What does Toni Morrison have to do with a corn mill?
City Kids kicked off its Nature Program in Rock Creek Park this week with a tour of Peirce Mill. The kids learned how people ground corn through the ages, first with a rock, then with a hand mill, then, eventually, with large, early 19th century mills like the one in Rock Creek. While there, our ranger referred to the Mill grounds as a plantation; prior to our trip to the Mill, I did not know anything about the Mill, including that it was a former plantation. The Peirce plantation held the second largest amount of slaves in the District, and, according to our ranger, the Peirce family was the only family to receive "compensation" for the loss of slaves after Emancipation. The ranger did not include this information in our tour--I asked some questions that led to this conversation. He added that for the programs with the older kids, they talk about slavery on the plantation, but not on tours with kids as young as ours.
When to talk about slavery with my son has always been a dilemma for me; he is young, and I do not think he is ready for this information. We talk a lot about culture and history in Africa and about African Americans' contributions to culture, science, literature, art, etc. I want my son to feel connected to his roots and community as an African American, not just identify with the history of slavery--that is not all he is. But when I am confronted with slavery, and we do not talk about it, purposefully, this omission feels wrong, a denial, a suppression of history, an affront. I am always trying to balance truth with age appropriate material, and it is not always clear where to draw the line with young kids. Every child is different, and my husband and I agree that our son is not yet ready to learn about slavery, so we wait.
I am pleased that Rock Creek includes the history of slavery in their older programs--too many educational programs whitewash this history. According to The Washington Post, just this past April, a Virginia Senator tried to pass legislation that would allow parents to choose alternate readings for their high schoolers who had been assigned Toni Morison's Beloved in advanced placement English classes; this Senator called the Pulitzer Prize winning novel "smut," "moral sewage," and "profoundly filthy" because in the novel a woman who is a slave is sexually assaulted. Sexual assault was a horrific, every day reality for slave women, and the truth of that is not "smut." In a time when racial tensions are high, should we not face the truth of our collective history? We cannot do that with mis-education and a suppression of history. Policing history and erasing the truth of the past for certain sections of the population is dangerous and unethical. The truth offends because it is offensive, and our discomfort does not excuse us from the burden of knowing.
When my son is older, we will take a different trip to the mill than the one we took today. And when he is a little older than that, we will read Beloved together (o.k., it will be my 50th time, but who's counting?). For now, my son is young, and all he knows is that he is so proud to be a jazz trumpeter like his dad, and he beams when he talks about his ancestors being from Ghana. Today, he ground some corn, he learned how water-powered mills work, and he played in a stream with his good friends under a blue sky. He had a good day.