I sat down recently to begin planning out what all we’d learn about for Black History Month. The more I read, the more excited I felt to share such a rich heritage with my children, and the more grateful I felt to live during a time when our education is only limited by our number of questions and not by the color of our skin. I also began to sense the heaviness, the sorrow, and turmoil and hatred that so many prominent figures of color rose from.
Slavery, segregation, redlining, riots… so many painful, heartbreaking landmarks in black history that cannot (and should not) be avoided.
As the parent of gifted children who experience emotions so very intensely, I knew that learning about these awful realities could trigger a dramatic response, one that could cloud what we were trying to learn or even build up a wall that would keep them from wanting to learn more.
There are a lot of movies we don’t watch and books we don’t read because I know the stories will gut my kids. Certain themes have been known to leave them in tears for days. When you feel emotions as deeply as they do, it’s scary, and sometimes they’ll even develop anxiety over these emotions — they just can’t process them.
Sometimes it simply hurts them to feel, so we — as a family — try to avoid emotionally intense situations whenever we can. But black history – or Japanese history, or Jewish history, or indigenous peoples history – is too important to avoid. Not only are the lessons from our painful past important, but they can be integral in the forming of a gifted child’s moral compass.
With the weight of both the importance of the content and the reactions of our children, engaging our children in Black History Month is no easy task.
Here are some tips to help…
Start out by simply talking with your child, a true discussion that allows for speaking and listening. Present to them the importance of cultural heritage, both their own and that of others. Talk about how history is full of highs and lows, shame and pride, and about how some of the things you’ll be learning about are sad, cruel, and just plain unfair.
Don’t scare them, don’t give them cause to pause, just begin the conversation. You may be surprised at their own contribution to the discussion – what they already know, what they’ve already witnessed, what they’ve overheard and never asked about. Make sure they know the lines of communication are open and that what you’re talking about together is important.
Read the famous “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. Find recordings and experience it in his own voice. Let those goosebumps shiver all the way up and down as your child feels in his unique way the passion and inspiration in the words. Talk about how it made him feel. Talk about how it made you feel. Talk about what it must have felt like to hear as a person of color in 1963. Talk, talk, talk. This is an activity where emotion can take over without worry. Let your child feel roused, moved, excited by Dr. King’s words and discuss the impact they still have today.
Educate yourselves about some truly inspiring figures in black history. Benjamin Banneker, Bessie Coleman, Percy Julian, Madam C. J. Walker, Jomo Kenyatta, Joana Higginbotham, Elijah McCoy, Simone Biles, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Maggie Lena Walker, or Carter G. Woodson, who launched what would become Black History Month. My kids love to go down rabbit trails, so pick a figure and start researching!
Black History Month was never intended to be a solemn month of only recognizing slavery and segregation. Immerse yourself in the accomplishments, inventions, thinkers, and artists who fought through adversity, hatred, stereotypes, and even the law to contribute to the rich tapestry that makes up our collective history. All the while, keep up that two-sided discussion.
Learn about momentous events in black history. The Harlem Renaissance, for example, boasts Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Zora Neale Hurston among some of its most significant and influential figures. The Haitian Revolution was a magnificent event in history with far-reaching and long-lasting effects. Delving into Black Wall Street or the Montgomery bus boycott proves the power of cooperation, protest, and the incredible things that can be done when a group of people draws upon its strength.
Try to focus on events and movements that were started and maintained by people of color to really emphasize their importance to the black community, as opposed to just events that took place in reaction to mistreatment.
When presenting black history to emotionally intense children, while we shouldn’t avoid it all, we have to be mindful to present the victories as frequently as we do the injustices. Emancipation was a momentous event in black history, but so was Jackie Robinson playing major league baseball and Oprah Winfrey launching a syndicated talk show! Remind your sensitive kiddo that while oppression was an ever-present cloud, many, many people danced in the rain.
Awe is an emotion they can easily feel intensely while studying black history, so have at it!
Celebrate black history! Culture, history, and accomplishments are meant to be celebrated! Research black-owned businesses in your area and consider patronizing them. Enjoy the sounds and history of jazz, blues, and hip hop. Read poems by Langston Hughes. Learn to make traditional soul foods. Visit museums – in person or online – that feature artists of color. Research black nonprofits and consider donating your time or money. Enjoy and celebrate the many, many contributions and advancements made by people of color! Emotions aren’t limited to fear and sadness, embrace the joy and power that comes from a culture so rich in talent and innovation!
Be sure to talk with your child about what their favorites are – new songs, new foods they’re experiencing, and incorporate them into all the other months. Keep the conversation going!
Capitalize on their empathy. Being emotionally intense and so very sensitive, our kids know they’re different. They don’t always fit in with the kids around them and they’re often pretty aware of it. Point out that this struggle, the struggle to fit in, to be accepted, isn’t unique to them. Don’t minimize their feelings through comparison, but draw the attention outward, towards others. Help them see that they’re not only not alone in grappling with the isolation of being different, but that they can also become an ally, a defender, a champion for others who have similar experiences.
Inspire your child to be the change they want to see.
You know your child best. Not every age or every stage is ready to learn of the atrocities committed in the name of inequality. As adults we still can’t stomach a lot of the information and images that come out of slavery, segregation, lynchings, and injustice.
You don’t have to tell them everything the first time around.
Remember, you’re maintaining a dialogue with your kids, so learning black history doesn’t have to end on March 1st. Acknowledge slavery, answer any questions that pop up (because you know there will be more than a few), but don’t feel like you have to squeeze every horrific detail of the last few centuries into 4 weeks. The truth is, there are parts of black history that are too much to share, at least all at once, with sensitive kids. Tears are unavoidable but trauma is preventable. Don’t sugar coat the past, but it is okay to dilute it a little, for now, while your child’s emotional state is such a concern.
Know that you can participate plenty in this month by simply celebrating accomplishments and what makes the black community so unique and beautiful.
Know also, though, that the passion and intensity with which these gifted kids of ours feel injustice can ignite a lifetime of change, can inspire them to advocate beyond their own needs, so share the struggles with them, too.
Emphasize the importance of not just learning from the comfort of the sidelines, but empathizing and implementing change alongside those who need support. As painful as history has been at times for people of color, we can remind our children that we live in a different time, that they shouldn’t feel guilt, but hope.
In your ongoing conversation, ask them how they’re feeling about what they’re learning. Acknowledge it, hug them, then challenge them to take those feelings and use them to make the future an even better place. Remind them to continually look for inspiring people of color. No matter what topics you choose to focus on, no matter what you learn or how you teach it, impart hope in your child.
Whatever the past looks like, whatever we wished the present looked like, we have hope that it got better, hope that it gets better, and hope that their passion can make it even better.
Your Turn: What are some tips YOU have for teaching your emotional and differently-wired kiddos about black history month? Share your ideas in the comments!