The White Man
I have presented Haiti to all of my children's pre-school classes. I usually bring a book, show pictures, fry sweet plantain bananas ( I let them press them flat) and, of course, I always bring along a flag. When the children pass around the miniature souvenir flag I got from the airport in Port-au-Prince, they all ask why there are canons on it. This is pre-school so I leave it at, "they had to fight for their freedom". They usually accept this answer and ask for more plantains.
Exactly one year later, my first grade son asked me yesterday, "What did you mean they were fighting for their freedom?" He had never forgotten this, rather he'd stored it in his mind until he could deconstruct it. "Who were they fighting?"
How does one approach the topic of slavery and colonialism with a seven year-old? As usual, I was not prepared to have this conversation so soon. As delicately as I could, I tried to explain that Haitians, who were Africans first, were brought there, forced to work for no money and were not free to go, they were slaves.
The sense of justice in small children is very astute, even if it is overly simplified. Slavery was not only wrong, my son decided but cruel (wait until he gets all of the details!)
"So the French are also Europeans, right?" he asks to make sure.
"Yes," I say.
"So they're like the white men who went to America and killed Crazy Horse's and Pocohantas' people?" (this term, white man, my son learned from a children's book about Crazy Horse).
"Um, well, yes- er,"
"Why did the white man want to steal everyone's land, kill them for it and make Africans slaves?"
Gulp. "In Haiti, the French made money from sugar plantations and the slaves worked on them."
"For nothing." He says softly.
When I asked my parents these questions it always resulted in a speech about why it was so important for me, as a black woman, to get an education and not let anyone enslave my mind and about black people having to be better at everything to gain respect (see Birthers) . . . and a long list of warnings many black children grow up hearing. My situation is decidedly more complicated because while I want my sons to know historical truths, they are half of these white men. It is important, from my perspective, to not be automatically divisive.
"It was a long time ago and, well, you'll learn more about the history when you get older. It's very complicated and many powerful people, you'll discover, took advantage of the weaker ones. But it's true, the white man did do " a lot of mean things," as you say. But a lot has changed, even white people wanted that."
His brow is crinkled, he is thinking up storms, I can tell. I can only imagine what he'll ask next?
Flag of Haiti image courtesy of 4 International Flags