Celebrating African American Culture With My Kids

Having grown up in the South, I am acutely aware of the role race plays in our perceptions of the world.  Everything in my hometown was black and white. It seemed like you were either African-American or white/Asian/Middle Eastern/Latin.  I am sure if you were part of one of these other ethnicities, your perception is much different than mine. It is just that the tension between African-Americans and white people was palpable. I could feel it, but my experience was different so it made it hard to relate. Looking back, I do not think I tried hard enough to understand it.

I spent my first nine years of school at a homogenous private school.  While not unpopular, I also was not in the in-crowd. I just did not feel at home there and begged my parents to let me change schools.  I had a few options, one of which was going to my local public school where both of my parents were teachers. How embarrassing! Yet, I was pulled in this direction.  I wanted to experience something completely different, even if it meant passing my parents in the hallways while socializing with my friends.

My school was big and loud and energetic and I loved it!  One of the first things I noticed during lunch in the cafeteria was that each race seemed to sit together as a group.  I just thought that this is how everybody from all over the spectrum liked things, but now, I see it differently. I wish I had realized that just because things were done a certain way, it did not mean it was the right way.  I was involved in every extra-curricular activity I could fit into my schedule and developed friendships with students of diverse backgrounds. Yet, none of them ever came to my house to hang out. They would have been welcomed in my home, so why did I not invite them? I now wish I had worked harder to cultivate the relationships I developed at school and had carried them through to my social life outside of school. I cannot change the past, but I can make deliberate choices going forward to foster relationships with people of different races.  The area I live in now has a smaller African-American population than my hometown, but it seems to have larger populations of other races and ethnicities. There are many festivals celebrating the culture and heritage of many types of people, and I am so grateful for the opportunities I have to explore more.

One statement I hear from well-meaning parents is that they teach their children not to see color.  They want their children to know that we should all be viewed equally and that is absolutely true. However, we should not be encouraging our children to not see color when they can clearly see it.  We should be highlighting and celebrating these differences so that our children understand what part color plays in who we are as a people. However, I am not the best representative to explain a heritage that is not my own, and that is okay.  That does not mean I can not look for ways to learn with my children. February is Black History Month, a perfect opportunity to study African-American heritage.

One of the easiest tools we all have access to is the library.  If I have trouble verbalizing a sensitive subject in an age-appropriate way, I can find a book to help explain:

There are many opportunities for us to learn together at museums and events in our communities.  Last weekend, I took the boys to the Charlotte Museum of History for an African-American Heritage Festival..

We listened to a gospel choir.

We met African-American artist Wanda Clark.

We painted.

We learned reasons why Black History is important.

This particular answer really resonated with me.  

We made our way through a “swamp” in our search for freedom, which gave me the opportunity to start a conversation with the boys about slavery.

At the end of our visit, the boys were given a Passport To The Queen City, “a year-long program at Charlotte Museum of History that enables us to learn more about the many people who make up Charlotte’s unique cultural landscape.”

I can not believe what a perfect fit this passport is to what I am trying to accomplish with my boys.  They even get passport stamps for each heritage festival they attend at the museum.

After we received our stamps and were browsing in the gift shop, we were approached by a woman with a video camera.  Her name is Dawn, and she is working on a documentary about heritage. She took the time to explain her project to the boys.

She wanted to know more about why I felt it was important to be at this festival with my children.  Soon we had another woman join our discussion and we talked for quite a while until the boys’ restlessness could no longer be contained.  

As I left the museum, I was inspired by our conversation.    I smiled to myself realizing that I had come that afternoon seeking answers, yet somebody was also seeking answers from me.  We all have so much to learn from each other, we must strive to keep the conversation flowing.