Politics & Policy

We Are All African Americans Now

“I need a costume,” Paris announces early one evening.

Outside the streetlights have come on, casting an orangey glow on the snowy street. From upstairs comes the sound of the three girls splashing and shrieking in the bath, while in the sitting room, where we are, my husband is building a fire. “I have to go to school on Monday dressed as a bla–” Paris breaks off. “I mean, as an African American.”

“Wow. What kind of costume?” I ask, arrested by the idea of schoolchildren dressing up as members of a racial minority. Imagine the scandal if a white child turned up in blackface.

“A baseball one. I’m being Jackie Robinson. Also I have to make a poster about him.” Paris rummages in his backpack and pulls out a sheaf of computer printouts about the brave ballplayer. Then he hands me a list of celebrated black figures shortly to be impersonated by his second-grade class.

“Fredrick Douglass,” I read aloud to my husband. “Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, aw, wait a–”

“What?”

“Malcolm X?” I continue, with a little squawk.

“Emma’s being him,” Paris puts in.

“Willie Mays? Hank Aaron? Sugar Ray Leonard?”

“Very good boxer, but hardly a racial pioneer,” my husband remarks dryly, standing up and brushing bits of wood off his trousers. “I wouldn’t think there’s much didactic purpose in devoting a school project to him.”

“That’s who Dante is being, that Sugar whatever guy,” Paris says, upending his backpack on the floor. Out bangs an empty lunch box, half a dozen pieces of Lego, a math book, and crumbs sufficient to get Hansel and Gretel home again.

“Aargh, don’t–”

“Oops. Sorry, Mummy. Anyway,” Paris continues, shoveling his things back in the bag, “I think he ought to dress up as a white person because he’s already black.”

My husband and I exchange a look. Until now, Paris has never shown the slightest awareness of his friend’s race. Gee, thanks, teacher.

I look gloomily at the list again. “Someone should at least go as Colin Powell.” I say. “First black secretary of state, Paris? If you went as him you could carry a globe.”

“How about Tiger Woods, with a golf club?”

“Oprah, in the library, with a rolled-up copy of her magazine–”

“Not Michael Jackson.”

“But Condoleezza Rice, now there’s-”

“Or Clarence Thomas,” my husband says at the same moment. “Although a costume would be–”

“You guys,” Paris breaks in desperately, “I have to be Jackie Robinson.”

Later that evening, Paris is stretched out in front of the fire, painstakingly drawing his alter-ego at bat on a giant piece of orange poster board. My husband picks up the list of things Paris is supposed to include on the poster.

“Born 1919, died 1972. Ok, it says here: Why do you admire Jackie Robinson?”

“I don’t know.” Scratch, scratch goes his pencil, the sound of which is suddenly drowned out by–

“A-boo-ga-boo-ga-boo!”

The girls come tumbling down the stairs wrapped in blue towels, their faces flushed, their hair damp, emitting a fantastic din. “A-boo-ga-boo-ga-boo!” Violet and Phoebe chant, flapping their towels and jumping up and down. “A-boo-ga-boo-ga-boo!”

“Shush, girls,” says their father, but he is smiling.

“Your children have gone mad,” Molly announces with mock sobriety, then subsides giggling on to the sofa with a copy of Harry Potter V.

“Hey, girlies stop it!” Paris yells from the floor, “You’re stepping on my poster!”

“I know, Phoebe,” Violet says with a wild gleam in her eyes, “Let’s be naked bats!”

Phoebe’s reply is to hunker down with the towel around her shoulders. She looks up at her father. “I am an egg in my colorful grass,” she tells him.

“Hello, egg. Hello little bat. Now off you go, girls. Paris is finishing his homework.”

“Yeah, scram,” I put in, Marlow-like.

From the sofa comes a worried voice. “Don’t say scram to children, Mummy, you might hurt their–”

“It’s okay, darling.” I herd the bat and the egg towards the stairs. “Up you go, child,” I say, patting Phoebe’s recalcitrant bare bottom.

She turns around, affronted. “I’m not a child,” she says, “I’m a person.”

“Person-child…” Violet begins singing from the landing as Phoebe stumps up behind her. “Person childy…childy…wildy…filedy…biledy…” The voice gets fainter and stops completely with the slam of a top-floor door.

“Well, why did you choose him?” my husband asks. “Was there something about him that you liked?”

“He was the first player in the major leagues. The first black one.”

“Is that why you admire him, darling?” I put in helpfully.

“Not really.”

“So why do you…”

It is as we pursue this line of questioning that the full weirdness of the project becomes clear. Asking second-graders to explain why they admire certain black people a) presupposes they do admire them, and b) assumes they understand why these individuals are admirable in the first place. And that’s barmy; they’re just too young to wrap their minds around slavery, or the Civil War, or Jim Crow, and as bright and earnest as he may be, no second-grader can even glimpse what a man like Jackie Robinson risked–and won–by walking on to that diamond the first time. To ask them to try is an exercise in phoniness. It is then that I remember seeing the string of posters hanging outside the fourth-grade classroom. ‘I Have A Dream…” each one begins, after which the children have written in such sticky pieties as “…to make the world a Better Place.”

Ugh! Bleah! Phony!

Thank you. I feel better now. But you have to wonder where this scratching away at old racial and political wounds as a means of inculcating respect and “tolerance” will end. With kindergarteners marching around dressed as suffragettes? With parades of seven-year-old Charos and Cesar Chavezes?

Pointing out racial differences assuages adult guilt, but it can’t be good for children of any color. I am reminded of a story from when my husband was a boy and his family lived in Libya. One afternoon, his father agreed to take the children to find a playmate of theirs.

“What does she look like?” my future father-in-law asked, as they drove.

“She has braids,” said my future husband.

“Sometimes she wears a red dress,” said my future sister-in-law.

“She is about eight years old.”

The car trolled carefully along the road, with everyone looking for an eight-year-old in braids and red dress. Eventually my future sister-in-law spotted her: “There she is!”

“Oh!” My future father-in-law laughed. “I see. When I asked what she looked like, you didn’t say she was black.”

My husband and his sister looked blank. It hadn’t occurred to them what color their friend was. If they’d gone through second grade in the States, they wouldn’t have been allowed not to notice.

Meghan Cox Gurdon writes regularly about children’s books for the Wall Street Journal.

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