Two weeks ago I took my kids out of school for a week to go down to the Gulf Coast to see for ourselves the tragedy. I wrote a piece about the trip for USA Today that is scheduled to run sometime in the coming weeks. That piece is tightly focused on the spill and its ramifications for the local population as seen through the eyes of my 12, 11, and 8 year old children. What follows below is a stop we made to the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama that did not make the final version of the USA Today story but is worth putting out there anyway:
We drove to the Gulf from our home in Virginia. The night before we reached the coast, we spent a night in Birmingham, Ala. I had intentionally stopped there, but my kids had no inkling of what I had in mind.
I had read in the guidebook about that city’s Civil Rights Institute across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four girls similar in age to my children died in the bombing in 1963. I was determined that my half-Asian children should learn more about this painful chapter in U.S. history. I vetoed their suggestion that we instead go to the science museum.
For two hours, the two older children walked slowly through recreations of the diners, buses and classrooms typical of the segregated South. My younger son was not ready for this heavy material, grew bored and begged to leave. His older siblings were a different story.
In one darkened exhibit about the victims of racial bloodshed, my 11-year-old daughter clutched my hand as we walked past white, floating images of men, women and children burned onto glass. Those ashen-white ghosts pointed the way toward a menacing Ku Klux Klan robe under a light at the far end of the room.
They saw pictures and read about the mass marches in which local police used dogs, water hoses, and batons on columns of children not much older than my own who were marching for their rights.
My oldest son asked whether he, as a half-Vietnamese person, would have been regarded as “colored.” I explained to him the “one-drop rule” employed during segregation to determine whether people of mixed-race blood were considered colored or white. I thought I could find a way to answer my childrens’ questions but my explanations seemed to meet blank stares.
I came away with the impression that for my children, growing up in a diverse neighborhood outside Washington, D.C., during the time of a black president lacked the context to understand why differences in skin color led to such bloodshed and cruelty not just in the South but in many parts of this country. They simply wanted to know why some people did what they did to other people of darker skin. My efforts to explain seemed to sail over their heads — like citing the one-drop rule — or miss the mark. I tried to come up with real example and told them about a friend of ours who is African-American and when he was a kid his local community in Virginia after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the early 1960s decided to close the town’s public pool to everyone rather than open it to blacks.
Since then, I have asked friends to help me formulate a better way to explain racial segregation to a 12 year old. One friend’s explanation began with the ancient Greeks and cited the longtime practice of war and conquest leading to subjugation and slave-taking. Another friend told me to tell my kids about the slave trade that brought Africans to the US to serve as cheap labor and how the subjugation of one race at the hands of another became a reason to assume the superiority of one race over another.
And as a father of mixed-race children, I am concerned that someday somebody will judge my kids based on their skin color and it will be up to me to explain why such things occur. Luckily, this is not a topic that we as parents have only one opportunity to explain to our kids. And someday the memories of what we saw in Birmingham might find new resonance in our lives in a way that we can’t yet know.