...And I have not known how to do that work as a historian. I have not known how to disappoint and break my children to conform to this world.
Blair LM Kelley
Blair LM Kelley and Malinda Maynor Lowery continue their conversation from last week in this bonus episode, tackling the struggle of discussing racism with children.
From The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC): Talking About Race, an online portal with tools, resources, and exercises to “help individuals, families, and communities talk about racism, racial identity and the way these forces shape every aspect of society.”
From Pretty Good Design: Your Kids Aren't Too Young to Talk About Race: Resource Roundup
From UNC's Office of Diversity and Inclusion: This page is intended to serve as a resource to people and parents to deepen our anti-racism work. if you haven’t engaged in anti-racism work in the past, start now.
Seeing Color Yesterday + Today + Tomorrow
Melody’s introduction: This bonus episode of our Southern Futures podcast comes from a conversation with Historians Dr. Malinda Maynor Lowery with UNC and Dr. Blair Kelley at NC State. I'm your host Melody Hunter-Pillion. We asked how these professors of History reimagine the future of the South with their work. I also wanted to know how parents of all races might approach discussions about racism…but when I began asking about “the talk”—at least what I thought was "the talk” that all African American parents have with their children—I could see Dr. Kelley shaking her head and I knew I was about to learn something that I had not considered from these two historians.
Melody: For people who are not of color, how can they talk to their children about race? I think it's just, for us, just natural when we are people of color to—some of us, not all of us…
Blair: I want to push back on that, Melody.
Melody: Please do! Because I always thought everyone had that conversation in an African American home.
Blair: It's not easy. The thing that has been hardest for me is, I’m raising children who are incredibly confident, and proud of who they are, and comfortable in their skin…and then I need to tell them that their ancestors were held in bondage, and then they were segregated, and people hated them for no apparent reason until, well, I don't know their grandparents were adults, and now it's kind of okay, but sometimes not, and you might get killed for being who you are…Like, exactly how is that something that would come natural? And I have not known how to do that work, as a historian. I have not known how to disappoint and break my children to conform to this world. I’ve tried different things and done different things but I don't have some naturalized way of doing that work with my family.
Melody: So it’s like that myth of “the talk” then, that I was thinking, “Oh, it's just everybody has that talk!” But not so much and it's a hard talk as you're saying.
Blair: When do you tell your child that Martin Luther King, who we celebrate, was not just passing away from old age, but had his head blown off because of who he was? We’ve made him a hero. My daughter didn't know for years that he was assassinated, because they don't even mention that. It’s sort of like, “he was there and then he was just gone in the wind.” How do you disappoint your children? How do you break your children to this?
Malinda: And tell them that all that pride they have in themselves, in certain situations, is not going to do them a bit of good…if they happen to run up on the wrong person at the wrong time? This pride, this culture, this sense of self that we've instilled with them, will not help them against someone with racial prejudice who is determined to commit violence against them.
Blair: And seeing the loops of Black death on television. I have a 7 year old son, and I’ve tried really hard to keep him from seeing a snuff film of a man that looks like his father from the place where his father is from. George Floyd is—was—3 years younger than my husband. Like, “why are the people on the TV protesting, mommy? What are they fighting about? What is that fire, what is that dust?”—he calls it, “dust” when he sees the tear-gas. So I don’t know how to tell him about that, because he is very prideful. And he loves being Black though. He goes to a school that is kind of exquisite in its racial composition—there’s a significant population of Black and Latino and Asian and white students and even a few Native students and East Indian students and international students—and so it’s like a lovely little microcosm and you could never just be anything, although you see the, as we moved to a digital platform for a few weeks, he’s like, “where did all the Black students go, mommy?” So you know those divides are there. Evidently he told a little white boy in line that he (Blair’s son) should go first because Black people had been treated unfairly, and so now we should rectify that by letting him (Blair’s son) go first in line. (laughter) And so the white mother heard her child repeat that story and went and told the after-care team about it, and the after-care woman, who is an African American woman, was like, “And? Is it wrong?” (laughter)
Melody: You’re both Historians, and I’m thinking, “wow, as Historians they have all the tools to grapple with this.” But if it’s really difficult as Historians to grapple with this, how do parents in general talk to children about this?
