Connecting the dots.

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?”

“You’re adopted?”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“Like Michelle Obama?”

“Yes.”

“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!

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13 thoughts on “Connecting the dots.

  1. molly

    I love this post, because it shows the loving relationship between you and your students. They don’t want there to be a rape in YOUR family, no matter how long ago. Who would want that? They care, because they care about you, more than they care about Michelle Obama. They don’t know her personally, and she does not show them her family pictures. They do not want you to experience pain.
    Caring about other people, caring about what happens to them, is the most imporant educational lesson.
    I think you are sufficiently gentle. You are never cruel or tell them that they are stupid. You do not try to scare them into submission. And you care about them.

    (I get it about not wanting to be “Miss Stacie”. My students call me “Teacher”, because they know that word, and they want to show me respect. I should educate them as to what you call an adult woman towards whom you want to show respect, but at the same time being Mrs. Rogers sounds like being my mother, who I am not. The bolder ones call me Molly, and the run-of-the-mill is “Professoressa”, which is what they have called their English teachers since they were 10.)

    1. Thanks, Molly. My students do care about me, just as I care about them. Having this conversation with them was such an interesting experience for me. I’m glad we went there … but I’m also glad it’s not every day!

  2. Actually it sounds like a fairly kind and gentle introduction, because you are someone they apparently like and respect, and they therefore get to see the good (you and Michelle, e.g.) as well as the horrible of what happened to so many women who were slaves. I think it’s so important that they know the horrible, and I think this gives them a way to wrap their minds around it without just total hurt and anger.

    1. Thanks Jill (or Jim?). I’ve only posted a few lines from the larger conversation, of course, but the amount of time we spent on what I thought would be a short conversation, and the level of participation really made it clear just how hard they were working to wrap their minds around this whole story. Maybe Debbie Shields should have been in my class for this conversation. Might have helped her see that there aren’t really too many pretty memories, photographs and stories for her to share with Michelle O.

  3. Fascinating. Given how many bi-racial and multi-racial people – and couples – are out there, I’m surprised that the kids were surprised. What age do you teach?

    1. Hi, Magpie– I teach teens and adults in a GED program. I agree with you that my students’ suprise was surprising … For me, the surprise was that many of my students are themselves multi-racial and yet they really struggled with this. I think Molly has the right of it, however. I think they just couldn’t allow their brains to connect this ugly piece of information with me, so there had to be some other explanation for my great-grandmother’s complexion being so different from mine.

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