I am struck by the pictures I’ve seen on the news. I am struck by the faces I see lit by the torches of hate the night before a young woman’s life was taken in an act of terror.
They are young faces. They are not our country’s past. They are our present. They are a new generation that has learned to hate. This is not who we are supposed to be.
Once again our hearts are broken for the families of the victims of such hate. This time our thoughts and prayers are sent to Charlottesville. This time, it was not young Dylan Roof executing nine black worshipers at a Bible class in Charleston. This time, it is young James Fields ramming his car into a crowd of people standing up for racial justice. This time it is the death of Heather Heyer and the wounding of dozens more.
The voices of hate are disturbingly loud and incredibly close. They have literally wrapped themselves in their chosen symbols: the Confederate battle flag; neo-Nazi tattoos and uniforms; a reverence for the generals of the Confederacy who fought against the United States for the rights of states to be free to enslave black people. The protection of the monuments to these generals has nothing to do with protecting history. These are not rallies of historians.
But they do know this history. These generals are their heroes precisely because they fought to protect the institution of slavery. The rally flags weren’t subtle. “Loyal White Knights of the KKK”, read many professionally-printed banners. Hundreds carried torches onto the grounds of the University of Virginia in a night rally filled with fire and hateful speech. The choking dust of the history they kick up is of lynchings and Jim Crow and night terrors of bonfires. It is the dark history of slavery and soul crushing segregation and legal injustice against communities of people of color; religious communities; immigrant communities; women. This is the “great” past they long for. A time when people knew their places.
Families and educators will struggle to find ways to talk with children and students of all ages about this, and it won’t be easy. But it must be done if history is not to repeat itself.
Do not shy away from talking about this terrible topic with the young, I beg you. There is, perhaps, nothing harder than a conversation on race. But do it, because how we feel about race; how we react to racism informs how we feel about and react to all other forms of bias and prejudice. Children of all races, religions, all gender attractions and gender identities, of all cultures and social classes must have a safe space to speak and ask questions and wonder and think and be angry and be comforted.
It’s not important that we, as adults, know all the answers. It’s important that we let them ask all the questions and explore the complexity of our human family. And it’s important that children know that there is right and there is wrong.
There are not two sides to racism. Hate is wrong. Terror and intimidation are wrong. It’s important that we call racism and racial terrorism by its name. This is not about an honest disagreement between two sides. The poisonous ideology that one race or culture is superior to another race or culture is the antithesis to our country’s ideals of freedom and justice for all.
I never taught my 6th graders that they lived in a perfect country. They knew both our heroic and our horrific moments. But I taught them that regardless of where our leaders and laws might have historically failed, we could be proud of our country because we, as a nation, always knew who we were supposed to be. We knew what ideals we were supposed to believe in. Freedom. Justice. For All. For All. These were the words that were supposed to define us and those worthy of being our heroes.
I am so proud of the heroic counter-protesters in Charlottesville who showed up and spoke up for those ideals, knowing that they were putting themselves in harm’s way. I grieve for those who were lost and wounded having to fight this old, bloody war yet again. But fight we will. Stand up fearlessly and let everyone know whose side you’re on. Let them know why. Let them see your face in the light of truth. Show the world who we are supposed to be.
For parents and educators:
I have found wisdom in many sources over the years. Here are some that may help you help children in this frightening time. Visit NEA.org for the resources we compiled to unite against hate.