Choosing Heartbreak over Heartshrink: Reading History with Children
"Would I have to ride at the back of the bus?” my beautiful brown-skinned son asked me as we read Faith Ringgold’s If a Bus Could Talk: The Story of Rosa Parks. Rory was six at the time and my heart broke as I contemplated how to answer this question. Honestly was the only option.
“Yes,” I said.
“But you could sit wherever you wanted?” he asked.
“Yes. But I wouldn’t want to ride on a bus like that,” I said, perhaps dishonestly skirting the idea that it would be very unlikely that he and I would have even existed as mother and son in that time and place, and deciding not to acknowledge that most white people of that time, place and generation were not supportive of the Montgomery bus boycott—to say the least.
“Because you’d want to sit next to me?”
“Absolutely,” I responded.
We continued to read the book, and the story progressed from an individual’s act of defiance to the organized protests of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
“People were so angry about how unfair the laws were,” I told him, “so they protested and made things change for the better.”
“I’d do that Mom-Mom,” he replied. “If I was at the back of the bus, then I’d be at the front of the protest line.”
Chills ran up my spine when Rory announced this, sticking his little chest out defiantly and affirming for me the rightness of reading books about the hard truths of history with children. And discussing them.
I think that this is particularly true of books that offer first person documentation of historical events. I put out a call for the use of such books, including Julius Lester’s classic To Be a Slave in local classroom curriculums about slavery when I heard about a misguided, though well-intentioned, experiential learning activity billed as an Underground Railroad simulation. Acquaintances in a neighboring town had told me about their concerns about this program, which was an optional part of an overnight field trip that their son anticipated attending during the next school year, and I began following the newspaper articles and letters to the editor in our local paper debating the merits of this learning activity. Borrowing some words from the acquaintance who’d told me about the program, I ended up writing the guest editorial excerpted in part below:
I write to express concern, not about the potentially traumatizing effects of “experiential learning” exercises such as this, but about the inadvertent trivialization of slavery and its legacy that inevitably takes place in this lesson. After all, even if the experiences are upsetting or traumatizing to some or most of the participating children, the curriculum cannot and must not come close to recreating the actual horrors of slavery. While the children are reportedly called animals, and are threatened with being hung, the impossibility of going much further without resorting to actual physical violence or hate speech necessarily presents the lesson in a truncated and deliberately sanitized way, carefully not stimulating the feelings and experiences of the young participants.
In order to minimize trauma, the heightened sensitivity brought on by being outdoors, at night, away from home, is diffused by minimizing the horrific elements of history, making it a neat and tidy story of bravery, escape, and safety. This is problematic as it teaches a false version of the past and sets a poor example for children to explore our unhappy history together with honesty and integrity. For those children who are more familiar than their peers with the history of racism and slavery in our country, this false history lesson is potentially painful, invalidating, and silencing.
…The Underground Railroad simulation curriculum is caught up in a paradox that undermines its efficacy at best and inflicts hurt and dishonest history lessons on children at worst: it is at once potentially traumatic for children and too gentle for honesty…. No matter how well intentioned, such activities result in dishonest representations of history that ultimately undermine whatever good intentions lie behind their exercise. We, of course, have no living survivors from our nation’s history of slavery, but other resources, books and curriculums abound. Local author Julius Lester’s work alone in books such as To Be a Slave, From Slave Ship to Freedom Road, The Old African, The Day of Tears and others, provides fertile ground for research, reflection and study.
The local response to my editorial was swift and varied. Coworkers at The Eric Carle Museum stopped me to say how moved they were.
“I’d heard about this and was concerned,” one colleague told me, “but you wrote what I hadn’t taken the time to sort out.”
A sixth grade teacher who had participated in the program for years with his class wrote a thoughtful response to my editorial defending the activity’s role in his students’ learning. He didn’t persuade me to think well of the program, but his response was measured and lacked the defensiveness of others who felt attacked by the discussion in and of itself.
An administrator at my son’s school stopped me in the hallway to say that he appreciated how I grappled with the controversy “without casting stones” at this other school that was “trying to do something good.”
I was relieved by these responses. After all, casting stones is a great way to build walls, and my point in writing the piece was to try to open up discussion. Whether they’re conducted with children just starting to grapple with racial identity development or with adults who have long negotiated their complicated places within society’s racial constructs, the surest way to shut down conversations about race, oppression, privilege and justice, is to come across as having it all figured out, to leave no room for mistakes or healing—healing of the sort that was going on at the school grappling with the choice about whether or not to participate in the simulation program.
The school district sponsored several meetings to debate whether or not they would continue to participate in the simulation the following year, and in the end they decided against doing so. When I recount this story in my undergraduate and graduate teaching in children’s literature, I invariable have students who recall participating in it as children. Many recall the event as a fun nighttime game of racing through the woods with flashlights, affirming my concern about trivializing the history. Others point out the program’s lack of context in a broader curriculum as the real problem.
I understand the intent behind such exercises, but I think that turning to books can provide more honest and effective means of educating children about history and opening up discussions—like the one my son and I engaged in when we talked about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
I was privy to some such discussions not only at home with my children, but also in my work at The Eric Carle Museum. Around the same time that I wrote the editorial, The Carle hosted an exhibition of illustrations from Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney’s The Old African, and curators decided to place small signs outside of the gallery warning visitors with young children about the graphic nature of pictures depicting scenes from the story about the Middle Passage and other scenes in which enslaved people where tied and beaten. The impulse was not censorious in nature but intended to provide a head’s up that the pictures would likely demand contextual conversation. Some pictures are worth well more than a thousand words.
Based on my observations in the gallery, I know that some people did not see the signs and were caught unaware when they walked into the gallery with their young children. Others had only cursory conversations about the pictures with the children in their care. They didn’t seem to know how to talk with their children about pictures presenting such horrors. But most parents and teachers who spoke with me about the exhibition were grateful for its content and for the rich, of difficult, conversations it elicited.
“It’s not like there should be a pretty, gentle book about slavery,” one mother said to me.
And I couldn’t agree more. It is heartbreaking to talk with children about slavery, segregation, the Holocaust, and about other times and ways in the past and currently in which humans have behaved so inhumanely to fellow humans. But to avoid such conversations, or to address them in ways that minimize their tragedy, is to engage not in heartbreak, but in heartshrink. It’s a disservice to children (not to mention those who lived through and died within these times) to pretend that we can simulate slavery or to address such history in a neat and tidy way; instead, engaging in the hard work of facing history and its legacy, which can be facilitated by reading and discussing books of the sort described above, can empower children to choose to get in the front of the protest line and help to write their own chapters in history.