Friday, February 25, 2011

When Is A Child Too Young to Learn About the Middle Passage?

When people look out over the Atlantic, I often wonder if they realize that they are looking at a graveyard filled with no tombstones to mark the passing of the millions who died on slave ships on their way to the new world.  The enslavement of Blacks, of the African Diaspora, marks a terrible history of bondage, abuse, rape, murder, physical violence, emotional abuse and death.  Talking about it should never be easy, and if we forget what was done, not only do we dishonor those that lived, died and suffered at the behest of White Supremacy, we lose a concrete understanding of the basis of the racism that continues to dominate the lives, of the people of the African diaspora.

A Black parent cannot afford to wait to teach their child about racism, because their innocence will not protect them against those that are determined to either see them fail, or have them grow with an understanding that they are less than human.  My oldest boy was five years old the first time he was attacked based on the colour of his skin.  Unlike White children, childhood is short lived for children of colour.  Before their 10th birthday, it is almost assured that a racial act will occur that will burst the precious bubble of innocence.

In an attempt to educate children about the horrors of the middle passage and slavery, a supply teacher brought in the French movie, The Middle Passage and showed it to a class of fourth graders.


Reporter (Bob): Elsewhere tonight, the film The Middle Passage is the center of a big controversy in Winnetka, It depicts the horrors endured by Africans aboard a slave ship, but as Mike Parker reports, it was played in school for fourth graders, and we warn you, you might find the content disturbing.

A White man sits by himself on the sofa wearing a yellow shirt and a blue baseball hat.

Patrick Livney: And she said,"Daddy, it's too horrible to talk about."

The screen shifts to a little blond girl playing on the beach and her parents holding hand.

Mike Parker (reporter): But nine year old Becca Livney finally talked to her father about The Middle Passage the movie her fourth grade class had been shown at the Greeley School in Winettka.

The scene changes and so the camera is float over the water. It is a scene from the move The Middle Passage

Narrator: The morning of the second day, the bodies of 17 suicides were carried out of the hold.  The slaveers decapitated corpses of those who choose to die. 

Mike Parker: The film's narrator speaks not only of suicide, but of child rapes.

Patrick Livney: And I said was rape mentioned? Daddy I didn't want to say the word, which as a parent and a father I was destroyed in the sense that I felt incapacitated as protecting my child.

Mike Parker: Livney and two other parents confronted district school officials. He says they conceded that the film had not been approved by the school board.

Patrick Livney: the concept of a rape, depression or suicide at the age of nine years old is a sad commentary.

A Black woman wearing a skirt sits at a computer.

Mike Parker: Tonight a writer on film and entertainment for The Red Eye newspaper took a look at the film.

Kyra Kyles: I think that it important that fourth graders know what happened during the middle passage and it certainly does a good job of explaining that but I think that there are a lot of terms that are used that are not really for a younger audience. 

Mike Parker: Such as?

Kyra Kyles: Such as mention of you know castration, mentions of suicides.

The camera goes back to the news room and the screen is split between Mike Parker and Bob

Mike Parker: Parent Patrick Livney said that this teach does not have the right to take away his right to decide what's appropriate for his daughter. Bob he will take his case to the schoolboard tomorrow night. He says he's going to raise the roof.

Bob: So let me be sure, I understand this. It was not approved by the school board. It was this teacher who showed the film to the class on their own.

Mike Parker: Apparently a substitute teacher who brought the disk in and played it for the class.
I must say that I found it interesting that he was so concerned about the safety and emotional health of his child, when babies were handcuffed on slave ships to stop mother's from throwing them over board.  Whiteness has never valued our children, unless they could make a profit from them as they would cattle.  Today, little Black girls and boys, are continually traumatized having to grow in a White supremacist society -- but this blonde White girl -- should not have to be subjected to the truth of what her nation is founded on.

You cannot talk about the middle passage, without doing so in the most graphic way, so that people understand that this was no pleasure cruise, but a floating ship designed to strip the humanity away from the slaves.  Sugar coating it in any way, diminishes the horror of what happened.  There has been a tendency to attempt to re-write history and it begins in public schools.  This does not do children a service, and in fact, breaks a sacred trust that the education system promises each student.

I found it interesting, that the White reporters found a Black female media critic to validate Patrick Livney's assertion, that this was damaging to his daughter.  A fair and balanced news show would have presented two sides of an argument, rather than heading straight for the shock value, of little White girls learning about the absolute evil that Whiteness has inflicted upon Blacks. It should hurt to learn about the middle passage. Children should feel absolute feel shock and horror, but nothing those kids experienced, comes close to what those slaves did, or what Black children continue to suffer at the hands of White supremacy.

Watching this movie created a chance for an open dialogue, that some of these children may never have again.  The media is is not interested in confronting White Supremacy, and few parents are committed enough to decolonize their minds, to ensure that they don't pass on racial bigotry to their kids, and actively challenge racism in front of their children.  White people don't want to admit their privileges nor do they want to admit the various times that they have engaged in racism because being called a racist is deemed more difficult than living with it.  This was a valuable lesson for these children, and they will never forget what they saw that day.  It is time that we have faith that our children can learn about all of the isms and not be damaged.  Infantalizing them and wrapping them in a protective bubble only leaves room for the isms to fester in their minds uncallenged.

Last summer, my 9 year old boy watched Roots for the first time.  He was angry and he was hurt, but that movie made everything that I had taught him about slavery and racism real, in a way that my words alone could never convey.  He was not harmed or damaged by viewing the movie, and in fact, I firmly believe that the racism he has faced as a child of colour, is far more difficult to live with, than any momentary discomfort he had watching Roots.  I know that educating him has to be my utmost priority, and it is only racial privilege and White supremacy, that allows White children to live happily without this knowledge. 

The following is the trailer from the movie The Middle Passage.