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Being Honest about Racial Violence without Traumatizing our Kids

How Much is Too Much?

by Ben James

I'm here for justice

This past summer I had the good luck to be part of an unusual collaboration: two elementary school teachers, a handful of school administrators, and nine parents coming together to assess and revise an in-depth, 14-week curriculum on American slavery and abolition.

For the past twenty years, Linda Donnelly has taught this curriculum to her 5th- and 6th-grade students at The Common School, a small, progressive, private school in Amherst, Massachusetts. And every-other-summer, Linda and her co-teacher, Chad Odwazny, devote several weeks to reassessing the content and the goals of the curriculum.But this time around, Linda and Chad decided not to undertake that reassessment on their own. This summer, in the context of an election season defined by increasingly racist provocations; in the context of recurrent incidents of racially-motivated violence erupting across the country — and in the context, too, of a series of racially-polarizing situations that had recently emerged at the school — a group of adults sat down together, at the Linda’s invitation, to read books written for children about the condition of American slavery.

Since my ten-year-old son (who, like me, is white) would be among their students in the fall, and since I was interested in the question of how one might teach about the nature of systemic oppression to a group of children, many of whom have — through no fault of their own — largely benefited from those very acts of historical and recurring oppression, I decided to join them.

Elijah of Buxton

In a longer version of this story, I write about the many rewards and the substantial ironies inherent in that collaborative process, but for now I just want to talk about our group’s most recurrent and intractable question, which had to do with how far we parents felt our children should be emotionally pushed.

We talked about our kids’ “shut-off valves,” those limits in their abilities to process disturbing information, the danger that in an effort to tell the history of American slavery like it was (and is), the children might be forced to close off their emotional selves, or become so confused and overloaded that no lesson is possible at all.

Our concern was real, but overall I sensed a strong consensus among our group — from parents of color and from white parents, too — that there were more dangers in being temperate, in sugar-coating the brutality of slavery, than there were in laying the history straight. “This is private school, right?” said one mother, a white woman. “We can tell you it’s OK to go ahead and make our kids cry.” Most of us nodded our agreement.

Philandro Castille Protest

But between our June meeting and our July meeting a number of incidents occurred. Alton Sterling was shot and killed by police officers in Baton Rouge. Philando Castile was shot and killed by an officer in Minneapolis, his death streamed live on social media. Nine officers were shot and killed in Dallas by a lone gunman during an otherwise peaceful protest against the murders of Sterling and Castile.

When our group reconvened it was as if all the wind had been taken from our sails. Our enthusiasm, that whole go-on-and-make-my-kid-cry attitude, suddenly seemed nuts. We were reeling from the sheer overwhelm of attempting to process these incidents of escalating racial violence; it felt as if the recurring cycles would have no end. Our cavalier attitude now seemed a provocation.

One mother said she’d been rethinking her earlier comments about how far she felt comfortable in pushing her child. A white mother of a black boy described the ways in which her son and his peers felt “under siege” by the images that were flooding the news. Another mother, a black woman, described her efforts that summer to keep her kids away from the stories, and the stories away from her kids.

A father described his own nervous breakdown a couple years prior to that summer, which had come in the wake of the earlier killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. The need to protect our children had risen powerfully to the surface; our bravado was gone, replaced by a fear of transferring the weight of this history onto our kids.

Linda had several ideas and responses to the insecurity that all of us shared. She had new structures to put in place in the classroom, one of which allowed her students a higher degree of agency in which books about slavery they chose to read. She had also decided she would clear time during the school day in which this reading would happen, so that the kids would be in each others’ company while taking on such harrowing material, rather than alone at home.

But the comment from Linda that stood out most to me had to do with how she responds to individual kids when they hit a rough patch in the study. I mean those occasional moments when one or another child begins to shut down or break down with a new awareness of the harm their white ancestors may have inflicted upon the enslaved, or else the harm their enslaved ancestors may have suffered at the hands of white owners, or — for some children at least — both of these possibilities at once.

“I’m so sorry that this happened,” Linda will say in such moments, or that’s at least how she described it to us parents, although I imagine there’s more specific nuance in each particular instance.

It sounds simple, sure, but what I understood Linda to be describing was a complex form of apology in which the teacher makes herself present not only with her students’ immediate discomfort, but also with the broad-ranging and tentacled roots of their pain. It’s a small example of an adult taking nuanced responsibility for the unjust world in which our children are becoming themselves.

I was moved by Linda’s description of that presence and that apology. Without even being aware of it, I tucked the phrase, simple as it was, away.

Notes from the field. Doing Time in Incarceration

T​he summer wound down and the work of our reading group came to an end. I interviewed Linda; I reached out to some of the other parents in the group to see whether the conversations we’d had that summer were as rewarding to them as they had felt to me.

