Updated: Jun 13, 2020
On Wednesday morning, my little girl curled up next to me for our morning snuggle. I asked her, “Do you know what today is?” “Cookie Friday!”
“Well no it’s actually, Wednesday. But do you know what Holiday it is?”
She asked, “Christmas?”
“No, it’s Juneteenth. Today we celebrate the end of slavery.”
Her little three-year-old eyes were so confused. “What is slavery?”
I started to explain what slavery was and how it is evil. My daughter asked, “Can I be in slavery?”
“No, baby, it’s over. Also, our country only enslaved black girls and boys.”
To which she started to cry and started naming her black friends, asking if they could be enslaved. I assured her that no they could not because we were celebrating the end of slavery. I said, "Now no one in our country was allowed to own slaves."
She smiled and said, “That’s good; slavery is bad.”
We live in a southern town with the fingerprints of slavery are on many of our buildings. Just this year, the two of us attended a ceremony to honor a burial ground of slaves that had been moved. We talk about slavery, racism; black lives matter a lot, and yet, I need to continually teach her because she lives in a world that tries to push the sin of our history under a rug.
Giving My Daughter a Narrative
My daughter told me the other day that our skin is the same color; it is white. But that my eyes are blue and hers are brown. She has told me that her friend, who moved from Beijing has light skin but very dark hair. She thinks that her friend of Caribbean descent has the best braids. And her south Asian friend has very dark skin.
My daughter sees differences. She is a child, and children are taught to sort different colors at an early age. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you see? taught her to notice the colors and identify animals by their color. She also sees similarities. She notices the other tall girls. She points out when she has the same color hair as another girl and that she has her daddy’s beautiful brown eyes. She notices the other girls in her class. My child, like all children, sees differences because God made us wonderfully different.
According to Kristina R. Olson in Psychology Today, “Now you might be asking yourself—why not avoid talking about race—after all most of us don’t want our children obsessing with the concept. Well there are many reasons, but one of the most persuasive to me has been recent work showing that children often come to their own (sometimes worrying) conclusions about race and if they think they can’t discuss them with us, then these theories do not get checked. After all, children are smart and inquisitive and as such are trying to understand the world around them. As they do so, they often create explanations for why things are the way they are.”
When my child mentions a person’s differences, we talk about it. I tell her yes, they look like that because God made them. And then together we say, “And God doesn’t make mistakes.”
In our family, we talk about skin color as beautiful. We talk about hair texture as fantastic. We discuss different body types as made in God’s image. When we see people who are differently-abled we talk about how God made them and they are loved. By giving her a narrative for differences, we are affirming all people as made in God’s image, and it provides her language for those differences and writes a narrative that differences are remarkable.
But she doesn’t just understand the difference in the way people look; she also notices that when we go to volunteer, many of the families we are serving are Black. She sees how many of the homeless people that we give meals to have darker skin than she does. It is my job to answer her questions. And the only answer I have is that we still live in a country that is held captive by systematic racism.
We celebrate Juneteenth so that when my daughter sees differences, she can have a Godly narrative about people. I want her to know that all people are made in God’s image. And that God’s kingdom is filled with people of every tribe, every nation, and every language.
Teaching About Our Past
At some point, I will have to have a painful conversation with her about the fact that her mommy’s family had slaves. We will have to talk about the fact that our history is not a storybook. We will have to talk about slavery, the civil war, reconstruction, the civil rights movement, and other realities of our past.
I have worked with college students in Georgia for the past twelve years. I have heard from many of my students that the civil war was not about slavery. My students are not bad people, and when I show them primary documents where the leaders of the Confederate write that they went to war because of slavery, they often repent. But the reality is there is a desire to ignore the ugly picture of slavery.
And it makes sense. Part of our culture is to revere our elders. We love our families in the south. It is painful to admit that your ancestors could have done something so abhorrent as slavery. It feels like you are betraying your family to talk about slavery.
