Black History Matters

By Isabel Gutierrez

 

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear

You’ve got to be taught from year to year

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear

You’ve got to be carefully taught

. . .

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late

Before you are six or seven or eight

To hate all the people your relatives hate

You’ve got to be carefully taught

 

When Margaret Beale Spencer, child psychologist from the University of Chicago, replicated the Brown v. Board of Education doll test with 133 children from different economic and demographic backgrounds in New York City and Georgia, she was surprised by something. The racial bias children learn when very young, before age five, stays stagnant even as they grow older. She had assumed that an older child’s critical thinking skills, greater socialization, and overall development would improve racial bias.

 

But we shouldn’t be surprised at all: The racial bias affecting such young children — of all races — is learned through passive osmosis from family and media. Our society at large associates whiteness with positive traits, brown- and blackness with negative traits and children pick up on that. Yet by ten years old, this white racial bias is still not challenged or corrected, even after education in elementary schools. It is through elementary-level education that the history of the United States is poorly taught, both in whitewashed textbooks and the teachers’ own curricula, that reaffirm white racial bias. These failings leave the burden of addressing race to parents, but it really falls on black parents, who must educate their children to protect them from the dangers of violence and psychological suffering as best they can. And what they are doing is working, although black children showed a preference for whiteness, it was much less than when compared to the preferences of white children. Parents of black children shoulder this burden that belongs to all of us, especially parents of white children. All parents need to take on the task of inoculating their children against white bias, with all the urgency and gravity of protecting their child’s wellbeing and the wellbeing of other children around them. White parents, in particular, whose first instinct may be to shield their children (and perhaps themselves) from such realities — can find answers to these difficult topics through the example of black parents and through art.

 

The National Great Blacks Museum is a potent example, where visitors will find wax sculptures of famous black historical figures, an immersive slave ship, and a lynching exhibition. As This American Life’s B.A. Parker explains, though the museum is largely geared to and patronized by black children at the behest of parents or school field trips, it does not flinch in the face of white supremacy’s brutal violence. “For me, that’s the point,” museum co-founder Joanne Martin explains:

 

“When they leave shaken, when they leave crying — and that’s often the reaction — I have no problem with those tears . . . it seems like a movie, if you don’t have a sense of exactly what people were fighting against. If you think that Rosa Parks, that what she did had something to do with the seat on the bus and you don’t understand that that act was going to get her jailed, but it could have gotten her lynched, as well.”

 

The museum’s exhibits are effective; Parker, though horrified by them, concedes as much. She recalls walking through the slave ship, greeted first by a recording, “All slaves aboard!” She was immediately able to understand that the recording was referring to her. She was shocked and understandably upset and yet she feels that is how she learned to connect the history of slavery to herself, today.

 

***

 

Richmond, VA, former capital of the Confederacy, isn’t a white city, though it may as well have been to me when I was growing up there. It is still a deeply divided city economically and socially. All the public space too is divided up, even the great James River that runs through it, which is a main attraction for kids, teenagers, and dog walkers, has racial designations, “We don't go over there.” I was a Latina in a white suburban school, who experienced this extreme segregation as “the way things are.” Along Monument Avenue, a famous cobblestone boulevard, with its stately homes, and protected historical status, stand statues of Confederate generals — Robert E. Lee, J. E. B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, et al. I learned in third grade that the South, the faction those statues fought for, needed slaves, a “necessary evil.” In that lesson, I felt all eyes on the lone black girl in class. Without the full context of slavery and white supremacy, our lessons on the Civil Rights Movement seemed low-stakes, I couldn't really grasp it. Which meant I couldn't really understand the world I was living in, either. Joanne Martin was right: I learned something about seats on a bus. Not violence. Not economic oppression.

 

Sponges that children are, though, I noticed white men’s leery smiles, the parents who’d ask me, “What are you? Are you mixed?” before even asking my name. It took me a long time to suss out what race even was. All I knew was: 1) My Mexican father is dark; 2) my white mother is light; 3) he is brown because he works in the sun as a construction worker. The implications of race did not strike me until much later: My father works in the sun as a construction worker because he is brown. Of course, un-learning lies and silence takes much more time and effort than learning the truth in the first place, as children can still do.

 

Always being a little mixed-up among the racial strata of the city, I one time found myself with rope tied around my wrists as part of a slavery simulation along with other black teenagers from my church group. To be truthful I felt a little awkward, I knew that for the black leaders of the church it was important for them that the teenagers really understood the history of black people in America. I didn't know exactly what I was supposed to be thinking or feeling but was trying, dutifully anyway, even though it wasn't “my history”. We were walking along the Slave Trail that traces the steps of slaves brought from the ship to market in Shockoe Bottom. In fact, Richmond was the second largest hub of slave trade in the entire country. But you wouldn't know it if you visited this city, too busy trying to recreate its image into a hip artsy tourist destination. There is hardly a trace left behind other than some plaques under a bridge and this very path we were walking. And all of a sudden there it was, the same path I would sneak off to as a teenager, it was here; nothing had changed. I was seeing what those slaves had seen, walking where they had walked. It drove home a point that could not be softened or cloaked in whiteness, I was here in Richmond, a city once buoyed by a booming slave economy, where today there is a Holocaust museum but nothing so dedicated to slavery. History is a story we tell ourselves about ourselves, and without black visionaries, academics, artists, historians to tell that story, it will remain a work of fiction.

Isabel Gutierrez is an artist recently graduated from School of Visual Arts with an MFA in Fine Art. She is a painter who also works in installation and performance. Her work is primarily large-scale and focuses on the figure to explore how perspective shapes narrative. She currently lives in Brooklyn.

 

About the images: Richmond Branch NAACP and other community activists have proposed a Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park, a nine-acre park that would include the African Burial Ground,  Lumpkin’s Jail, and 100 more historical sites related to the slave trade district. Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park was the result of a five-month brainstorming session in an open, city-wide meeting.  Richmond NAACP President Lynette Thompson's goal is "...to have a memorial that represents our whole history, not just bits and pieces. So much of our history has not been told."

 

Learn more about Isabel Gutierrez at www.isabelgutierrez.com