When should parents explain the history of American slavery to their children?
Elizabeth Todd-Breland, a black mother, had an unplanned experience with her then four-year-old daughter during bedtime reading.
The cover of the book, a gift, looked like folktales, but the story turned out to be about the Middle Passage. White ghosts putting Africans in chains who then had to change their names. The language read as mythical — poetic and lyrical, rich in metaphor.
“Children’s books are a great way to talk about topics and conversation, but I didn’t feel prepared to be having this with a four-year-old,” Todd-Breland said.
Her daughter didn’t understand the book was about slavery, and Todd-Breland kept reading because it would’ve been too much drama to pivot. Most parents know nighttime rituals need to take the path of least resistance.
Todd-Breland’s daughter is now five and we both have two-year-old girls. Our homes have libraries brimming with books. As writers who have a particular focus on black people and communities, we are especially intentional about reading-consumption. Reading to our girls is enjoyable and watching them tote around favorite books is delightful. But we won’t want to make mistakes on the parenting journey.
“All parents have this tension between the desire to protect and the desire to prepare,” said Todd-Breland, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of the new book “A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s.”
We don’t want our children to be caught off guard with negative racial experiences, but we also don’t want to burden them with being little race people.
It’s a delicate balance.
The dominant princess discourse leaves a bad taste in our mouths. I can’t even buy potty training pull-ups that aren’t sickeningly gendered. Too often the princess motif is blond and white, synonymous with good and nice. Or damsel in distress.
Sometimes Todd-Breland’s oldest girl brings home school library books that are princess or princess-adjacent, as she calls them. Todd-Breland doesn’t disallow them because reading is encouraged.
One day her daughter brought home PJ Masks, Disney characters that Todd-Breland had never heard of. I looked at my daughter quizzically when she pointed out The Incredibles. Pop culture seeps into their lives as easily as spotting golden arches from the car seat.
Supplemental books are on our shelves for balance. Representation matters and children’s literature can reinforce or disrupt messages. Picking books with black girls as characters is important.
A favorite in my and Todd-Breland’s household is “I Love My Hair” by Natasha Tarpley. A little black girl celebrates the styles of her own glorious crown — cornrows, braids, Afro. The 20th anniversary of the book is this year, with the book’s messaging of beauty that’s not preachy or heavy-handed.
Today’s affirmations lay the groundwork for a positive sense of self down the road.
The array of diverse books is much deeper than when I was a child. Some books take on racism, re-enactments of someone being “the first” and civil rights. Racially conscious parents must also not overload children with too many books that could lead to them equating blackness with struggle. That’s not all we are.
One pre-schooler book on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fell flat for me by reducing him to a little boy who wanted to hold hands with a white little boy. Maybe the true radical nature of King can’t be distilled for toddlers.
Books open up new worlds and are early conversation starters. I hope I pass on my love of reading and that I nurture my daughter’s imagination. Books with black kids doing regular activities send a message, too. Bubble baths, slaying dragons, picking out colorful pants, traveling, readying for a baby sister, painting and playing with animals.
We also read books about children of all races, with an emphasis on multiculturalism. Dr. Seuss is mixed in with other classics. Friends have presented us with books on Venus and Serena Williams, Langston Hughes at the library and Rosa Parks in French, which I can’t read. One of my favorites is “Ellington Was Not a Street,” by the late Ntozake Shange, in which she recounts her childhood with luminaries such as Duke Ellington and W.E.B. DuBois stopping by her home.
Sometimes you never know what will click with your children. When Todd-Breland’s girls read Jacqueline Woodson’s “This Is the Rope” about the Great Migration, they focused more on the jump roping aspect, not the international tale. Last week, a friend gave me a book about a brown girl as Wonder Woman who solves problems in her school and has a crew of friends who are diverse. My daughter fashions herself a superhero and found the book under the Christmas tree early.
As to the institution of slavery, I don’t have the answer about when to introduce the topic. But not at two years old.
When Todd-Breland and I discussed the topic, the only thing we could come up with is that we need to be proactive and be the first ones to explain.
And as far as figuring out when to pull back on the tension of protecting versus exposing?
“I don’t think it ever stops,” Todd-Breland said.
Sun-Times columnistNatalieY.Mooreis a reporter for WBEZ and author of “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation.”
Send letters to: firstname.lastname@example.org.