To deal with the pain, those of us who are white, have created new narratives. We have told ourselves that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. We have created myths about the happy slave or the good master who gave their slaves a blissful life. We ignore the stories of rape, murder, and kidnapping and instead celebrate movies like Gone With The Wind. These new narratives are a way to placate our confused hearts. Because if we can’t create a new story, we have to deal with the reality that our ancestors did something evil.
But we don’t need to create a new narrative. We don’t need to invent a heroine like Scarlet O'hara, because we have real heroes that we can celebrate. Many of us have abolitionist ancestors. Women like Harriet Tubman risked their lives to free people in slavery. And our country did realize the evils of slavery and abolished the practice.
Celebrating Juneteenth reminds us that we can recognize the evils of slavery without hating our ancestors and our past. Because yes, slavery was wrong, and the stain of slavery that has impacted our country is evil, but Juneteenth celebrates those that fought to end slavery.
In our house, we celebrate Juneteenth so that my daughter will know that our past – while it needs to be lamented – does not have to be our future. Juneteenth gives us the hope to fight for the freedom of all God’s people.
Slavery Still Impacts Us
My daughter fell at the splash pad. Pieces of dust were ground into the mangled blood and skin that caked her knees. She begged us just to put a band-aid on the cut, but my husband and I knew we had to clean out the wound. We listened to her cry as we carefully cleaned out the wound. It was heartbreaking to be the ones that were hurting her, but we both knew that if we didn’t hurt her now, it would be much worse when the cut got infected.
Not talking about the impacts of slavery is the same thing as not cleaning out a wound. Many of my students have told me, “Drop it, slavery was such a long time ago.” The fact that the stain of slavery still impacts our town is evident if you walk outside and notice how our town is divided by race. By not talking about slavery, we are allowing the wound to fester. The longer we ignore how badly our country’s soul was impacted by slavery, the longer we ignore the fact that at one point our country was okay with designating some of God’s children as less than whole, the more the wound becomes infected and racism continues to wreak havoc on our country.
But if we celebrate the end of slavery, then we can have a platform to talk about the evils. We can talk about how it still impacts us today. We can begin to clean out the wound. And even though it is painful, if we clean out the wound, it will begin to heal.
Teaching her To Empathy
I love that my child cried when I told her about Juneteenth. I love that she loves her friends so much that the idea that someone might hurt them hurts her. I want her to see her neighbors as made in God’s image, especially if they are different. I want her to care about justice issues, even when they don’t impact her. And I want her to lament evil, even when she gets privilege from that same evil.
The reality is that her skin color gives her the privilege to ignore Juneteenth. And it would be easier to ignore it. It would be so much easier not to have to study which books I need to read to her. It would be easier to push uncomfortable questions about race aside. It would be easier for her not to celebrate Juneteenth.
To celebrate Juneteenth, I need to do the hard work of de-centering the white narrative and to center the black narrative in our country. I have to research books that are age appropriate and about a different narrative in our country. I have to study our country’s history and do the hard work of addressing the racism that still has a foothold in my heart.
I don’t want easy. I want my daughter to be someone who desires God’s kingdom. I want her to have empathy for all of her neighbors. So that when she is in elementary school, she will notice the racism that is around her. And I want her to have empathy so that when she is junior high, she begins to learn about how to stand up for those around her who are treated differently because of their skin color. In High School, I want her empathy to cause her to fight for social justice. In college, I want her empathy to lead her to learn from people who are different from her. I want her empathy to be the guiding light that helps her choose mentors, books, friends, and other sources of teachers with different stories. And as a young adult, I pray it is her empathy that teaches her to be part of a new narrative in our country.
I teach my child about Juneteenth because I want my child to celebrate the ending of slavery and to have a new narrative in our country that values all people.
Here is a great resource of age appropriate books if you want to begin talking about Juneteenth with your child.
For more information about how to talk to your child about race, check out Brownicity for amazing resources.