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Teaching Children A Painful History


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we visit a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

Yesterday, we talked about a new survey that suggests that not talking to your kids about race doesn't necessarily lead them to overlook race in their lives. You can hear my conversation with the researcher who conducted the study by going to npr.org and clicking on TELL ME MORE.

Today, though, we wanted to take that issue in a different direction. Many parents, particularly parents of color, feel they must talk about race and ethnicity, or they want to talk about it. But when that means teaching kids about slavery or the Holocaust or the forced relocations of native people, how do you talk about that without making your child feel like a victim or some sort of guilty oppressor?

Joining us in the studio to talk more about this are TELL ME MORE's regular parenting contributor, Jolene Ivey and Iris Krasnow, an author of several books. The latest is "I am My Mother's Daughter," all of which touch on her Jewish heritage. She's also a professor of journalism at American University in Washington. Also joining us from member station KUT in Austin is Loriene Roy, professor in the School of Information at the University of Texas. She's also a past president of the American Library Association and has been TELL ME MORE's book lady, recommending interesting books to us in the past. Thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. JOLENE MS. IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

Ms. IRIS KRASNOW (Author, "I am My Mother's Daughter"): Thanks for having us.

Ms. LORIENE ROY (Professor, School of Information, University of Texas): Thank you.

MARTIN: Jolene, I want to start with you because you've got five boys, all of different ages, and you're very interested in public affairs, which means you're very interested in history. How do you start talking about things like slavery, the civil rights movement, without making your children feel frightened and, frankly, anxious about the people in their lives who are white.

MS. IVEY: Well, one thing that's great, in this day and age, there's just so many natural opportunities, things that are on TV, on the Internet, in the newspaper. So it happens all the time that something will be in the news, and you'll have an opportunity to talk about it, and you just need to take them.

MARTIN: At what age did you start talking about these issues? And I have to tell you, one of the reasons that this interests me is that, you know, my twins are about to be six, and a number of dear friends have given me children's books about slavery. There's a wonderful book that someone gave us about a little boy who escaped from slavery, but then I had to explain to him, what does it mean to be a slave? And I wasn't sure I was ready for that.

MS. IVEY: One thing that I've used in our family is the slave that we can, or the woman who was a slave, I should say, who we can trace our family back to, her first name is Eliza(ph). And if I ever had a daughter, which I never had the privilege to have, I was going to name her Eliza Grace. And so, my kids all know this. One of them better have a girl and name her Eliza Grace, and they know why because I've talked to them about this woman was so strong, she was able to survive slavery, and she was your relative, and you're descended from her, and look what a great thing she was able to do.

MARTIN: But how do you explain what slavery is and what it means?

MS. IVEY: You can't sugarcoat it. I mean, slavery was awful, and it still is awful in many parts of the world. At age six, I'm sure that you're going to have a different level of discussion than I would have with my 16-year-old.

MARTIN: Loriene, you're Native American. You're an enrolled member of the Anishinabe tribe at the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, and the history of reservations is a bitter one.

One the one hand, you know, one can celebrate, like, the cultural heritage and things of that sort, but the reality of why people live on reservations and how they got there, first of all, how were you taught that history, and how did you teach it to your son?

Ms. ROY: Well, in my case, I grew up during the time that we call termination and relocation. So we were living the history of being relocated off of our homeland areas. In terms of working with my own son, I have a 19-year-old. I think we've always celebrated the culture from various aspects.

We've participated in community events, such as powwows. We watched the recent television program that aired on PBS, "We Shall Remain," and the stories are mixed, they're stories of both happiness and stories of great challenges. We've also done a lot of reading, and we've been able to refer to our favorite authors and other ways to document those experiences and share those.

MARTIN: What's the first hard question your son ever asked you about his heritage?

Ms. ROY: I remember when he was in fourth grade, and he hid under the blankets in his bedroom. And having opened up his class notebook and pointed to the word squaw in a poem that was in the class notebook, and they were study native cultures in school, and I said how is this poem used? And I said do you sing this poem? Do you read it out loud? And he said no and he was embarrassed by the term, embarrassed by the word and he knew it wasn't a word that we used in the family or we're very happy about it and we wanted to let...

MARTIN: It's considered vulgar. It's a vulgarism.

Ms. ROY: It is considered vulgar.

MARTIN: Yes. So how did you handle it?

Ms. ROY: I talked to the principal and I said, you know, I'm not quite sure if this is useful in discussing the topics or a useful adjunct the curriculum. And so, I guess many ways I learned from my son how to talk about that topic to adults. And his adult teacher said he should've told the whole class, and knowing him, he didn't want to draw attention to something in that way, but he wanted to teach others in his own way of what made him uncomfortable.

