Photo: Steve Debenport/Getty Images
It was just so patently obvious, even to me at 5 years old. From picture books, to TV shows and movies, to what I saw in the classroom and on the playground: the lighter your skin and the looser your hair, the more you were appreciated and considered beautiful.
I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey in the late ’80s, early ’90s. The schools I attended were mostly white, but grew more diverse — in students, not teachers — as the years passed. At home, I felt secure about who I was, but out in the larger world, there was a distinct rupture in the way I viewed myself. As it became increasingly harder to feel pride for my identity, I struggled to appreciate my darker skin, my kinky hair. It wasn’t until after college that I started working to unlearn years of self-hate. Better late than never, but still much later than I would have liked.
From the start, my parents did their best to educate me about our history. My father made sure I knew the story of how his country, Guyana, was colonized — a similar story to my mother’s, who was born in Jamaica. My mother came to America in her 20s, entranced in part by the radical pride of the Black Panthers. She read passages to me from giant volumes of Eyes on the Prize, showing me the iconic videos and photographs of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, Bull Connor setting his dogs loose on marchers, Elizabeth Eckford being escorted into a school building by the National Guard, crowds of white adults screaming and jeering behind her.
I learned I should be proud of what we went through, what we suffered and died for, what we survived for. I learned every single word to “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” and cried when I sang it for the first time with a full choir at 14 years old. My parents laid the foundation for me to discover and appreciate who I am, and while the din of the wider world mostly drowned out their message, I’m determined to do everything I can to pass those lessons on to my 2-year-old daughter.
This weighed heavily on our minds as the time to choose Eve’s first school approached. When it came to our preschool search, we acted like stereotypical first-time parents: We researched and thought deeply and deliberated about the concrete (price, location, safety) and the philosophical (how did a school fit in with our values?). We knew how parents of older children tend to laugh away the hemming and hawing of newer parents: how to celebrate a child’s first birthday, what solid food to feed first, when to move from the crib to a toddler bed. But at the same time: Who cares? Part of the fun — and responsibility — of raising a small human is discovering all of this for the first time, neuroses and all.
After I found a recently opened Afrocentric school nearby, my husband was intrigued, but mostly skeptical. His reaction didn’t surprise me — it was based in someone else’s home, boasted only plant-based meals, and was run cooperatively. Overall, it was just a lot more radical than anything either of us had grown up with. But I knew it was the direction I wanted us to go in. I found another Afrocentric school, which was a bit more expensive, and would require an admittedly annoying commute. If we were willing, it felt like the perfect fit.
Still, my husband had his doubts. He grew up in a majority Black neighborhood as a self-proclaimed nerd: Khakis, comic books, and glasses were his trademarks. Even as a child, he couldn’t help but notice a difference in the way adults talked to him versus his friends who sagged their jeans or had more of an edge in the way they moved and talked. It was a difference that always struck him as inherently unfair; he resented the implicit — and then overt — message that there was a “right” and “wrong” way to demonstrate blackness, despite the easy approval his demeanor won from adults. Decades later, these notions of respectability are as strong as ever, and show little sign of abating. He wondered, should we risk sending her to a school without being sure of their approach to teaching Black pride and self-love?
I understood his concerns. But to me, the benefits of being in a place that uplifted our daughter and her classmates in this way — as other cultural and political forces work against her identity as a Black person — far outweighed the potential setbacks. Ultimately, like so much of early parenthood worry, all of our considerations were meaningless until we actually visited the school and spoke to the administration. Finally, we did.
Walking into the building for the first time was a revelation: A large portrait of the Obamas adorns the entryway, and brightly colored photographs of civil-rights leaders — male and female — grace the walls. In our conversation with the director, we listened to her recount her childhood memories of thinking of herself as inferior and perpetually downtrodden, until she began to recognize herself in the civil-rights leaders who refused to sit down and accept society’s message that being Black was something to be ashamed of. She took refuge in their impassioned words, in their daring protests, in their assertions that there was joy and beauty and love to be found in our identities as children of the African diaspora. As an adult, she recognized there was a crucial need for other young children to discover that source of pride in themselves, among themselves, and to learn to love and support each other. She saw a need in her community for an early-childhood institution that would do this work, so she opened one. Immediately, we were sold. Eve has been attending the school since the late summer, and she — along with her parents — couldn’t be happier.
Like any decision a parent makes early on in a child’s life, we can only hope that it will have a lasting effect on her happiness and well-being. I’ll be the first to admit that this school is everything that I wish I had as a child, which drives much of my desire for Eve to attend. But is that a weakness or strength — my attempts to revise my own history through my daughter?
I am terrified for her future, for our country’s future, for the path that we seem to be on right now. I don’t know what our society will look like three years from now, when she’ll be much more cognizant of what’s happening in the news. We were already dreading having the Talk with her — the talk that makes the birds and bees seem laughably simple. The Talk that includes a frank discussion of right and wrong, fair and unfair, and then revealing that our world doesn’t actually play by those rules. That describes how to actually speak and act around policemen, no matter what television or movies or your teachers say to you about friendly law enforcement officials. That exposes, to a certain extent, the very ugly history of the nation we call home, and the principles it was actually built on, very different from the ones it boasts in its anthem. As much as we might hope for improvement, our immediate reality is that we will most likely be having that talk with her much earlier than we’d like.
Most of all, I want her to look into the mirror and know that what she sees is beautiful. From the coils of her hair to the deep richness of her skin color, she is right, just the way she is. If she knows that, deep down, then no one can take it away from her. I can’t imagine a better lesson for her to learn, and take with her in and out of the classroom.