My daughter’s 4th grade class recently did “heritage projects.” The kids spent several weeks researching their family histories, choosing one country in their family background to focus on. They presented what they learned at a culminating “heritage lunch” where the parents brought in food from the country their child chose, and we enjoyed eating together and listening to the students’ reports.
It was a great assignment as the students began learning how to research, to present information, and to understand culture. My daughter chose Sweden, focusing on my dad’s family. I can confidently say that she now knows more about it than I do. (“No, Mom, Sweden is between Norway and Finland, not Denmark!”)
I was troubled, though, when I went to the heritage lunch and saw that at least a few black students had researched states. I saw posters on Michigan and on California, for instance. The reasons for this difference in the black students’ projects are obvious–likely uncertainty about the country their ancestors came from before they were kidnapped and sold into slavery–but I wondered how the teachers had handled the issue.
Had the black students been given the option of focusing on an African country like the Ivory Coast or Ghana that might have been their ancestral homeland even if they did not know for sure? Had the rest of the students been instructed in the reasons why their black classmates had a different kind of project?
I asked my daughter if the teachers had said anything about the difference in the heritage of black students versus that of everyone else. She said no, nothing had been said about it. She understood why I was asking, and said, “Mom, that makes me sad.” Me, too, honey.
Let me be clear about what troubled me about this seeming oversight. First, it set the black students up to look like they had done the project wrong. In the absence of clear information to the contrary, the rest of the class could conclude that these kids simply had not understood the instructions and so had mistakenly researched states rather than countries. And, second, this seemed like a missed opportunity to educate all the students about our country’s checkered past and how it still matters today in all sorts of ways. It affects everything, even 4th grade projects.
The fact is that all our “heritages” in America are not created equal, and we might as well say that. Let’s not gloss over this fact or pretend it’s not true. I believe that if we are going to be a just society, then we need to tell the truth early and tell it often. Fourth graders can handle this. Indeed, the black ones already are. Let’s help all the others grapple with it, too.
(Some would call this whole project an example of white privilege. I think it is more accurately called an example of non-black privilege as well as non-adopted privilege, clunky though those terms may be. Every child who was neither adopted nor black knew where their ancestors came from and had information on them. In our society, that is a privilege.)
I decided to address my questions directly to my daughter’s teachers. I did not want to assume that they had not instructed the classes on these issues; perhaps she had just missed it. I sent what I hoped was a polite, respectful email. I started by thanking them for assigning a great project in which my daughter learned much. Then I wrote,
I was wondering if you could tell me how you directed the African American students to focus their projects and how you talked to all the students about these issues that are so important as they begin to think historically?
I made sure to conclude with sincere thanks for all their hard work teaching my daughter and her classmates.
One teacher patiently responded and helped me understand that carrying out this project was more complex than I had even realized. The teaching team had been working to perfect it over the past few years. They have found that not only is it particularly challenging for students who are adopted, but also for students who don’t have contact with relatives and for students who receive no help at home. She did note that the students who chose states were very excited about their reports and that each one felt a connection with the state they chose. She assured me that the students in question certainly “would have been given an opportunity to research a country if it had it come up in our individual discussions with them.”
I appreciated this answer. First, it was a small relief to know that the black students had felt excited about their projects, not shortchanged. Second, this helped me understand how complex it is to lead 60 kids in a project with varying amounts of help and knowledge at home. Given the array of challenges, I am very thankful that they persist in assigning this project year after year.
The teacher’s email, however, did not answer my primary concerns. Had the entire class been instructed on why the black students’ projects looked different?
So, at the risk of being seriously annoying, I pursued the conversation a bit further. I emailed her back, thanking her for the additional information and acknowledging what a tricky project this can be. I then presented my wish that the different experience black students likely have in this type of project and the historical reasons for that had been shared with the entire class. I tried to respectfully express my concerns about what was lost when these issues were not discussed.
I do not know whether our email exchange will influence how this project is handled in future years. I was encouraged, though, to hear that before the 4th grade took a field trip to the African American History Museum the following week, my daughter’s teacher talked to the kids explicitly about how the black students’ heritages differed from everyone else’s. She emphasized that their ancestors alone had not chosen to come here. Unlike everyone else’s families, they were forced. Whether this teaching was spurred by my prodding or whether it was customary before this field trip, I’ll never know. Whatever the cause, I am glad for it.
The two 4th grade teachers at our school are skillful, hard-working educators who daily call forth strong work from my daughter. I deeply appreciate their service. So, why would I question them like this? Why did I take the risk of being seen as a pest and a nag?
Because it matters. It matters for the black students and it matters for everyone else, too. We need to teach honestly and clearly about race, justice, and history. We need to help each other do this. The task of keeping us honest cannot fall solely on the shoulders of African Americans. We could leave it to the black parents to advocate for their kids and for robust teaching on history, but we should refuse to do that. It’s our shared history, after all. It’s my daughter’s education, too. Our society’s future depends on how well we teach the past. And the present.
As I mentioned, the 4th grade heritage event included a lunch. These types of heritage potlucks pose particular difficulties for black families, as well. What are they to bring amidst the Swedish meatballs and Chinese dumplings? An African American reader commented on just this issue. I find her words very instructive:
Dear Laura — As an African-American parent, I can’t tell you how much I struggled with the idea of attending our International Dinner when my children were in elementary school. What type of “international” dish could we bring to the table that evening? I was clueless. At the time, my husband and I were young, new parents in the district. We didn’t want our son to feel left out, so we made a dish from my mother’s Southern roots in Tennessee. It wasn’t an “international” dish, but it would have to do. We didn’t talk to the teacher about this since it wasn’t a class assignment. This was an all-school event to bring everyone together. We made the dish, sweet potato casserole, which went over well. After that year, I had no desire to participate in the International Dinner because I felt more confused than connected.
I’m sure there are African-American parents out there who face this same issue year after year, but they’re probably too exhausted to confront yet another issue. Many of our parents are busy advocating for their child on other fronts (fair disciplinary action, issues with IEPs, etc.). In the scheme of things, challenging the ethics of the International Dinner are probably low on the totem pole but still need to be addressed. And I agree, such issues need to be addressed by all parents, not just African-American parents. Regardless of race, etc., I would hope that all parents will make an effort to advocate for what is right for all children. Thank you for being bold and “annoying” enough to do just that.
© Laura Goetsch and Thinking About Such Things, 2016