Historian: The Heavy Burden of Teaching My Son About American RacismHistorians in the News
tags: racism, Jemar Tisby
When I saw the sign for the Emmett Till Museum, I knew I had to take the next exit. As a Ph.D. student in American history studying the civil-rights movement, it felt almost like an obligation. My only hesitation was that my 7-year-old son was in the car too.
Was he ready to learn about one of the most notorious lynchings in the nation’s history? Could I bear to watch his eyes lose some of their glow?
The road that led from the highway to the one-street town of Glendora, Mississippi, was barely more than a trail. Only the concrete slabs remain of the home of one of Till’s lynchers, and just beyond it stands a gray building with corrugated metal walls. Inside is the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center, or ETHIC, a locally run museum, but in 1955, the year Till was killed, the structure housed a cotton gin. It is likely the place where Milam and his conspirators retrieved the 75-pound cotton-gin fan that they tied around Till’s neck with barbed wire to weigh him down after they threw his corpse into a nearby river.
It was a lot to explain to my son. I didn’t show him any of the gruesome pictures that made Till’s murder internationally known. I simply told him that some men had killed a boy because they thought people with brown skin had to be controlled, violently if necessary.
My son grew very still as he listened. “But it’s not like that anymore, is it?” he asked. “Well,” I replied, “it’s complicated.”
A lynching may be especially difficult to explain to a child, but I am far from alone as a parent who struggles to talk to his kids about race and its grim history in America. We take great care to teach our kids to treat others kindly, to share, and to forgive. But teaching them about America’s racial history is another project entirely, burdening us with the knowledge that in giving them the truth, we are taking away some of the joy with which they behold the world. ...
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