Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Tell It to a Preschooler

Even more than Halloween, the lead-up to Martin Luther King Day is my favorite time for singing with kids. Nothing moves me so much as the old freedom songs of the 60’s— from If I Had a Hammer to We Shall Overcome and beyond. And the kids love them too. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a four-year old with eyes closed singing Free at Last with all her heart and soul. She and her playmates have no idea what that abstract concept of freedom means nor can she imagine the harsh reality of being denied it. But they feel the spirit of the whole deal and know that something important is shouting out from every note in every song.

So this week at preschool singing time, I opened the door to that marvelous repertoire, from that exuberant One Little Step Toward Freedom to the quiet and soothing Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore and had the spontaneous idea of changing it to “Martin rowed the boat ashore” and “Rosa helped to trim the sails.” Always one to try to give background and stories to each song, I started talking about two sides of a river, one where “everyone was free to eat where they please, live where they please, work where they please and do as they please as long as they don’t hurt other people. And then on the other side of the river was the opposite, where people didn’t have that kind of freedom because…” And I stopped dead in my tracks. Because… why? What would you say? Because their skin color was different? How weird would that be for a three-year old to hear? How can their brain wrap around that? How can they make sense of something so clearly insane?

The answer? They can’t. And so, in that moment, I couldn’t either. Yeah, I know enough history to be able to try to explain it in terms of the economics of Europeans in a new world in need of cheap and free labor, in terms of priests and ministers and scientists and politicians creating the lie of racial superiority so they could sleep at night, in terms of that weird human need to be one rung up the ladder from someone else to feel important and powerful. But it’s all excuses, excuses, excuses. For that moment, it struck me to the core— this is utterly insane. I was able to try to wrap my brain around it like a preschooler might and there was simply no way to understand how human beings could do that and have it feel normal. No way to explain how people got so used to it that they simply accepted it all as “the way things are,” and went around for decades and centuries in a collective trance sanctioned in schools and churches and families and films and books and songs. 

And more sobering yet. As if it’s not enough to try to understand the depravity of 400 years of buying and selling human beings, to explain how Rutherford B. Hayes bought a disputed election by promising to end Reconstruction in 1876, which ended up supporting the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, to try to tell the story of Emmett Till without weeping in shame and horror, all the hideous mistakes and ignorance and collectively approved hatred of our (white folks’) ancestors, how does one really explain Eric Garner? “The man was allegedly illegally selling cigarettes on the street. So the policemen hired to protect American citizens choked him to death even when he repeatedly told them that he couldn’t breathe. And then the police didn’t even get in trouble.” Tell that to a preschooler.

“Oh, it’s more complicated than that,” some excuse-maker will say. But is it? I say if you can’t explain something in a way a preschooler can understand, then that something is terribly wrong.

Back to singing time. I wisely decided not to trample the preschooler's innocence and came up with some generic thing about Martin Luther King helping people row the boat across the waters to a better world, with “milk and honey on the other side.” When they get to Middle School, I’ll tell them a lot more, like the story I told my 8th graders today of the Birmingham bombing while listening to John Coltrane’s tune Alabama and Joan Baez singing Birmingham Sunday.  These kids are starting to understand the complexity of human evil and the way economics and politics and our moral failings can cause all sorts of bad things to happen. They understand that awareness of history helps prepare them to name a better future, helps them to recognize the forces still at work today, helps them to develop the character and determination to continue the struggle for human rights.

But if you ever need a reminder of how plain wrong it all is, try explaining it all to a preschooler. 
Listen to what your explanation sounds like and then sneak away into a corner and weep.

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