Tuesday, September 24, 2013

There's a President in my Closet

Apparently, the President of the United States has been walking out of Wyeth’s closet.  I just found this out yesterday.  I am told that he comes out of the closet door, the one I painted with chalkboard paint … the black one.  The President only comes out when the stuffed turtle nightlight goes out.  He only stays until he hears my footsteps on the stairs. Once the turtle is again illuminating the ceiling with assorted constellations, he is nowhere to be found.  I suppose I should be worried that my son needs a night light to keep a black man out of his room.  But I’m not.  Parenting isn’t an exact science.  You can seldom predict the exact results of your efforts, efforts which are more trial and error than anything else.  If you get close, you call it a victory.  My son is thinking about race, so I think President Obama is really showing up in my son’s room to drop off my parenting award.

Our approach to teaching our children about race has been a sort of consciously assembled collage made from a mixed assortment of magazines that just happened to be lying about the house.  The biggest picture, the one in the middle kind of anchoring the whole enterprise, came from a story my wife heard on NPR.  The basic idea was that liberal whites who think their children will pick up their attitudes about race by osmosis are wrong.  That was all I needed to hear.  I was done with osmosis.  I slapped that sucker in the middle with a little too much paste and started building.  We’ve been to Africa.  I studied African history and politics, not to mention Islamic law, in graduate school.  So, we cut out pictures of the continent, kente cloth, Chinua Achebe, and a mosque in Zanzibar and threw them together in the top right corner.  I love jazz, blues, and hip hop … so Billie Holiday and Tupac, among others, got pasted in.  We were both moved by the history of the civil rights movement, so pictures of water hoses and lunch counters have been fitted in and under.   Our time in California brought more than just an appreciation of authentic Chinese food, so Ellis Island was joined by Angel Island.  You get the idea.  We’ve talked about skin color … and we’ve taught them the African National Anthem, led them in recitations of the I Have A Dream speech, taken them on imaginary African adventures, told them about slavery, talked about the destruction of the American Indians, etc. etc.  We have a lot of stuff stuck on our collage.

I suppose from a four year olds perspective, this collage we have going is pretty messy.  But messy is kind of a good thing with children, kind of a necessary thing.  So is a bit of confusion.  So is a little bit if scary.  If Pocahontas ends up with Lewis and Clark or even on a wagon train or at Ellis Island, I’m ok with that.  If the Indians were marching in Selma, I can deal with that.  If every Indian has to be dead and that fact loudly declared in the middle of a Native American Museum staffed by Native Americans who are very much alive, we can all get over it.  If water cannons and whippings invade our thoughts, well they happened and without them the accomplishments that came after don’t seem as important as they are.  If President Obama is hanging out in his closet, I’m just going to have to be OK with that.   

Obama might be in the closet, but its easier to let him out than to get him in.  While he is in there, my son is asking about his black and brown friends at school.  He tells me he is thankful for what Dr. King has done for his friend.  He asks about slavery, cholera, and fasting before Ramadan.  So, the collage we’ve got going might be messy, scary, a bit rumpled around the edges, and maybe every so often a bit full.  But, if Obama can fit in with the matchbox cars and kid camping equipment, we can figure it all out.    

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