After the surprise of seeing photos of the matriarchs in my family, my students stumbled over what those photos were saying to them. We had, you’ll remember, just been talking about the “shock” of discovering that Michelle Obama has a white person (at least one) in her family tree. That was, of course, the reason I trotted out my family photos in the first place. Let’s look at my great-grandmother again, shall we?
No, she doesn’t look much like me.¹ And my students had a hard time figuring out why, exactly, she looks so different from me in the complexion department. At first, some couldn’t seem to accept that she was really related to me.
“But she looks like a white lady.”
“Yes, she does. What do you think that means?”
“That she’s not really your family?”
“No, she’s really my family. What is something that might have to be true for this woman to look the way she does and still be somehow related to me?”
“No, really, she and I are blood relatives.”
Finally someone wondered if one of her parents might have been white. And that led to some troubling realizations for some students.
“Miss Stacie,² are you saying that you have white people in your family?”
“Like Michelle Obama?”
“So those white people had slaves?”
“Those white people had my family as slaves, yes.”
I’d like to say I understand why this information — and my being so casually up-front about it — was so disturbing to some of my students, but I can’t say that. I was surprised by their distress. We had just been discussing the fact that the ‘news’ about Obama’s family was hardly news because the same is true for nearly every African American family. But I guess they didn’t draw the line between “nearly every African American family” and me, their very clearly African American teacher. I think I discovered that many of my students suffer from the same cognitive dissonance my classmates in high school used to articulate by saying things like, “I don’t even think of you as a real black person.” Somehow my students had managed to divorce me from the unpleasant history we’d been discussing. Somehow, none of that could possibly have anything to do with me.
These are dots that need to be connected, but I’m not sure there’s any gentler way to help my students make those connections. We’ve talked about things like this before, but several students were clearly upset having to think about some relative of mine being a slave, being raped by her master. One wanted to know if that history made me sad. I admitted that yes, the story did make me sad. But I also made clear that I acknowledge and accept that, without that sad story, there’d be no me, I wouldn’t be there in the classroom with them.
Yeah. Even more people were upset with that. So much for the kinder, gentler introduction to history’s truths.
¹ I always kind of figure she wouldn’t have had much patience with me, either. Me, with my being all mushy and emotional and my wanting to sit around reading books and writing stories. She looks a bit tough, like those rugged pioneer women who had to get their families over the Great Divide without half the party freezing to death and getting eaten by the other half. She would surely have found cause to smack me upside the head a time or two, make me put down my pen and get to work.
² No, I don’t ask them to call me this. It drives me crazy, in fact. Sounds too much like I’ve the slave owner’s daughter. “Oh Miss Stacie, Miss Stacie, I don’t know nothing ’bout birthin’ no babies!” Yeah, whatever. But I just can’t seem to break some students of this habit, and I’ve given up. At least no one calls me “Ma’am” now!