We’re currently studying the transatlantic slave trade in my middle school social studies class. Since I want us to examine the issues in depth (as opposed to survey-style), we only have time to go from the origins of slavery to the abolition movement. As a supplement, we’ve been watching The Butler during our free time. And we’ve been talking. A lot.
We’ve been discussing the difference between having freedom and having rights. We’ve been talking about the incredible struggle people undertook to fight for what they felt was a moral imperative — equal rights, equal access, and equal opportunity for all human beings, regardless of their skin color.
It’s not an easy conversation to have. In fact, it’s damn hard.
It’s hard to watch images of Ku Klux Klan members torching a freedom bus. It’s hard to watch people (both black and white) getting beaten and killed during peaceful protests. It’s hard to explain why and how leaders like JFK and MLK Jr. were assassinated.
These are difficult conversations, especially with kids who are just beginning to enter the adult sphere. Kids who have grown up in a different place and time with a different understanding of what it means to struggle. Kids who started this unit thinking that we really might live in a “post-racial” society (don’t get me started on that phrase), that slavery was a long time ago and has no bearing on our lives now.
It’s a difficult awakening to guide them through.
As adults, how do we frame that conversation? How do we help our children understand where we have come from — as a nation, as a community, as a collection of human beings — without jading their vision of our basic human character or our potential future?
I tell my students that we study the more difficult parts of our history — things like slavery and the Holocaust and wars — because we need to remember. We need to remember what we value and why we value it. We need to remember the work people put in to get us here. We need to remember what mistakes have been made and why we never want to make them again.
Most importantly, we need to remember that we do not live in an isolated moment in time. The civil rights movement took place nearly 50 years ago, but it is still relevant today.
It is still so painfully relevant today.
It is important for these kids — even at 12, 13, and 14 years old, kids who were not even alive for 9/11 — to understand that their lives are not separate from our past. Just because it did not happen yesterday, or last year, or even ten years ago, just because it did not happen in their lifetimes, that does not mean that it is gone. People remember. And people pass down those memories, those emotions, those hopes and those fears.
We inherit our past.
We inherit our past, and we have no choice in the matter. Each one of us is born within a context of place and time. We are born to people who were shaped within their own contexts, and who pass remnants of those experiences on to us.
We inherit our past, and pretending it did not happen does not make it go away.
So instead of avoiding it, we lean into it. My students and I talk about why good people make bad decisions. We talk about the source of prejudice, the motivation behind violence. We talk about fear. We talk about it because the talking is important; because along with our past, we also inherit an obligation to move forward. We must both thank and grieve our predecessors for their choices and actions, but we must also vow to use our understanding of the past to make better decisions for the future.
When we discuss these issues, I ask my students how this history informs our society today. How does it weave a backdrop for events such as Ferguson? How does it help us to better empathize with the present-day civil rights needs of people around the world?
And, even more importantly, I ask my students who they see taking a stand in these histories. Who do they see showing courage in the face of fear? Where do they see people blurring the “lines” of society in order to fight for what they believe is right?
And how can we, even in our small, individual way, contribute to a positive change like that?
I want my students to not just respect the struggles of our ancestors, but to be inspired to honor those struggles in their own lives through their own actions.
We must be mindful of our past without losing our hope for the future, and what a crucial and delicate balance that is.