“The impact of racism begin early. Even in our preschool years, we are exposed to misinformation about people different from ourselves.”
-Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D.
I’ve said it before, teaching in the time of racial tension is no joke. The truth is, there has never been a time in which were weren’t in the midst of racial tension. I don’t care how old you are. Here is what truly make the difference — your consciousness. Being awakened and staying woke ain’t for the the faint at heart. Dealing with it while teaching young folks, man… listen.
I’ve been teaching for twelve years now. Don’t even get me started on how I’ve made it this far, because YO! Who would’ve thought. Seriously. In the past twelve years, I’ve followed every new piece of curriculum passed out. I’ve modified standards to fit the needs of my students. I have made copious amounts of play dough (shout out to pumpkin play dough fans) and come home drenched in glitter and snot. What I don’t do and will never do, is teach about the so-called first Thanksgiving and how the pilgrims ventured over here on the Mayflower. Y’all can miss me with all of that. I’m dead serious. Honestly, this is another step on the ladder of vulnerability that I seem to be climbing lately. Admitting this may be a good or a bad thing, but I know that I can’t possibly be the only teacher of color struggling with this.
Now, I will autumn up and turkey-fy the HECK out of a lesson plan. We can subsidize turkey-themed dot arrays and write things that we are thankful for on leaves until the cows come home. However, if you want me to read Pete the Cat’s First Thanksgiving with my babies, you’ve got another thing coming. I don’t believe in lying to children. I’m not talking about stories of the Tooth Fairy or Santa (even though we knew there wasn’t a white man in a 50-block radius about to slide down our chimney…when we had a chimney). I’m talking about big grown-up lies about Indigenous people and the land’s first refugees, I mean immigrants (cough, cough). Preschoolers are not ready to hear about smallpox and race wars. Well, honestly, I can’t say that when I have kids my own 4-year-old won’t know, but that is a decision that parents should make. I don’t know how to talk about the Mayflower without talking about all of this. So I don’t.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love autumn and its vast colors and the themes that it provides for me to work into my lessons. I just don’t love the truth about Thanksgiving and I don’t want to be disrespectful to my Indigenous brothers and sisters by having my students parade around in bonnets and pilgrim hats like everything was made better that day. Nah. I don’t knock my fellow educators who do. Man, it’s hard though. I won’t lie about that. Once you’re conscious, once that third eye is opened, you stay woke. You make conscious decisions to stay woke. I make small comments and have conversations with those who ask why I don’t participate in the reenactment of the first Thanksgiving. I’ve also been known to ask my POC teachers if they would reenact the Civil War and I either catch an attitude or hear crickets.
We don’t talk about these things enough in education and we should. There are traditions and expectations that make me uncomfortable because I’m Black. Forreal, forreal Benita (my mama) wasn’t on that whole Mayflower thing either, so I learned at a young age to pick and choose what was good for my soul and what wasn’t. Now, I dodge the pilgrim plans with Turkey Trouble by Wendy Silvano and other stories and activities that engage the minds of youngsters, celebrate the holidays, and don’t smack marginalized folks in the face.
I try very hard to use non-fiction and other books that depict Indigenous people as actual people and not props. I work hard to and encourage others to actually use the term Indigenous, or at best Native, as opposed to Indians when referring to Indigenous people. I’m struggling this year, I won’t lie. I’m struggling to make sure that I’m doing the work that needs to be done, on all fronts. You know what? I revisited a book that is an oldie but goodie in the world of education Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum who drops bars. She talks about a group of preschoolers who were asked to draw pictures of Native Americans and looked clueless at the request. They were then asked to draw Indians and every picture they drew included feathers and some with tomahawks and other weapons. She stated this, “At the age of three, these children already had a set of stereotypes in place… [T]he stereotypes to which they have been exposed become the foundation for the adult prejudices that many of us have.” I just don’t want to add to this. My turkeys don’t cover up racism or stereotypes, but they don’t glorify the wrongs of our nation either.
I promise I’m just trying to do my job the best way I know how. Let me get back to cooking up some more pumpkin play dough so my fine and sensorimotor activities stay lit.