MARTIN: Iris, you've written extensively about your personal history, Jewish history, and the relationship you have with your mom. I'd like to ask you how did she talk to you about the Holocaust and how did you talk to your children about it?

Ms. KRASNOW: I am the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. My mother, who recently died, was from Warsaw, Poland and her mother, brother, sister and seven nieces and nephews were actually burned in Hitler's ovens and I learned that very early and maybe I knew that too early. I grew up in Oak Park, Illinois and there were very few Jews in Oak Park, Illinois.

But my mother, even given her background, she used to always say to us, if Hitler didn't get me, nothing will get you. And so, I grew up with a sense of hope, pride and exuberance, almost, that my mom survived, you know? That she never said to us oh, you should hate these people because of what they did. She said you should be very proud of being Jewish.

When I was seven years old we went to the JCC Day Camp. It's the Jewish Community Center Day Camp and my mother used to tell us to hold our lunchboxes over our Jewish Community Center T-Shirts so nobody knew that we were Jewish. So she had a fear that someone was going to take us though, even though she was hopeful.

Now, when grandma came to visit the boys, she'd sit them around and she would tell them very straightforwardly, your friends come and go, your family comes and go, and she said the only thing that goes the distance is your faith. Nobody can ever take your Judaism away. And so that lesson of hope and a history at the core of my identity and my children's identity has really been bedrock, a spine. My children feel if grandma could do this, we could do anything.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and we're having our regular parenting conversation. And we're talking about how you pass on heritage without passing on baggage. And I'm speaking with Jolene Ivey, Iris Krasnow and Loriene Roy.

Jolene, did any of the boys ever ask why were these people so mean to us? And did you ever worry that teaching about slavery would cause them to dislike white people, despite the fact that you have a diverse family; you have white members of the family?

Ms. MS. IVEY: You know, probably, our family situation has been probably the thing that's most different about us. Because my mother's white and her family is not associated with us because we are black, because she married my father, that has really created, of course, a rift. I mean that was the rift. They're the ones who did it, not us.

My kids do get kind of annoyed but dismissive of them. They don't really miss them. They've never met them, but they do kind of feel like, what's your problem? Why are you all hating on us? What have we ever done?

MARTIN: Okay, but what about the global question of addressing the history of this country? Because I must tell you, this wasn't always an issue because it wasn't always taught. I distinctly remember my junior high school history textbook. There was exactly one line about slavery in it. It was called "History of a Free People." I can remember exactly what it said, which was that there was a time when black people were owned as slaves but they were generally well-treated because they were the property of the master. Okay? So...

Ms. MS. IVEY: Well, I grew up in Northeast, D.C. We never heard of Afrocentric education but that's what we had. We didn't have a term for it then. But we were taught about black history from the beginning. That was our history. I think because we'd started it from the time they were little and it's just a natural organic thing.

It's not something that we have this moment that you're going to remember and they're going to become angry. Obviously, we're still fighting racism, but it is better as far as how my kids are about to relate to the world around them. It's not the number one thing on the radar screen.

MARTIN: Loriene, when did you start introducing the facts of the forced relocations to your son? As you said, you grew up with not as real time knowledge, but as sort of a more prescient part of your life. How did you start introducing this to your son, or did you kind of wait for it to come up externally and then deal with it when it did?

Ms. ROY: I've been thinking of everyone else's comments about the questions that the children have brought up at various times, and I believe when my son was about four he saw me reviewing a video about Indian mascots, a video called "In Whose Honor?" And I remember him coming into the living room and looking at the television and saying oh, it's mom's Indians again and using that as an opportunity to talk about the fact that it's part of all of our you know, the family's heritage.

I think early on, when he was about five and in kindergarten, he and I started doing public presentations and he would assist in classroom presentations and I saw that at that point he really took more of an interest in the topics that related to our culture. His classmates would ask him - we had a lot of artifacts at home and a lot of materials that we've lived with - and seeing how he helped instruct his own peers I think was very interesting for me. And it showed me that, you know, even though those were mom's Indians, he was in the room, he was listening and he absorbed things in his own way.

MARTIN: And Iris, what about you? When did you introduce the hard stuff?

Ms. KRASNOW: Well, when you know, we started this conversation by me telling you that I felt like I was too young to visualize charred bodies and bones and hair and stuffing mattresses. And I think I was told that not to scare me but just that you need to really know how lucky we are to be here. And again, there was also that element of hope.

I spoke to my children fairly early. I'll tell you when I did. We go to lots of large family events of far-flung cousins who somehow got over here. And my kids saw blue numbers on two of my cousins. I grew up with cousins who had blue numbers on their arms.

