We’ve come a long, long way, I thought today. But my kids are nonplussed about seeing gay poets, Latino ministers, and our African American first family featured at the inauguration. Reflecting on race is complex, but Barack Obama’s second term, the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s groundbreaking speech on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial, and the Civil War sesquicentennial anniversary (150th), force middle aged Americans like me, to note how far we’ve come. If you’re watching these historic moments with your kids, what can you say to help them understand the significance of such events?
Kevin Levin is an AP history teacher in Charlottesville, Virginia, as well as a historian and founder of cwmemory.com, a blog focused on remembering all aspects of the Civil War past and present. When I asked him about talking to kids about important moments in history, here’s what he said: “The history of race, and changing role of the Federal Government, is a prism to understand what is happening around us now.”
Although, Americans elected “the First Black President” to a second term, it still surprises many older people who lived through race wars, civil rights and discrimination. In some parts of the country discussing race and even the Civil War remains controversial. Only three years ago, Virginians debated whether to name April 2010 “Confederate History Month.”
Back then, when I asked Levin about this, he explained: “Popular culture is still wedded to Gone with the Wind. There’s a gulf between popular culture and academics, but signs point to dramatic change. People reading my blog want to tackle the difficult questions; it’s this audience that matters and they’re the majority by far.” Three years later, his predictions came true. When Virginia went to Obama in 2012, I had been one of the army of foot soldiers knocking on doors hoping to help make that happen.
Nora Hui-Jung is a sociology professor at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg. She said she challenges her students with questions in her classes on race and racism. One lesson she presented was to consider how people may or may not benefit from institutional racism. “Even if you’re not personally a racist, you’re part of a system where the institution is set up to favor certain ethnic groups. And that institution has existed for a long time.” She cites how the 1950’s GI Bill favored white soldiers over black soldiers returning from war. “That’s when many white Americans first entered middle class status. There is less official segregation, but passive discrimination still exists,” explains Hui-Jung.
I received some excellent advice from Krysta Jones, who is currently the Outreach Director at the US House of Representatives. Back in 2010, while she was working toward getting out the African American and Latino vote, she shared her thoughts with me about having conversations with kids regarding race: Her recommendations: “Talk to your kids about your personal experiences. Show them how much the country has changed. Teach fairness. Point out things. Explain the broader goals of the United States. But you have to shape it with your own personal beliefs.”
Professor Levin suggests parents delve into discussions of equality at home. He sees first hand how history teaches empathy: “It’s a moral exercise. What happened in the past shapes what we now know. It shapes our identity by forcing us to see a broader world.”