What a Picture Is Worth

by Deesha Philyaw, anti-Racist Parent columnist

The other morning, just after breakfast, my almost-5-year-old daughter Peyton excused herself from the table and began to peruse the bookshelves in our family room. Never one to settle for “kid” foods (at 3, she told the pediatrician that her favorite food was “spicy Pad Thai”) or “kid” clothes (she’s been known to rock an ascot–well, I might add), Peyton was drawn to a “non-kid” book, 100 Photographs That Changed the World published by Life magazine.

The book opens with a moving introduction in poetry, essay, and images by Gordon Parks, and it features well- and lesser-known images depicting a wide range of human experience: severely malnourished children, a lynching, model Twiggy, Mussolini and his mistress hanging by their heels, Brandi Chastain in her sports bra, Che Guevara, a Civil Rights Movement-era lunch counter sit-in, Bonnie and Clyde, Old Faithful, Kent State, Tiananmen Square, the first x-ray, a migrant mother, and the art of Robert Mapplethorpe, to name a few.

As you might imagine, many of the images are startling, disturbing, horrific. Neither of my children is easily frightened or shocked, so other than horror flicks, gratuitous or excessive nudity and violence, and sexual suggestion (except for It’s So Amazing! A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families, of course), I don’t make special efforts to shield them from such images, hence the reason Peyton could find the 100 Photographs… book wedged alongside books like If You Give a Pig a Pancake and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.

I try to talk to my kids about racism and injustice like I talk to them about human sexuality. I don’t shy away from the subject. I answer the questions they ask, no more and no less, in age-appropriate language as best as I can. Occasionally, I might see an opening to ask them a related question to further their understanding–and my understanding of their understanding–but generally I try to follow their lead. I rest assured that there will be plenty of future conversations in which we can go deeper, talk in more technical terms, explore nuance and complexity.

I don’t worry about things like “Are they too young?” because generally speaking, I believe if they are old enough to ask a question, they are old enough for the answer. (I say “generally speaking” because I don’t believe my almost-10-year-old is ready for an honest answer to the question: “Mommy, I saw a bump sticker that said, ‘I’m pro-choice AND I pray”–what does that mean?” But I do look forward to that conversation.)

These early years, truly the wonder years, are times when I try to stick to The Basics. But what are those Basics, when it comes to social justice, to racism and anti-racism, when your child is almost-5? As a recovering perfectionist, I could drive myself a little nutty worrying about whether I’m doing too much, or not enough, in this regard. Recently, the idea started to nudge at me that I haven’t been particularly purposeful lately as an Anti-Racist Parent (with a capital A, capital R, and capital P). I’m not one to announce, “Okay, kids today we’re going to talk about anti-racism!” and embark upon some contrived Teachable Moment. I love it when those happen naturally, but in their absence, shouldn’t I be doing something? After all, it’s been a while since anything has happened around here that would allow me to contribute substantively to this column.

Another pesky idea pokes at me as well: Do I see racism/anti-racism as too black-and-white, literally, to the exclusion of other groups of people of color, others who are and have been treated unjustly–and am I conveying this to my kids?

But inevitably, just when I start to doubt myself, I have one of those moments which reminds me that very often, if we let them, children will present us with the lessons precisely when they need them, and precisely when we, as parents need them too.

This is what happened the other morning when Peyton handed me 100 Photographs That Changed the World. She had opened randomly to a picture, c. 1940, of a man having his nose measured as part of the Aryan “race determination tests” in Germany.

“Mommy, why are they doing that to that man’s nose?”

“Because they think the size of his nose is important, that it will tell whether he’s a good person or a bad person. But that’s silly and wrong.”

“Yeah,” Peyton agreed.

She then flipped to a page showing a photo of Anne Frank, and an adjacent page showing a pile of bodies at Buchenwald where 43,000 people were murdered. According to the caption, it was this 1945 picture of Buchenwald that helped prove to Americans that reports of Nazi extermination of the Jews were true. I tried as best as I could to explain the situation to Peyton.

“But,” she asked, “why did they do that to the Jewish people?”

How to explain hate and brutality?

I tried, and probably succeeded as well as when we’ve attempted to wrap our brains around American slavery. But as with the slavery conversations, I spent more time talking about how and why we love…everybody.

 Peyton looked at some more pictures. She stopped at one of a large gathering of white men. “Mommy, who are they going to kill?”

It was a photo taken in 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah on the occasion of the completion of first transcontinental railroad.

I worried for a split second that Peyton had started to associated “large groups of white men” with killing. Not the big take-away I intended. So I explained that some people love and some people hate, and you can’t know what they are going to do just by looking at them. I told her that some people who look like those men have done horrible things, but that doesn’t mean that those men also do horrible things. She seemed to get that. But I still rest on the promise of future, deeper, more nuanced conversations as she gets older.

I shared my conversation with Peyton with my sister-friend and mentor, Laura, via email. With more mama-years under her belt than I, I knew Laura would understand my mournful, “How to explain hate and brutality?” We have shared such lamentations before, and will no doubt share them again. Laura affirmed my belief that children have impeccable timing, if we just let them, when she pointed out that Peyton’s queries had taken place on the eve of the very special Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which Laura as an observant Jewish woman celebrates. She told me that she is holding my and my children’s global hearts close to her own. And we are holding hers to ours.


Post Script: Ever wondered what to serve for dinner after your child’s first experience with prejudice, when your kitchen’s being remodeled, during a messy divorce, when you’re nauseous, or right after you just had a manicure? My abovementioned mentor/sister-friend Laura is the co-author (with Karin Kasdin) of a must-have book Food No Matter What! Stories and Recipes for Perfect Dining in an Imperfect World. With chapters like “Now That You’ve Flounder, Never Let Her Go: Food as Bait”, this book features superb writing and over 200 superb recipes and tips for good eating in challenging times.

Deesha Philyaw is a freelance writer whose publications include Essence, Wondertime (a Disney publication), Bitch magazine, and The Washington Post. Deesha holds a B.A. in economics from Yale University and a Master’s degree in teaching. In her pre-mommy, pre-writing life, she was a management consultant, briefly, and then an elementary school teacher. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Deesha currently lives in Pittsburgh with her two daughters.

Image courtesy of Sarge-Jack on Flickr.

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