(Read Part One.)
It's hard to know what to take seriously when it comes from the mouth of a seven-year old boy. But in light of our field trip to Gettysburg and recent study of the Civil War (and consequently the evils of slavery) in American history, my mother's instincts have been on high alert. So when my son told me he was not black - that he was a "white colored man" - I became more than a little concerned.
Owen pointed to the light pink skin on his palm. "See? I'm white! I'm a white man, just colored black." As he spoke he made a squiggly gesture like he was coloring his arm with crayon. I listened, and my heart skipped a beat as my mind flooded with thoughts of what a terrible mother I am for ever introducing him to a topic that is obviously too much for him to emotionally handle at such a tender age.
I hurried to respond with words of affirmation. "No, Owen, you are black. You are a beautiful black boy! I love your beautiful skin."
Almost immediately he smiled, threw back his head and yelled, "Yeahhh! I am a BLACK MAMBA! I'm a black mamba SNAKE!" - and just like that I was left wondering if this was ever a serious conversation or not. Since Owen's trademark tactics when feeling sad or frustrated are humor and/or withdrawal, it's hard to say!
Regardless, the topic of slavery is a serious conversation and it is one we faced upfront as we walked the halls of the Gettysburg Visitor Center last Friday. Entering the museum, one of the first exhibits was a pair of metal manacles such as those which shackled slaves on the ships which stole them from freedom and in the slave markets which tried to steal their humanity. The kids asked what they were, and Owen quickly replied, "They're handcuffs." He didn't elaborate but as he looked intently at the picture, I knew he knew. I felt a squeeze in my soul as I followed his gaze.
After touring the museum we approached the National Parks counter to submit the kids' Junior Ranger workbook. In order to complete their assignment the ranger asked each one to share what was their favorite part of the exhibit. Owen rested his chin on the counter and was embarrassed to answer at first. Finally he said, "That they freed the slaves." Again, I felt the squeeze. I wondered how many deep thoughts were behind those five simple words.
Meanwhile my sister had stumbled into an unexpected conversation of her own, this time with my daughter Isabel. To be honest, I was not sure how deeply all of this affected Isabel. Her heritage is biracial and though she knows this, there is no ongoing contact or relationship with her African American birth parent. While we try to make a point to remind her of the rich multiracial heritage she represents, often we assume that she relates to the Hispanic world she lives in most of all. Isabel has never been one to talk much about her feelings, though she is an extremely compassionate person.
Isabel and her aunt had just exited the Cyclorama, a moving display of the third and final day of battle at Gettysburg. My sister was wiping tears from her eyes, and Isabel asked why. In explanation, my sister said that she was just very sad to think of how many people had lost their lives in that tragic encounter. She was somewhat startled when Isabel responded decisively, "Yes, but otherwise I'd be a slave!" Afterwards I heard about their encounter and again, that squeeze in my heart and soul.
I am not at all sure how to end this post except to say that the events of history are still with us today. We are not defined by them - and I am determined that my children should understand this - but we must learn from them. Perhaps the most fitting quote is found in those well-known words: "Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it." (George Santayana)
May that never be the case in our family, for God Himself commands us to remember. How appropriate are the words of Deuteronomy 6:12, directed to the children of Israel following their exodus from Egypt: "... then take care lest you forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." It is no coincidence that so many songs born from slavery during that tragic era of our nation's history (and even the decades of struggle which followed) ring with hope for the Promised Land. And it is no coincidence that God placed a man in the seat of power at the crux of our nation's history to initiate freedom to all the people of this country.
May we recognize the full weight of responsibility that rests upon our shoulders to cherish and continue to fight for that freedom, and may we pass it on to our children - to the glory of our great God!
(Read Part Three.)
(Read Part Three.)