Malinda: I also want to push back against the idea that there's “a talk” to have. I think this is an ongoing exposure. I don't want to dictate what other parents need to do with their children. I know what I do with my child is, of course she was born into this conflict because of who we are as indigenous people. The earliest signals that she got in life were from community, and family, and love, and of people that are deeply connected to her through through history. We as Lumbee people are fortunate. We feel fortunate to be be Lumbee. We feel fortunate because we know where our ancestors are, we know where they're buried. They’re with us at all times. And so she being kind of born into that understanding culturally means that through exposure to difference (which is inevitable, even if we lived in the Lumbee Community it would be inevitable to be exposed to difference), exposure to difference is filtered through this understanding of who she is. So then we can bring that into an ongoing conversation about fairness—and we don't even talk about tolerance, we talk about judgement, and lack of judgment, and we talked about when we're judging other people, what are we judging them? (are we judging them on their behavior, are we judging them on assumptions that we make about them, are we judging them on the language that they speak or their accent, are there we judging them on the way they dress?) And then, how does she feel judged? So being able to kind of “open ears”-listen, without imposing all the time my own understanding of the world on her, is a kind of constant conversation we have. We got good at surviving impoverishment, but the question now for my daughter is “how will she cope with the enormous amount of resources and the privileges that she has?”—of an education, a stable home environment, the things that a lot of her ancestors never possessed. For me the challenges of talking about cultural differences, talking about prejudice, behavior versus appearance, always putting yourself in someone else's shoes before you leap to a conclusion—these are just fundamental, you know, “human” behavior. It’s not necessarily a big, intense talk about race we're having, but also, she hears me on a regular basis having conversations with coworkers (especially now that we've been sheltering in place), having constant conversations with people across the country about these issues. So sometimes, she'll sort of pipe up afterwards and be like, “what was that about?” And then like well, “factually, here’s what it was about. What do you think of that?”
Blair: When people who identify as white are teaching their children about who other people are, I think they should endeavor not to frame it as, “they wish they were white. Or somethings actually wrong with them.” I was looking for it, but I failed to find it—evidently Kennedy gave a speech about, “who would want to be the Negro” in the 1960’s. (as a Historian, there’s all kinds of stuff I don’t know—disclaimer!) I had not heard of that speech, and two colleagues of mine were discussing it, and they were like, “yes, yes, yes.” And I’m like, “I want to be the Negro!” I want to be the Negro yesterday, today, tomorrow! I mentioned it to some of my students and one of my students was like, “What about in the 1960’s? Would you have wanted to be the Negro then?!” And I was like, “when my mother was graduating from Howard? Heck yeah!” And so I think the sense of deficiency, that implicitly speaks to a supremacy, is part of what we have to push back against. That there is some superiority that we are seeking in the identities of others. That's not me, and I wish people would not teach their children that. Because I have to unteach my students that it’s fine to say someone is Black. My students once were like, “oh, a woman came by your office and she was looking for you!” And I was like, “what did she look like?” And they were like, “uhhhh… she had on a purple sweater!” And I’m like, “Really? What else about her?” This whole colorblind notion, that somehow it's more respectful to not notice my Black skin or someone else’s, is ridiculous. There's nothing wrong with me. I wish people would stop saying, “we don't see color” and teaching those kinds of lessons. “Yes, you do.” And so what do you do with that information, just as Malinda was saying, how do you move through those interactions without bringing a load of assumptions about what those colors mean?
Melody: We’re going to wrap up the show, and I want to ask you both if you have some final thoughts that you'd like to leave us with about building the future and moving forward but using history as a guide.
Blair: I still want to be a Historian. I do not want to be a person who writes fiction, although I love fiction. I still want to plumb the depths of our real, lived experiences and recreate those and remake those. I want to do it in a way that is compelling to a broader audience because I think our stories are powerful and I think they are telling about who we are as Americans, not just southerners, but as Americans. To do that work requires a different way of writing and thinking, so I'm reading writers that inspired me to think in that way. Malinda is one of those writers—you open her new book to those first few pages and you're drawn into a narrative of people and place that is not just strictly, “here are the facts and here’s how history unfolded.” You are drawn to a narrative that is grounded in that history, but lovely and compelling to anyone that might open the page. That kind of work, of a retelling, that self reflectiveness, the drawing on our own ancestors and way we were trained not to do (we were trained to strictly avoid thinking about our own families). So I’m thinking about my family, and I'm thinking about those stories that are passed down, and I'm using them because they are a form of knowledge and a form of telling. I'm also blending our present moment into what will be historical work.
Malinda: Your appearances, Blair, on CNN and NPR and news outlets all over the country, really serve to concisely explain these issues with a deep level of accuracy, that's factually based and therefore a lot more powerful than the repetition of myths and platitudes that typically come across with more standard interpretations of the past. I think we need more and more of that about our region. When I say our region, I guess I mean the South, but I really think of the South as a region of sub-regions. You are able to help readers and viewers and listeners better understand the moment that were in by using this technology (which was not available to our ancestors) and also using the language of the contemporary moment to help people immediately reframe and rethink something that they thought they understood. I think the reason why we still teach as historians, even though we both have administrative roles, is because we practice that work with our students and our students teach us ways to communicate that are more effective. My child teaches me ways to communicate that are more effective. When I talk to her about race and racial inequality, and I talk to her, of course because we're Lumbee Indians I talked to her specifically from that lens, and that's a place based lens—it’s about ancestry and heritage, but it's mostly about family and where do you come from.