Teaching My Black Sons They Are Beloved | Sojourners

Teaching My Black Sons They Are Beloved

Derrick Harris carries his son, Daniel, 5, Historically Black Colleges and Universities' March to The Well event in Greenville, SC, in honor of MLK Jr. Day on Monday, Jan. 15, 2024. USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters Connect

Every morning, I drive my two sons, ages 11 and 13, to school. Normally these rides are mostly quiet as I listen to podcasts, and they watch something on their iPads. But this February, I told my sons we were starting a new tradition: Taking turns naming a figure of Black history and sharing why we believe that person was significant. To my surprise, my sons’ initial reticence quickly turned to enthusiasm. So far, we’ve talked about Louis Armstrong, Jesse Owens, Sojourner Truth, Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, and Carter G. Woodson — the leader of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History who established the second week of February to be “Negro History Week” to counterbalance the ongoing erasure of Black contributions in the U.S.

As a dad, I’ve loved this new tradition, both to connect with my sons and to supplement their knowledge about the beauty and importance of Black history. My sons are quick to resist making everything about race, but they are also becoming increasingly aware of the realities and challenges of racism. As they get older, I want them to be able to recognize but not internalize the racism around them; I want them to have a deep pride and understanding of all of who they are — including their Jamaican, African American, and British heritage. I want to ensure they’re shaped by a commitment to advance the unfinished business of racial justice. And for me, there’s a spiritual element too. My sons need to know Black history so they can see themselves as God sees them: beloved.

I’m grateful that my sons have plenty of ways to learn about Black history: My oldest son is reading the youth edition of Ibram X. Kendi’s book Stamped from the Beginning for school – a title some schools in Florida and South Carolina have banned. My family attends Alfred Street Baptist Church, where Black history is celebrated both during and beyond the month of February. This past summer, my sons participated in a mini Freedom School run by the Children’s Defense Fund. But I fear that when it comes to knowing Black history — and its role in the wider history of the U.S. — the chasm between my sons’ experience and that of other kids is only growing wider.

The call to “remember” echoes throughout the Hebrew scriptures. On the precipice of entering the promised land, Moses implores the Israelites to remember all that God has done for them: “Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live,” says Moses, “Teach them to your children and to their children after them” (Deuteronomy 4:9). God’s concern is that the people of Israel remember who they are and what they’ve come through — a concern that I think is still relevant today. It’s essential for people and nations to remember the history that shaped them, even the painful stories.

But instead of honoring the sacred call to remember, this nation sometimes seems hell-bent on trying to forget. We’ve seen this manifest in a moral panic around the supposed teaching of “critical race theory” in K-12 public schools or the backlash against diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in higher education. According to Education Week, at least 18 states have instituted bans or restrictions on teaching topics related to race or gender. It may take years to fully grasp how these bans will set back our goal of a more just and multiracial democracy, but we already know there’s a climate of uncertainty and fear among many teachers in states like Florida and Texas who are now unsure what aspects of Black history will run afoul of the new restrictions.

To be sure: People in many of these states aren’t about to give up on teaching their students the truth. Through what March on Washington Film Festival founder Robert Raben described as “our own educational Underground Railroad,” organizations in these states are creating opportunities to teach Black History outside of the classroom like Black History Saturdays in Tulsa or Freedom School summer programs in Florida aimed at high school students.

Counter to what its bad-faith critics allege, teaching Black history isn’t about making people feel guilty. As I’ve written before, the whitewashing of U.S. history — like what’s happening in schools and universities around the country — leaves our nation vulnerable to repeat the sins of the past and creates a distorted view of our present challenges. So yes, we should teach kids about the period of white Southern backlash to Reconstruction after the Civil War, both so they understand a pivotal moment in our nation’s history and so they can spot a historical pattern in which racial progress has so often been met with periods of regress — a pattern that still repeats today.

Yet we also teach Black history to celebrate and inspire: The beauty and diversity of Black history has too often been flattened into stories of dehumanization and criminalization – stories that ignore the beauty and diversity of Black history and culture. Kids also need to learn about people like Gwendolyn Brooks, the first Black author to win a Pulitzer Prize; Charles Hamilton Houston, the first black editor of Harvard Law Review; Ruth Simmons, the first Black woman to be president of an Ivy League university; George Washington Carver, an agriculturalist and inventor; Alvin Ailey, a brilliant choreographer who founded an influential Black dance company; Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to be elected to the U.S. Congress; and so many more – people whose stories show what it means to be trailblazers and reach the very heights of achievement in their field. And we also teach kids about the people who helped our nation live up to its promise of “liberty and justice for all,” both so they can celebrate the resilience of those who came before and so they can be inspired to carry that project forward in their own life. Teaching Black history is not just about strengthening our democracy or fixing injustices; it’s also about affirming and celebrating an essential part of our nation’s culture and identity.

As another way to practice the sacred act of remembering during Black History Month, my wife and I took our sons to see Origin, a new film directed by Ava DuVernay that brings to life Isabel Wilkerson’s bestselling book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. The film weaves together the personal tragedy Wilkerson overcame while writing about the connective tissue between the oppression of Jews in Nazi Germany, Dalits in India, and Blacks through slavery and Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. Each system relied upon dehumanization, separation of people (including in marriage), and applying pernicious tests of purity. Wilkerson examines the hierarchy of human value through the lens of caste, and her book compares America to an “old house” with a caste system “that is as central to its operation as are the studs and joists that we cannot see in the physical buildings we call home.”

There were many scenes that were difficult to watch as a father of Black sons, including the opening scene that reenacts the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and an incredibly poignant sequence that tells the story of Al Bright, a Black boy who, in 1951, was blocked from joining his Little League teammates in a segregated pool by lifeguards who feared he would contaminate the water. But what the film also showed was the power of the human spirit to overcome the sin and idolatry of racism — the spirit I hope infuses my sons as they grow into young men.

After the film was over, I pulled my sons in close and reminded them that they are made in the very image of God and that nothing could take that inestimable worth and beauty away from them. Echoing in my head were the lyrics Eugene Kiing sings in “Pretty Brown Skin” by Maverick City Music: “One thing’s for sure / You’re made in the image of God […] Remember who you are and whose you are (shooting star) / Don’t forget that part / Know that you belong just as you are / With your pretty brown skin.”

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