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors (Founders of Black Lives Matter), trans advocate Laverne Cox, the Rev. Desmond Tutu (South African bishop), Rep. Maxine Waters, film-maker Ava DuVernay, lawyer Marian Wright Edelman, lawyer and writer Michelle Alexander, poet Nikki Giovanni, activist Ruby Sales, President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama. Check out Latinx, Asian, Native American/First Nation, and white folks who are in the struggle to topple white supremacy. Who leads these efforts locally?
Disrupting white supremacy and changing the culture of our nation begins within and around us. What poetry, articles, music, films, books, sermons, and stories nurture your longing for justice? If we examine our spheres of influence and seek to disrupt the status quo of systemic racism, to stand in solidarity with one another; if we begin with changing the culture of our families and teaching our children well; if we speak up about disparity, work for inclusion, and set the bar high for taking action, then we might truly attempt to collectively live into the dream spoken by King. But remember: it is a dream that troubles, for it does not deliver itself. It is a dream that afflicts rather than comforts, that disrupts rather than glosses over, a dream rooted in blood, sweat, and tears. Honoring and carrying on the dream will require nothing less of us.