As I watched 12 Years a Slave, it felt reminiscent of a nightmare I had as a child.
Many of you might be shaking your head and thinking “that’s weird” or “poor Lauren. That was long ago in the past.”
Please let me explain with two short vignettes:
MY history and YOUR history
In elementary school the only time I remember talking about black people was when we discussed slavery. I can still see the pictures of shackled Africans in my history book.
I can remember feeling my whole body burn and my stomach somersault each year because I knew the teacher would single me out and ask “how does this make you feel, Lauren” or pull me aside and say that I could leave the classroom if this was too hard for me.
The teachers made slavery MY history and not OUR history.
The students stole glances at me throughout popcorn reading the segment.
Everyone knew I was somehow connected with these African people…
but nobody wanted to acknowledge it.
So I did not know how to acknowledge it.
I just wanted to avoid the lessons all together.
I just wanted to go back to discussing OUR history
because MY history made everyone uncomfortable.
I have never admitted this to anyone when I was younger, but I envisioned Colonial Day to be like 12 Years a Slave. Colonial Day, for those of you who were fortunate NOT to experience the day, is a day devoted to dressing up and recognizing colonial life. Each student dresses up in colonial attire and participates in colonial activities, like candle making and playing with a hoop and stick.
I have included a picture from a news article about “Colonial Camp” at Charlotte Prep. Please take note of the attire of the black children in the center (with PARTICULAR notice being made to their headwear).
Yes, all the students look happy…but what are the indirect implications of this activity?
Some schools directly address the issue of race and slavery.
For example, Colonial Williamsburg suggests drafting a letter like this to send to parents about the Colonial Days:
SAMPLE A—LETTER TO PARENTS
For Carlton Oaks Colonial Days, our class is responsible for creating a slave quarters, gentry home, tobacco field and a cooking center. Among other activities, our class will be reading related literature books, researching and writing speeches about these various aspects of Colonial history. We will also be gathering and making replicas of artifacts that would be typical of 18th-century activities.
A slave quarters?!!!
If I were at that school, I would think that part of the act would be to put me in those quarters…but I digress.
I remember eagerly making an outfit with my mom. I picked a pink skirt and cute bonnet like my classmates and I eagerly awaited colonial day. A day off from real learning 🙂
I never anticipated that I would feel out of place.
I still remember jumping each time someone called my name.
I was afraid someone would say “umm historically wouldn’t you be a slave?” or “Lauren, can you help with this?”
It sounds so silly because of course nobody would say that…
but I had no fake papers to show my freedom and we were in Virginia!!
I felt like Solomon Northrup at 12 years old.
What if someone saw my skin color through my costume?
Was I supposed to be a free black woman in colonial Virginia?
Who was I supposed to be?
Who was I supposed to be?
I certainly would not have been a white landowner reaping the benefits of cotton and/or tobacco?
I felt like Addy the American girl doll, while everyone else was a Samantha and post-racial society decided that the best solution was not to discuss race in the modern day.
So I kept it quiet and shrugged the feelings off.
Years later, I was asked to participate in another event.
MLK Day in High School
One day I was pulled out of my AP Biology class for a meeting about Martin Luther King Jr. Day where a white subschool principal put on a scarf, called herself Harriet Tubman, and danced to slave spirituals in order to “bond with us” and convince us to make a presentation for MLK Jr Day. To further convince us, she called the custodian- a black man- in to talk to us about needing to participate. OUCH, right?
I wish I was fabricating this story…
I told my parents about how much the event hurt and they offered to approach the school with me, but I was too scared to approach my high school. I was afraid of punishment…as if I was doing something wrong by reporting the incident.
Once again, I thought I was just overreacting.
My point in writing these vignettes is to ask:
How many children brush off and keep their discomfort…their questions…and their hesitations quiet?
What are schools teaching our black children?
No child should feel like Solomon Northrup.