It was a standard and uneventful day - a day perfect for something uncomfortable to happen. My husband and I were driving home from church with my 7 year old in the backseat, rambling on as usual about video games this and legos that. He’s a talker, my son. Bright and inquisitive as many children are, he’s also blessed with a desire and passion to consistently engage with people and an incredible amount of energy to sustain that passion. A disposition quite opposite from my own, he takes after my large hearted husband in that way. Together they wear me out, keep me on my toes, and bring me more love and community than I could ever have hoped to achieve had I relied on my own efforts.
The conversation turned to the typical topics of school, classes, friends. Then it veered straight into an area I was not expecting. He had told me before that his class had learned about American slavery. Evidently he had had a conversation with another boy about it and for whatever reason, he had decided that it was good that this particular boy didn’t live in that time period. (Perhaps he was too thin?) He said something to the affect of, “It’s a good thing Colin* didn’t live back then because it would have been hard for him if he had been in slavery”.
I paused. Colin was white. Why did my son think he would have been a slave? It was like he didn’t realize that the historical American slave industry only targeted black people....
Oh no. He didn’t realize. This was something we were going to have to explain to him.
“Well”, I started to say slowly feeling incredibly inadequate for the task at hand, “Colin wouldn’t have been a slave. In America, only black people were put into slavery. Colin is white. So he wouldn’t have been someone who could have gone into slavery back then.”
He paused. “.....Wait......What?”
I was agitated and heart broken that I had to explain this to my son. I was sick at what it must have meant to him in that moment, that he and half of our family would have been prime candidates for slavery in America. I wondered, how had he not gotten this information before? His class had been learning about the civil war and slavery, and my husband and I talked about racial and cultural issues in modern America often. Then again, unless someone had explicitly said it to him, why would he have known? The idea of treating others as sub human because of the color of their skin is absurd, evil, and disgusting. In our family it would make no sense. I come from a multi racial home. My husband’s parents are Ugandan immigrants. Together our family spans a wide range of cultures, colors and ethnicities. It is a gift that I am grateful to be a part of. It is a gift that makes a topic like this one hard to explain to a wide eyed boy that loves so many different types of people so openly and freely.
“It was a terrible thing that happened.” My husband said gently. “It hurt many people and it broke this country so deeply, it has suffered from it ever since.”
“It broke down generations of people. It broke up black families. It made it so that black people were separated from white people. That separation is still felt today. Even in church, where people should be coming together. There are churches that are mostly white and churches that are mostly black. That isn’t the way God said we should be.”
Our son took a moment to think. “ I think we should be going to a church where there are lots of different kinds of people.”
We had been thinking the same thing for a while. The church we were going to was full of good people and the preaching was sound. But the congregation had been growing in a specific way. More and more, the white upper middle class was becoming an even larger majority than it had been. I had become concerned that our son was not seeing many other minorities at church. And I was especially concerned that he wasn’t seeing any black men in the congregation besides his dad, much less in Christian leadership. I understand that this is not something that churches do on purpose to exclude others. But including others that are not like us has to be practiced intentionally. It is just too easy for us humans to attract and be attracted to people that are similar to us. And although these concerns had been brought up to the leadership for months, there did not seem to be any movement in that direction.
“You know”, I said. “We think that too.”
When he left the conversation, I thought about how this would be only one of many hard conversations about race, belonging, and safety that we would have with our son. I thought about how it would be for him in the future when he found out about what American slavery really looked like and the horrors that it put people through, not the PG, aw-shucks, benign version of slavery that we learn about in school. I thought about how black mothers and fathers had been doing this kind of a thing for well over a century. And how that is such an awful reality that I hadn’t even thought about until I became a parent that had to have these conversations as well. How much more am I not seeing? What else do I not know? I hope we can all learn more from each other.
*Not this kid’s real name
Kimiko Muwanguzi currently lives in Louisville, KY with her husband and son where she works as a programmer and attends a local church.