We all leave complex legacies. And what legacy we leave is not always ours to choose but the future generation. And too often, legacies are chosen by those who have power. Over the long holiday weekend, I delved into The 1619 Project, created by Nikole Hannah-Jones and the New York Times Magazine team. Knowing that this project was feared by many and even became a basis for state legislation, book bans, scrutiny of public school curriculum, threats from politicians, and mightily outraged parents, I read with careful attention to my feelings and reactions to the excerpts, poetry, and historical works contained within this book.
I never felt uncomfortable.
However, there were many moments that I had to pause, close the book, and sit with the things I had learned. While there were some feelings of aghast, disgust, and sadness when reading some of the passages, the feelings were certainly not directed at the project itself, but at acknowledging the difficult history of peoples.
At the same time, I had larger feelings of hope and joy…and a sense of responsibility to help keep us moving forward.
I had known all along that Black rights movement paved the way for disability rights. It was not until I was 13 years old that I had a legal right to an education. Even though I was lucky that leaders who had power in my school community allowed me to enroll in their school, many states had excluded from children who are deaf, blind, emotionally disturbed, developmentally disabled, or otherwise considered uneducable. And it was not until I was 28 years old that laws were passed to protect my rights to work. I had to prove myself as capable in order to be let in the larger society.
There are reports of people moving this book into the fiction section at bookstores and big box stores. This book is not fiction; it is history as evidenced by the scholarly expertise of many contributors and 55 pages of references.
Along with The 1619 Project, I picked up Born on the Water by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renee Watson (along with illustrator Nikkolas Smith). This book, too, has created ruckus. However, while parents certainly have the right to decide what is appropriate for their own children to read or listen to, they should not have the jurisdiction to decide for other families. Surely, if we went down that path, the tables could easily turn.
A friend, who is a grandmother, ordered the picture book for her oldest granddaughter, now in first grade. The grandmother first had some discussion with her daughter, the mother, if the book was age-appropriate for her to hear it. Her granddaughter seemed to have an innocence about race. However, the grandmother knew at some point that innocence would end, but picking the right time to read the book wasn’t easy. The granddaughter already knew stories of Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman but the grandmother didn’t think those stories really convey our history well to a kid. Heroes are in a league apart, far from everyday life experiences of a first grader. At least that’s how it seemed to her right now.
Ultimately, the mother was looking at the picture book when visiting over the school break. The granddaughter caught her at it and begged to have it read to her. It provoked lots of questions on the granddaughter’s part and triggered lots of side explanations. The grandmother was glad her mother was the one reading it because she was both very competent and has a super good grasp of American history. Better than hers. That and a calm and empathetic voice really helped. It took close to an hour. They went way over bedtime.
The granddaughter was fascinated. While she had known about Martin Luther King and Tubman, this book brought a whole new dimension. It reminded the grandmother very much of when her daughter at a young age had her read aloud a book about the Holocaust.
And…they still talk about it.
Talking about our history but marching forward, along with cherishing who we are in a diverse society, is crucial toward perfecting our freedom and democracy.