“One White Man Did Not Single-Handedly ‘Free the Slaves’” (Talking to My Kids About Histories of Rac
Last Thursday, on the way back from gymnastics and parkour classes, my two eldest children, Eva Luna (8) and Sun (10.5) told me about some of the history they learned in school over the past year. It was another session that was a prime learning moment to engage in a more anti-racist retelling of history. Again, I just have to keep on repeating and re-telling as they are consistently ‘taught’ mis-truths as facts. We have had these conversations before and will continue to have them. Lincoln as the man who “freed the slaves” had been in a conversation we had last year. So, here is how I tried to teach the kids about history and who counts and how it’s narrated. I explained why it is deeply problematic that they are force-fed the narrative, Abraham Lincoln , “Freed the Slaves!”
I hear the former, ad nauseam, from the mouths of K-5 children, who are simply regurgitating what they have been taught, which reinforces the trope of white male saviors. And this myth is contingent upon the other mythic trope that Black and/or indigenous people in the USA have no agency and intelligence to affect massive change during the antebellum period through Jim Crow Era (or even now!)
1. “No one white man (Abe Lincoln) single handedly ‘freed’ enslaved Black people, Sun. It took the work, lots of deaths, and strength of a gazillion Black people, indigenous people, and some white allies.” And I reminded him about Tubman and gave more than a paragraph of information of what she actually did and told them how intelligent and bad ass she was. I explained that unfortunately, K-12 mainstream curriculum does not want to guilt or scare white kids and make white teachers uncomfortable so they tend to explain figures like Harriet Tubman in a more sanitized version . “Do you know how strong, strategic, and intelligent you have to be to free enslaved Black people– as a Black ‘fugitive’ woman, over and over again? Think about that, Sun and Luna. Yea, Lincoln picked up a pen and signed legislation, but Tubman and many like her have been made invisible in your textbooks (And I don’t think most people in the USA understand/know that not all enslaved Black people were ‘freed’ with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation).”
And Lincoln was a white man embedded in that system of white male privilege. He did have his own investments in keeping that system alive to a large degree (though reforming it), and he was “the white man’s president”, was very ‘progressive’ for his time, but let’s repeat: he was still invested in his own whiteness. More folk should really read more about this erasure from most K-12 history curriculum in the USA.
Lastly, I reminded Sun and Luna to say “enslaved People” vs. “slaves”. “Slaves” did not ‘come over’ from Africa. They were human beings with rich knowledge in math, science, agriculture, art, music… Their knowledge AND labor built the agricultural economy of the USA but that was stolen and benefited landowning white men. “Do you think that is fair? And we talked about the white/black household wealth gap and similar gap for indigenous people. It was 450+ years of this taking of land and labor and our intellectual contributions…” so, i tried to explain systemic inequities and if you had 500+ years to Racially exploit and dehumanize people, the collective results for white people in the USA are privileges from that arrangement. White people collectively are able to have easier access to political power, getting a house, amassing monetary wealth, networking, etc. Collectively, Black and indigenous folk have been hurt by that history and that 450+ year system of bias. And it still happens today, it’s just not necessarily legalized slavery or Jim Crow.
2. “Mom, was George Washington a ‘good’ president because he was honest” (reference to the cherry tree being cut down)?” My response: “Well Sun, it depends. He believed in freedom for landowning white men with enslaved Black people like himself. Please think critically about this and ask yourself why your teachers and history books keep on sanitizing this instead of teaching students that his situation was complex and his privilege as a white landowning man influenced how he thought of ‘freedom for all’. He was living on indigenous land . Stolen land. Genocide. Extreme cruelty towards indigenous and African peoples BENEFITED him and I highly doubt he wasn’t aware of this. He ordered it!”
3. And this led into me talking about Thomas Jefferson and I explained, “Thomas Jefferson did not have a cute romance with Sally Hemings. He owned people and enslaved his own children born out enslaved Black women that he owned and had sex with (they didn’t have a choice and this is called rape). So, ask yourself what type human being do you have to be to think that’s okay? Ask yourself why he is continuously taught as a hero and “progressive” for his time. Maybe he was ‘better’ than other white men, but the question still remains: What kind of human being would do this to their own children?” I explained why their Grandma Pat’s side of the family are both Sales and Jeffersons and that he is a descendant of Jefferson’s immoral and unjust belief system and behaviors.
4. And question 3 led to me telling the kids how Great Grandma Emma came about. Incredibly poor in Jim Crow era of Mississippi, her mother (Great Great Grandma Savannah) needed a new pair of shoes. A White Scottish man told her he’d ‘help’ her if she allowed him to have sex with her. He couldn’t just be kind and give