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Teaching Race Relations

Updated: Jun 5

“To accept one's past—one's history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.” – James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Every once in a while, a voice comes along that captures the exact essence of a moment. Like a great song, we feel like we’ve heard it before. Like we had that exact thought ourselves at some point. As I copied excerpts from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time for the National African American Read-In at my high school, I remembered one of our summer reading texts, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race. I stumbled across a powerful moment in an essay by Claudia Rankine, “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning”:

“We live in a country where Americans assimilate corpses in their daily comings and goings. Dead blacks are a part of normal life here. Dying in ship hulls, tossed into the Atlantic, hanging from trees, beaten, shot in churches, gunned down by the police, or warehoused in prisons: Historically, there is no quotidian without the enslaved, chained, or dead black body to gaze upon or to hear about or to position a self against. When blacks become overwhelmed by our culture’s disorder and protest (ultimately to our own detriment, because protest gives the police justification to militarize, as they did in Ferguson), the wrongheaded question that is asked is, What kind of savages are we? Rather than, What kind of country do we live in?”

I often get this kind of question from students when we tackle books like Night, or Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. They ask me, how did this happen? It’s a hard question to answer.

There is no better explanation than the first lines of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man:

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids -- and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination -- indeed, everything and anything except me.”

The other day, my wife and I tried to explain who Martin Luther King Jr. was to our four-year-old daughter because she told us about a preschool celebration of MLK Day. Maybe a little too young for that, I thought. My wife had a great explanation. He told us to love everybody, she said. No matter what someone looks like. It’s a simple idea, really – you can’t hate someone you don’t know. My daughter got it, but explaining the concept of culture and our history of race relations to teenagers is not easy, especially when there’s so many moving parts.

There’s health care (“Race, medicine, and health care in the United States: a historical survey”), education (Savage Inequalities), redlining (“A Brief History of Redlining” How Stuff Works), employment discrimination (“Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?”), interracial marriage (Loving vs. Virginia), voting rights (“Voter Identification Laws and the Suppression of Minority Votes”), journalism (The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation), the media (Bamboozled), and the criminal justice system (Serial, Season 3, and “Everyone does drugs, but only minorities are punished for it”). It’s really overwhelming when you think about it – there’s no part of our reality untouched by racism.

All the screens of our world teach children about race, so it’s more important than ever to have good conversations with children about where we came from, and where we’re going. Who we were then, and who we are now.

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