Truths Her Mother Tells Her

Monday, November 21, 2011

This time of year mixes up lots of feelings for our family. As two adults who are committed to teaching our daughter about American and World History through non-rose colored glasses, it can be difficult to detangle the multitude of messages implicit in the majority of the Autumn American holidays.

When Emily entered public school for the first time, she encountered the stories of Columbus. She brought home photocopied pictures of the Nina, the Pinta and Santa Maria.  Eventually in November ,she brought home paper Pilgrim hats and Cornucopia's and yes, even faux paper "Indian headbands". 

She asked if we planned on having a special feast for Columbus Day. After all, we mark most of our holiday's with special dinners, and given that this newfound holiday and story seemed to be so least important enough to require coloring and cutting and hats, one would assume an observance of some sort was due.

In that first attempt at telling her that maybe we all didn't see the story of Columbus and the Pilgrims in the same rosy light, Terrance ditched me. Hightailed it out of the kitchen with his "Daddy doesn't "do" Columbus" remark.

Yeah. Thanks for that Mr. Social and Economic Justice. Way to back up the Marx reader you have on the bookshelf.

Clearly, I was on my own.  

I did what I always do - I found a book.  Jane Yolen's Encounter. I sat the then 7 year old Emily on my lap, and we read it.

The story could be that of Columbus, but it could also be the story of any number of arrivals of Europeans on the shores of North and South America. The illustrations, done by David Shannon, are lovely. The story, however, is not. The story is one of theft and murder and pillage. The indigenous people who meet these white men are fascinated, for they have never seen anything like what is before them. White Skin. Blue Eyes. Large Ships. 

Told from the point of view of the only survivor of the Encounter, it is the type of story which leaves you shaken - wondering how you ever believed the tales of Columbus, the Pilgrims and the other Glorious Founding Legends of our Nation.  Of course it couldn't have happened the way we were taught. It makes no logical sense for it to have happened that way. 

When you start to poke around and figure out that the Pilgrims walked into land that had already been cleared by First Nations peoples...who had most likely been wiped out by a smallpox or other disease epidemic, and that they viewed this as a sign from God that the land belonged to them....That they looted graves of those peoples for the tools inside them, assuming that some divine providence had left this stuff just laying about.

It starts to make our founding stories a little less glorious. A little less heroic. Makes our manifest destiny credo, still evident in the nation building dogma of our political institutions, tarnish like cheap gold plating. 

Yes, there was heroism and bravery...but too often at the expense of someone else. Oppression of others is tightly woven into the American Story. First Nations/Native Americans, Africans, Irish, Catholic, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, Hispanic, Arabic and Muslims have all served their time as the Undeserving Villain in the story of America. The Losers.  The people who do not get to write the truth of their experiences into the story because it would damage our national self esteem to know that We are one in the same. 

I am proud to be a citizen of the United States of America. However, I will not tell my daughter the same stories I was told. I will not allow her to believe that there were gifts that were given with no strings attached in the formation of our nation.  I will not encourage her to think that to be American is to be better, or more, or unthinkingly correct in what she sees and hears. 

This year, I put away Encounter and begin reading Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen to Emily. 

I want her to know that it is good to be proud to be American. It is good to be thankful for the gifts bestowed upon our nation and citizens. However, we must never forget that part of these thanks must be given to those peoples who do not (yet) get to tell their stories. That those sacrifices, including murder, genocide, theft and slavery occurred to grant us these liberties.

I want her to know that truth comes in a multitude of shades. That every victory had a loser, and that their stories and experiences are as important as the ones that get repeated in textbooks and celebrated as holidays.

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