Black History MonthThe only thing that surprises 10-year-old Jeremy Mankins about inaugurating an African-American president is that Barack Obama beat him to the Oval Office.
It did surprise his mom, Jody, a Romeoville secretary working on her master’s degree in school guidance counseling. "Never in my lifetime did I think I would see a black president elected to the White House."
As kids and grown-ups share the afterglow of swearing in the first U.S. president of color, teachable moments are cropping up at kitchen tables and in classrooms all around Chicago and the country.
"This election seemed to have restored the civic engagement that my parents talked about that happened back in the ’60s," says Pam Fort, of Joliet, a substitute teacher who organizes after-school community projects for teenagers.
"Obama’s election provided a chance for us to help take our communities back by getting involved like never before," Fort says. "We watched the debates, watched the ads and each decided what we can do collectively and individually to restore hope back into the lives of others."
Too much history?
In some living rooms, Inauguration Day evoked surprising cases of TMH—Too Much History. Before the balloons hit the floor, it seemed, families watched the focus fast-forward from celebrating Obama’s election to confronting innocent questions about why our 44th president looks so different from the preceding 43.
"My kids seemed to understand that there was something very special about this election, but it was hard for them to grasp exactly what it was," says April Morgan, a special education teacher and mother of 13-year-old Adjani.
Explaining why Obama’s political rise is so exceptional is a dilemma leaving grown-ups gasping for responses that will preserve the magic of the oath-taking ceremony while they weigh how deeply they should dig into the chronicles of discrimination that make it so extraordinary.
"I don’t want to put up blocks they didn’t know were there, so I didn’t exactly tell them the whole truth," admits Valerie Taylor-Carter, an Austin mother of two girls, ages 9 and 14.
"I just decided to keep it simple and let the rest of the story come when it would come," she says. "They could learn the rest of it from their history books."
Christie Clarke, a parenting expert of Out-a-Box Parenting Group, remembers when her Caucasian son got to that unit in history class. While going to school with kids of color all his life, he had no idea of their troubling past.
"Mom, did you know what we did to the black people?" he asked in horror.
Avoiding prickly may seem like the way to go, but the race talk is the same as the dreaded sex talk, Clarke warns. What you don’t tell your kids, one of their friends will be happy to fill in.
"The elephant IS in the room, so don’t be an ostrich," Clarke says.
But more important than what you say, she advises, is what you do.
"What are the qualities you want to instill? Compassion? Understanding? Flexibility?" Clarke asks. "It’s not our words that will help change the world. Our kids see our hearts.
"...Wouldn’t it be wonderful for each generation to be more comfortable, less fearful, more empowered, less condemnatory?" Clarke asks.
With four generations of her family experiencing the campaign together, April Morgan couldn’t redact those turbulent chapters of civil rights history. For her, watching Obama’s Nov. 4 acceptance speech over the backdrop of her own family annals made the occasion seem "almost surreal."
Morgan remembers her 87-year-old grandmother’s stories of real-life segregation as a girl in Mississippi. For her mother’s generation, Obama’s rise evoked a fear reaction with roots back to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
As Breanna Ward, a 17-year-old senior at Joliet West High School, and four high school buddies munched Big Macs and shared fries, they bore witness that, in their circles, racism is ‘totally yesterday.’
Morgan says, "kids don’t have a clear idea of how it was. But, for us older ones, it really shows us how far we’ve come."
But kids and parents come out with the same take on some of the lessons of Obama’s inauguration. They call it the "yes, we can" conclusion.
"Now black people don’t have any reason to say ‘my daddy isn’t with us, so there’s no way I can succeed in life,’" says Chereatha Lindsey, a 16-year-old African-American junior at Joliet West.
Her chums chime in.
"Obama didn’t have a daddy at home, either," says Samone Bradley, 17. "He grew up the way we did. He wasn’t rich. He had to fight for what he got."
Obama’s win does more than retool racial image, says Fort, who organized this and other discussions for high school youth about kitchen table issues.
"It challenges us as minorities to crystallize and reinforce our own self-image," Fort says.
"The overwhelming response was that "I can do and be anything that I want to be—not just because I’m black, but educated and black," she says. "Obama’s win signaled to minorities everywhere what a great education can afford you."
Obama couldn’t invite everybody to his inauguration party, but the occasion invites everybody to take a step back and take a look at themselves, Morgan says. When she sees the four generations of her family in the mirror, she sees that today’s issues are not black issues or white issues. Obama doesn’t promise "now I can help my people," she says. He says now he can help all people.
Realizing the potential for being a positive force inspires parents of all colors to venture forth, she says.
"It tells us we’re all coming together and getting there, wherever it is we’re going," Morgan says. "It gives us the courage to pick up the baton and forge forward together."
Tips to use: Kids, parents and the race card
Focus on qualities. Talk with your kids about principles being more important than personality or looks. Teach your kids to be color-blind.
Stick to facts. Consider encouraging your kids to share three positive facts about the new president. (It is good practice for answering challenges from others who focus instead on his race.)
Defuse, divert or depart. There are several skills you can work on with your kids to help them avoid getting pulled into arguments about race. Let them help you figure these out. Practice at home.
DEFUSE: It’s possible to defuse racial comments with I statements—"I never thought about it like that" or "I can’t agree with that." Or "This conversation makes me uncomfortable." Or "I just try to see the best."
DIVERT: You can’t change anyone else’s opinions, but you can practice changing the subject.
DEPART: As a thinker and free agent, kids should realize that there are times when removing themselves is the best option.
Celebrate diversity. Effective parents think out loud around their children. For example, "I wonder what makes us a wonderful country? What it would be like if we were all the same?"
Expect acceptance. Try to cherish the belief that we’re making progress as the human race, moving away from the limited concept of race that has been so divisive for so long. As parents think, so do their kids. Modeling has long been the best teacher.
Source: Christie Clarke, Out-a-Box Parenting Group Inc.
Robyn Monaghan has been a journalist for 20 years, is an award-winning investigative reporter and a mom who lives in Plainfield.
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