MARTIN: Could you explain for those who don't know because some my not know...

Ms. KRASNOW: Okay, I'm going to tell you a little story. And...

MARTIN: ...what the blue numbers mean.

Ms. KRASNOW: Okay. The blue numbers, when the Jews were, and others, were herded into cattle cars with no bathrooms, that's the most appalling part of the story when my children hear about this; they took the women and children in one direction; they were generally killed immediately. And the strongest men were put to work and the weakest mean, you know, they would do various things from taking their teeth to maybe letting them work for a while and they would definitely whither and die.

My mother's cousins were the strong men, and what they got to do was to shovel bodies into the ovens. And everybody who went to the camps was branded with a blue number. Our people were branded like cattle. And my mother's cousins, Howard and Jacques, they survived the Holocaust. And the reason my mother knew that her immediate family had perished was because one day, Jacques, it was his job to shovel their remains into the ovens.


Ms. KRASNOW: And that was his job. And I think when they saw Jacques and Howard at a family event and they said mommy, what's that on them? Because one of our kids had seen it on a side of beef that we had brought home. And that was when we had to tell them the shocking truth. But again, and I know that we all have to share this because of tragic history, which we are so bound by - and I love that - is the truth shall set you free.

You know, this is exactly what happened and can never happen again. And not as in a horrific, isn't it great that grandma lived and to tell the story over and over again and that you know this awful truth? And I again, feel so hopeful about the future. I know there's a lot of second generation Holocaust groups that, it's a little macabre and I'm asked to speak in front of some of these groups and I always say I'm not sure I'm the right speaker because I feel a sense of hopefulness that has sprung from this and not death and decay.

MARTIN: Can I hear a final word from each of you and about what you think the secret, if you will, is of passing on heritage without making it be a matter of baggage, to make it something that offers strength rather than creates a sense of vulnerability and grief and fear? Jolene?

Ms. MS. IVEY: Well, I think that it really helps if you're able to find examples in your own family and say yeah, this is where we came from but look where we're going and look how far we've come? And look how that person back there, that person who was a slave or was in a death camp perhaps, if that person was able to survive and form a foundation and pass things on to us and so you're able to live, and then look at the silly things that go on now that racism has spawned.

My 16-year-old was looking at a video, some TV show where they were talking about good hair in the black community. And he said well, that's the most ridicules thing I've ever heard. And why would someone put chemicals in their hair? Then I just started laughing and he's like, do you do that mom? And I'm like absolutely I do. But that's a whole different topic.

MARTIN: So don't be afraid to laugh at also the stupid stuff.

Ms. MS. IVEY: Well, you need to talk about it and have it out in the open but just acknowledge it and what's stupid, laugh at it.

MARTIN: Loriene, the final word of wisdom from you about passing on heritage without passing on baggage?

Ms. ROY: I like the whole theme of humor as well. Native humor can be perceived as kind of dark, but we like the jokes. We like the teasing side of things. We see that in family gatherings, and lot of the authors I think celebrating native culture as it's alive today and how it's demonstrated. We have a real renaissance of native writing, of publishing. We have gatherings. We have many ways to celebrate, but don't ignore bad past and bad events, but do celebrate the fact that one point every human on this continent was indigenous and we still are here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Good point. Iris, final thought from you?

Ms. KRASNOW: Well, I always tell my children you can only convert one racist at a time, and so if you hear an anti-Semitic comment, don't immediately think that all those people in that family are bad and just take it on. What happened to you that made you feel this way? And, you know, somehow try to just really hear it. Hear it and smash every stereotype along the way. Really take it on as an intelligent person who comes from a really interesting history, and just take it on. And remember who you are. Remember who you are.

MARTIN: Ladies, moms, thank you so much.

Ms. MS. IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

Ms. KRASNOW: Thanks, Michel.

Ms. ROY: You're welcome.

MARTIN: Iris Krasnow is an author. Her latest book is "I am My Mother's Daughter." She's also an assistant professor of journalism at American University. She was with me in our Washington, D.C. studios along with our regular TELL ME MORE parenting contributor Jolene Ivey. And with us from members station KUT in Austin, Loriene Roy, a professor in the School of Information at the University of Texas, and a past president of the American Library Association and TELL ME MORE's Book Lady.

And we also want to give a special shout out to mom, Kim Clijsters who won the singles title on the U.S. Open Sunday to become the only the third mother to win a Grand Slam title in the Open era and the first since Evonne Goolagong-Cawley won Wimbledon in 1980. You go girl.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Let's talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.