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Slavery 101 for the biracial child

What to answer when your child asks: 'Did people who looked like Daddy ever own people who looked like us?'

“Mommy, did people who looked like Daddy ever own people who looked like us?”

Crap. Why is it that questions like this spring like traps at 6 a.m. when I’m running late, and need to leave in five minutes? Or more pointedly, why do questions like this come up when my husband is nowhere to be found?

But who am I kidding. I always get tasked with answering the big questions, since I have years of telling people the truth in ways that are least likely to keep them from having a stroke or filing a lawsuit. Heck, for years, I did customer service for a health insurance company and I’ve had to break the news that someone was about to get stuck with a $50,000 surgery bill because they forgot to initial page three of the “We’re never gonna pay this, sucka” form.

In fact, I’ve already done one (highly edited) presentation on where babies come from, and I’m getting the PowerPoints together for a second. The first, which featured selected readings from “The Wonder of Becoming You”, written to confirm that babies grow inside mommies without actually bringing daddy into the picture, was perhaps less successful than I would have hoped. After the talk, over promised slices of pizza, I asked my 8 year old if she had any additional questions.

She turned to me with her huge brown eyes, and said “Yes, Mommy.”

I tensed.

“Why does the bus have to stop in so many other places, when that means it takes an extra 20 minutes to get home?”

Sigh. Sweet mysteries of life, honey.

But the slavery question was worse than the birds and the bees, and how to keep that fresh feeling, on at least two counts:

1) If I want to have grandkids, I needed to bring puberty up. And if I don’t want to have grandkids when my daughter is 12, I should definitely bring puberty up. Or, possibly, lock her in a closet. Although, I don’t suppose that would be a workable longterm solution. So, the imperative to get ‘er done was much stronger.

2) I really felt like I personally was at fault for not making a bigger deal of the whole slavery thing. I mean, discussing Black history is pretty much my job. My husband is into Black culture and all (well, he likes Motown), but I don’t even think he watched Roots, for goodness sake. He still thinks of LeVar Burton as the guy from Star Trek… or even worse, the guy from Reading Rainbow. His version of the Middle Passage would be like a scene out of South Park.

“Slavery is bad. M’kay?”

My daughter’s question sounded so small, but was really huge. How do you explain to a fourth grader that people used to own other people as property? And that some people in our family looked very much like the kinds of people who had done that?

“Er, first off, your father’s family didn’t own slaves.”

Welcome to the new game show “10 things you shouldn’t have to say before breakfast.”

“Um, hundreds of years ago, some people thought other people didn’t deserve to be treated nicely. So they made them work without any money and treated them badly. That ended about 150 years ago. Um, but then people still thought those people didn’t deserve to be treated nicely, so they just paid them very little and only let them do jobs no one else wanted. That mostly ended 50 years ago.”

Ugh. 50 years ago? Man, that definitely is not far back enough.

“And, um, yes, the people who weren’t treated nicely looked like you and me.”

“But not like Daddy and A-, right?”

A- is my youngest, who is our kid with the lightest complexion. At the hospital, we were asked a couple of times if we forgot to shake the toner. Hooray for a sense of humor.

“Well, Daddy, no… but A- probably …”

Okay. Now I have two minutes to explain the whole biracial class system that existed in America until the Civil Rights movement, and according to Spike Lee, even beyond that.

“Look, I need to go now, but I’ll talk to you about it soon.”

And in my head, I made a promise that sometime before the end of Black History month, I would. Remind me again why Black History month only has 28 days?

About the Author
Malynnda Littky made aliyah to Israel in 2007 from Oak Park, Michigan, and recently moved from Mitzpe Yericho to Hadera with her four children. She is currently employed as the Marketing Manager for SafeBlocks, a blockchain application security solutions provider.
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