And then, oddly — especially given how much I was already thinking about the question of tolerance-levels and “shut-off valves” — I made a huge mistake.

I had been one of the parents advocating for a greater sophistication in the historical readings, and for the teachers to be fearless in taking on the toughest questions. Then, through a series of substantial misjudgments on my part, I brought my son to a performance that was way out of his league.

His current passion is theater, and I had a strong desire for him to experience the magnitude of Anna Deveare Smith’s character-shifting solo performances.

I myself had seen Twilight Los Angeles on film twenty years earlier and had been waiting for decades to see her perform live. So I dragged him along to Cambridge to see her latest work, Notes from the Field, in which Smith would be interrogating the entanglements between school discipline, racism, and mass incarceration.

The educational materials on the theater’s website described the show as appropriate for 7th-graders and older. It would be a stretch for my son, but I felt Smith’s performance would be commanding enough to guide him through the uneasy or confusing parts.

What I didn’t know was that the performance would feature large-scale projections of many of the videos that have come to define our historical moment: Freddie Gray screaming as he is brutally transferred to a police van; a black high school girl violently wrestled from her desk and thrown to the ground by a white police officer; another black teenager, this one in a bikini, crying for her mother while a white officer forces her face into the ground.

My son was aware of the existence of such videos, was aware of the contested realities regarding violence inflicted upon black bodies in America, but he’d never seen any of the footage himself.

Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education

Anna Deavere Smith in “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education.” Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

The lights went down, the first act began. For eighty unrelenting minutes Smith careened between a dozen-or-so characters, her virtuosity obliterating every distraction inside or outside the theater. I was completely overtaken, which is to say that during this time I failed to consider my son’s experience much at all.

There would be questions — I knew that much — a lot for us to talk about, some confusion to unravel. But when the lights came up and I looked at his face it was clear that the whole thing had been too much. If the goal was to help my son ride the front edge of difficult content, I had accomplished the opposite. Taking him to that show was more like a full-body tackle in which I’d knocked him off the surfboard and sent him under the waves.

The second act of Notes from the Field would be an experiment, a guided “conversation” in which a community leader would help the audience discuss some of the challenges inherent in the material of the performance (after that Smith would return for a final monologue).

I was interested in how Smith and the community leader were going to pull off this dialogue. I felt certain it would be awkward; I wondered if it would feel useful.

A mural of Freddie Gray

A mural of Freddie Gray in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of Baltimore. Photo: Reuters/Bryan Woolston

In the end, however, I didn’t get to find out, because the difficult conversation for which I actually needed to show up occurred a couple blocks away from the theater, on a narrow stoop, where I sat with my son while he released a wild torrent of rage and tears.

He was freaked out by the images, and even more by the sounds. Some of the violent stories in Smith’s monologues he would never forget. He said Freddie Gray’s screams were the worst thing he had ever heard. He alternated between ferocious expressions of anger and long moments during which he seemed almost completely shut down.

I felt worried and, in truth, defensive; I was annoyed at myself for not better thinking this one through. But I knew — and part of the reason I knew this was because of the conversations I’d had in previous weeks with our reading group — that my job at that moment was to put my own annoyances aside in order to be present with my son’s fury and confusion and pain.

A couple weeks later, over breakfast, during a conversation in which I asked my son whether it would be OK if I wrote about my error in judgement (and in which he said OK, as long as I made sure to mention the gigantic sundae I had purchased for him later that afternoon), he actually managed to delineate some of the strands of his fury.

He was angry at me for taking him to the show.

He was angry at whatever reviewer I’d read whose review had not mentioned the videos.

He was angry at whoever had decided the show would even be OK for 7th-graders to watch.

He was angry at the police officers, certainly.

He wanted to be angry at Anna Deveare Smith — or at the fact that the videos existed — but he didn’t know if that was OK (I suggested it was possible to be angry at a society in which the violence documented in the videos was allowed to persist).

All in all, it was a stunning dissection for a ten-year-old to perform, and it made me think, as we sat at our kitchen table, about the tangled furies in which our country remains embroiled, how useful it would be for many of us — and particularly for those of us who live and breathe inside the construct of Whiteness — to attempt to piece these furies apart. But that was only later. On the day we saw Anna Deveare Smith perform, there wasn’t much disentangling going on.

I sat on the stoop, rubbing his back. I, too, was still hearing Freddie Gray’s screams in my head, so I didn’t say much, only that I was sorry, so sorry this had happened. I was apologizing to my son for my mistake, sure, but also, more so, for the fact that those of us with the privilege and the power to make a difference could still allow such devastation to be exerted upon the bodies of young black women and men.

Sorry, I said to my kid, although I was attempting to speak also — as inadequate as it seemed — to Freddie, my hand on his back, and sorry again.

Ben James

Writer. Farmer. Dad. More about Ben >
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