So today is President’s Day. I think we can all agree this is one America’s secondary holidays. Whereas I personally have warm, nostalgia-laden feelings for Thanksgiving, or Independence Day, President’s Day brings to mind cold February afternoons, watching television and seeing Electronic Store commercials utilizing George Washington crossing the Delaware to sell appliances and stereos. Sad, but true.
Of course, as a kid, President’s Day was also a welcome occurrence since it meant a day off of school. As my oldest daughter began Kindergarten this year, she is now getting to enjoy a long holiday weekend in mid-February. She goes to a great school that teaches kindergarten-ers the material I was learning in middle school (just a slight exaggeration). For her teachers, holidays are chances to inform the students about the history and meaning behind national celebrations. Thus, during the last week, my daughter has been jabbering about George Washington and Abe Lincoln. On Friday, she made a ‘log cabin’ out of Popsicle sticks and a shiny penny. It’s pretty darn cute.
February is also African American History month, and her school has by no means ignored that. The same day she showed us her ‘log cabin’, I overheard her singing a song. It sounded like a familiar folk song, and when I asked her what it was, she confidently informed me it was a tune from ‘slavery times’. This was a bit of a shock to me, because I had not told her about American slavery yet. As far as I know, she doesn’t even know what slavery is, much less the crucial role in plays in the American past.
And so, here we have parental challenge #5324 and 5325 (in reality, there probably have been more). How, and more centrally, when do you explain to a child about the dark aspects of American history? My daughter is intelligent and inquisitive, and in the near future she will be asking more and more questions about what slavery actually was all about; I don’t want to be unprepared. Of course, the irony of this situation is that I am a history instructor, and I am constantly discussing the horrors of history in my classes. I have absolutely no qualms about that. But, when I think of explaining to my six year old that many of the children that she plays with on the playground could have been the property of others 150 years ago, I go mute.
That is the first problem; the second is similar. When should she learn that those we celebrate with holidays were not untainted superheroes, but human beings who often did horrible things? George Washington did cross the Delaware, he was our first president, he was central to the formation of the Constitution, but he was also a plantation owner and a slave driver. As American children, each new generation must grasp that this duality exists in the American story; but at what age?
I guess what it all comes down to is the fact that I just want to protect my child. I don’t want her to know the complexity and ambiguity of history and humanity just yet. That being said, I will NEVER teach her a mythologized version of the American past, with cherry trees, wooden teeth, and angels in the shape of men forming a perfect nation. She doesn’t need lies; but maybe I will hold off on some of the ugly truth until she is ready. Or, until I am.