Founded in 1910, The Crisis magazine remains the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). With W.E.B. Du Bois as the founding editor, The Crisis offered a trenchant analysis of national and international politics, economics, and culture. While The Crisis mostly addressed a black adult audience, black children were also presumed readers. Evidence of such an investment is found in the annual children’s issue of the central publication. In 1919, however, Crisis editors realized young people of color needed a body of work that deliberately sought to address the devastating impact of racial terror on the psyche. Such concern emerged most urgently when a twelve-year-old child wrote a letter to the editors about the hate she felt for “the white man.” Alarmed, W.E.B. DuBois issued a statement in the October 1919 “Children’s Number” addressing the formation of racial hatred:
“To educate [children] in human hatred is more disastrous to them than to the hated; to seek to raise them in ignorance of their racial identity and peculiar situation is inadvisable–impossible.”
For DuBois, eschewing the relevancy of race, racial identity, and racial terror was “inadvisable” precisely because this glaring omission held potentially lethal consequences. I think DuBois’s caution remains relevant.
There hasn’t been a day in my son’s life when “brown” and “black” were considered “bad words” in our household. He doesn’t understand those colors as politicized, but he was born into this storyline, and so I very deliberately point out details that may aid his formation of an oppositional consciousness. For example, Miles is six-years-old. For Valentines Day, each child had to bring cards for each of the fifteen students in the class. As we were perusing the shelves, I tsk, tsk, tsked and Lord have mercied so much that Miles asked, “What’s wrong?” “Look at these cards. Do any of these people on these cards look like you or your classmates?” I asked. Acknowledging that they didn’t, I went on to talk about the perils of having a weak imagination. We discussed some of his children’s books featuring an array of children, families, and occasions. I asked him to name some of those books: When I Was Little (Toyomi Igus, Higgins Bond, ill.), Flossie and the Fox (Patricia McKissack, Rachel Isadora, ill.), The Blues of Flats Brown (Walter Dean Myers, Nina Laden, ill.), Who’s got Game: Poppy or the Snake? (Toni and Slade Morrison, Pascal LeMaitre), etc. “So if children’s authors and illustrators can manage to create varied scenes of life, why can’t whoever made these cards do the same?” I asked him. Now, whether or not he fully understood my rationale matters less to me than the fact that we had a conversation about skin color, imagination, and the world.
So when I saw the headline for The New York Times op-doc, “A Conversation With White People on Race,” I rolled my eyes.
Unlike those whose lives were transformed after reading Peggy McIntosh’s essay, “White Privilege–Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” I found the essay problematic when I read it in college, and I still find it problematic. How is ignorance a “privilege?” If you listen to many of those folks in the short op-doc above, they all claim ignorance of some sort: “I didn’t know I had a race?” “I didn’t know what to say to my student who questioned me about my racial experience.” “I can’t talk about race because it makes me feel uncomfortable.” The point-of-view that most challenges my patience involves statements in any way related to feeling “uncomfortable” and not wanting “to be labeled racist.” Let’s say that a black student is in a classroom with a white student and the black student thinks that the white student is racist. So what? What results from the black student’s belief? What violence results? Conversations about race annoy me because they’re typically aimless.
The stories that the black boys and young black men share in “A Conversation About Growing Up Black,” (above) differ from the first video. The stories offered in “Growing Up Black” reveal what happens to them in light of racist beliefs. They discuss the consequences of racial ideology through their lived experience. At the same time, as a black woman watching this op-doc, it was also clear to me that I was not the intended audience for it. I live this. If I filmed a narrative with folk like me in mind, that story would’ve been very different.
An op-doc of my conversation with those black youngins would have been less maudlin; appeals to pity are ineffective. I would have asked those young people to interpret the stories they shared. I would have asked them to describe how family and friends react when they share their story. I would have asked if they doubted themselves if others challenged their viewpoint. We would have discussed the importance of claiming one’s experience–but, this was not my op-doc.