Have you witnessed a young child counting from one to twenty and improvising during the teens? “Fourteen, fifteen, eleventeen, twelveteen.…” One of my children loves naming imaginative and exaggerated measurements and has enjoyed reciting numbers in this way for a couple of years. I used this occurrence as an opportunity to introduce Juneteenth.
None of my children had, I knew, because neither had I until this year. They asked what it was and I promised a book was on its way.
All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom arrived, along with a couple of other books for our black history month reading session, and through it, my children had their first introduction to slavery. To what cotton plants look like, and what a back-aching job it must be to pick it. To freedom in terms of choice regarding what to eat, and and when to sleep, play, and work. To freedom for old and young. We followed just over twenty four hours – with a little back story regarding
the way freedom news travelled – of Juneteenth for a small group of slaves when they learned they were free.
One of my children’s favourite spreads was the picnic on the beach. Having held back tears during the announcements of freedom, I struggled afresh with this image because of today’s reality that many black and brown people are practically enslaved to rich white property owners and managers through costly, restricted access to food and resources.
We turned to our next book, Freedom Song: The Story of Henry “Box” Brown. We found ourselves amidst the warmth of Henry Brown’s childhood home while the night-black silhouette of his slave master darkened the view through its doorway. We saw Henry grow up, maintaining strong momentum through loud singing, and through his silent freedom song at bedtime while he heard other children cry.
Children commonly struggle with their fears at night, so this scene, of course, resonated with my children and they wanted to talk about the crying children who had been sold away from their families, which was Henry’s fear. We flicked back through All Different Now to look at the kind of small buildings through which such cries would travel.
Finally, we read I Am Rosa Parks. We were confronted with examples of structural and social inequality that followed ‘freedom’ for black children and adults decades later in the US. Segregated facilities, smaller spaces and less financial input into schools, and real fears of schools being burned down.
“Is this a real story?” my children asked about every one of the above works of creative non-fiction. They had lots of questions. They wanted to know why white people would enslave black people. They wanted to know why a white woman would threaten to send a young Rosa Parks to jail when only grown ups are sent to jail. They wanted to give their ideas for stopping enslavers from operating.
We paused for discussions several times. I stood up and sat down, giving relevant, age-appropriate examples of what Rosa Parks meant by urging you to stand up for yourself. I explained the difference between fighting over a toy with your sibling, and controlling the toy because you think you should have it due to your skin colour, gender, height, age, or ability.
My children are mixed race and one child is particularly defensive about having what he names whiteish-brownish skin. So to have a conversion with him, in personal terms, about skin colour and racial prejudice, I needed to reference a parallel oppression.
Being Muslims, we have recently read My Prophet Muhammad (S) a creative non-fiction board book which includes tell of Muslims being imprisoned because of their faith. This made it easy for me to draw a parallel between racial and religious prejudice. There is ease in every hardship – religious practitioners of all faiths can explain various intentional prejudices, on account of groups of people thinking they are better than others, by referencing oppressions in their own histories.
During our discussions, I was ashamed, on one occasion, to notice myself speak of, “people choosing to be mean to black people.” I had neglected to say, “white or brown people choosing to be mean….” I corrected myself immediately, and we soon named different directions that racial prejudices can travel. To my children, my mistake had simply been an ordinary conversational stutter. However, I knew I had inadvertently labelled white people as people and black people as others. I knew that this kind of inadvertent white-supremist racism is a huge problem – racism hidden in the grey absence of appropriate language for all. I knew that unconscious prejudices can be triggered under our awareness and that I need to be more vigilant to succeed in freeing my children of this kind of baggage that I, and many, carry.
Blackness; whiteness; brownness; and mixtures like whiteish-brownish are all good. But, just as, false concepts like ‘eleventeen’ and ‘twelveteen’ need to be corrected in order to obtain numerate literacy and success, inadvertent racism like silent greyishness; unheard greyishinity; and implied greyishism, need to be corrected in order to achieve sentence structures and literature resources that support social equality.
Do I think that there has been inadvertent racism in the above books because no white person’s side of the stories is shown? No I don’t.
Henry “Box” Brown knew the importance of silence and timing to break free from oppression. As a white writer living in so-called-post-colonial times I have been gratefully reminded by these books that my voice is needed but so too is my silence. By silence I mean that I need to tell the stories of people outside my race, culture, and religion – especially the stories of the oppressed, who were oppressed by my ancestors.
I am delighted to have been able to facilitate my young children to discuss historical and current racial prejudice, and to have made it a more empathetic experience for them by referring to a parallel in their own religious history, through the above creative non-fiction resources.
Black history month is one short month of a twelve month calendar. Will we wait until next year to seek out literature that helps us deliberately discuss black history again?
Black history month is an invitation and a way in. If you haven’t put your voice behind black stories yet, and the month is over, you are not too late to start. I’d love you to let me know which books you choose.
For my next post insha’Allah, I’ll continue exploring black history with young children through creative non-fiction, specifically focussed upon food and resources.
I am the author of Religious Rhyme Time, an Abrahamic children’s interfaith book, as well as Islamic Nursery Rhymes. I love eating chocolate while I write, and, with strictly chocolate-free fingers, I also create Muslim and interfaith children’s gifts for book people at my Etsy shop, BarakahBedtimesUK.
I’m on Twitter @elizabethlymer.
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