I've recently decided to reread books from my past. Things that were assigned reading that I either didn't do, or stuff I wanted new understanding of. Or just things I don't really remember, beyond that I had, indeed, read them.
I just finished rereading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and Let the Circle Be Unbroken by Mildred Taylor. I read Roll of Thunder as a fifth grade reading assignment and liked it so much that I read Circle on my own. A few days ago, while on a box-hunting expedition in my aunt's basement, I discovered my cousin had them and generously agreed to loan them to me. (Thanks, Amy!)
If you're unfamiliar with the books, they tell stories about a Depression-era black family in Mississippi that is lucky enough to own their own land. It describes, in depth, the struggles involved, not only in cotton farming during the Depression, but the amazing weight skin color added to that struggle. It is directed to young readers, so while it's frightening and sad, there's a layer of protection there, too. The sexual issues between whites and blacks are hinted at broadly, but not explicitly. So, too, is the violence inherent in a book about those times spoken of in a way that makes you feel the horror, but not in the in your face, bloody way that we've become accustomed to on the evening news.
I'm not sure why this book struck such a chord in me at the age of 11. While my mother has always been left-leaning and in no way racist, her live in boyfriend at the time was a heavy handed man whose frequent use of terms like "nigger" and "coon" made it clear where he stood on the issue of racial equality. And in no way would my mother have risked his wrath in explaining to me how vulgar and destructive those terms were. I know I admired the girl who was the main character. She, like I was at the time, was poor, preferred the company of boys to girls, went about barefoot in the summer and grew up in the country, living mainly off what the land earned. I knew about spending hours in a broiling summer sun performing the unending task of weeding and feeding livestock. She reflected my life in a way that none of the other girls in books I'd read did. I certainly didn't know anything at all about the easy comfort of the lives of the Wakefield Twins, heroines of the Sweet Valley Books so popular at the time.
In rereading this book, I can see that I missed the important issue of race almost altogether. It would be impossible to not have taken note of it, but I don't think that was the main issue for me. After all, at 11 I had an education that had (for lack of a better term) white-washed such issues as racism and slavery. Certainly we discussed Martin Luther King in January every year. Though the weight of who he was and what he did was never really explained in a satisfactory manner and the U.S. government always ended up looking the good guys who ended slavery and gave blacks their equal rights. Certainly, the idea of institutionalized racism was not one that was covered in the pages of the text books I read. I knew about segregation in a vague sort of way, but certainly had no idea the danger involved for blacks defiant enough to try and cross those boundaries.
My mind has been drifting along many trains of thought, the most important one being that in a more concrete way it makes me question the value of a public education system for my daughter. They spend years teaching what amounts to junk history, only to have to unlearn it later. As a mother, I have always wanted to instill in my daugher certain virtues. And at the top of that list is a respect for other people, regardless of race or creed. But, how can you truly respect a group of people villified in the press nightly for some admittedly horrid deeds, without understanding their history? How can you respect black people given the statistics on the nightly news without knowing the background? It goes unsaid that less than two or three generations ago the murder of a black man was rarely punished. It doesn't mention that the greatest minds of several generations were extinguished, either from violence blatantly ignored by those sworn to uphold laws, or from the despair that was inevitable from such crushing oppression. It is unsaid that the damage from this assault against the blacks in this country was so extensive that recovery may not even be a possibility. We are taught as children that slavery is over, and blacks now have civil rights so now everything is okay. We are not taught that the consequences of some actions are so severe that they cannot be undone.
I've done alot of my own educating of my daughter outside of school. We've talked a great deal about religion and about the environment. We've talked about history as well, she knows names like Ruby Bridges and Rosa Parks, people I had little familiarity with at that age. So, the question becomes this: Is giving her this extra knowledge that reveals how misleading her teachers can be doing more harm than good at this age? After all, there is no reason for her to question her math and English lessons. Those are pretty much objective and follow a set of rules that doesn't really change as time goes on. However, history and social studies are so subjectively taught at this level that it not only possible to question them, but necessary to do so. The reality, of course, is that I lack a degree in education or child psychology, so I don't really know what the result of two such conflicting messages is. Will she suffer for knowing now what we have to learn later anyway? If asked to explain the role of the U.S. government in deciding civil rights and portrays the government not the hero as expected, but rather as an institution that was dragged along into the move for equality reluctantly and only by great force, will she be graded negatively for it?
As I said, weighty thoughts for the end of a day that started with the squeals of "SANTA CAME!!"