When Is It Too Soon to Tell the Truth?

Quraysh and I presented at the Urban Word NY annual Preemptive Education Conference last week. During our workshop, there were several moments in which the questions and conversation took us a bit off the agenda to support the teachable moment. Teaching is a performance art and the teachable moment is always the element that one must examine in the instant, assess, and respond quickly. Do we veer from the lesson plan for the engaged and pertinent discussion? And how do we get back to the focus?
This is always the case in authentic education. The teachable moment is that opportunity to maximize the engagement of the students and to fill out the lesson plan with vital responses to the learning as it happens. But if you have goals and need to fulfill the expectation for that unit of study, there is a dance of balance and truth.
In this instance at the conference, we were discussing the poem I love to teach to any age group, Nikki Giovanni’s “Knoxville, Tennessee.” 
As we discussed Ms. Giovanni’s word choices, there were some fascinating comments. For instance, as the poem celebrates the luxury of going barefoot in summer, one participant who teaches in L.A. said that his students would not see that as a positive. He further explained that going barefoot would not only be unsafe and no child would do so willingly but if they were barefooted, it would be due to poverty and probably subject them to ridicule. It would be an embarrassment rather than a delight. This gave me another opportunity to see how geography alone will affect inference but also how poetry may provide alternative reflections on experience.
At the point that we were discussing the word “okra” from the early part of the poem, I shared a slightly truncated version of my narrative of the journey of okra through the Middle Passage to the North American continent. This story itself was initiated through a teachable moment 2 years ago, when a class of 6th grade students and I were discussing the poem and I was informing them about the vegetable. One student asked where it came from and the teacher started to research it from her computer as we worked. This is when we discovered the West African origins and my imagination took the reins. Since that cold January day, I have woven the tale and personalized the experience in a narrative that starts us out as members of a village on an ordinary day 400 years ago, and presupposes some brave person who was kidnapped from the garden chores with a pod of okra in hand. It is tender and horrible at the same time. But it is a tale of courage and fortitude that I believe must be imagined.

Often when I have the technology, I also have slides of okra, from plant to images of dishes that include okra (gumbo, jambalaya, fried okra, etc.). I also show images of the diagrams of the ships loaded with humans side by side, pictures of the slave castles of Ghana, the Door of No Return. I have since learned that there was a Door of No Return on the East African coast where enslaved humans were shipped to the Mideast for servitude as well. We often know only a portion of our global history.

There were two key questions during the conference workshop after the story: 1) what is the youngest age that this story may be shared, and 2) is it permissible for someone not of African descent to even do so?

My belief is that there is no age too early in the school setting to tell the story, but that it is important to tailor the story to the level of understanding and sensitivity. Telling the story to a 3rd grader demands a different tone than telling the story to a high schooler. But the rote understanding of the slave trade that is shrink wrapped for each February unit of study of Black History does little to drive home the horror of the Transatlantic Slave Trade or of the notion of slavery itself, particularly in view of the fact that slavery does still exist on the planet. I recently read a statistic that there is still an African slave trade that numbers 30,000+ annually. There are slaves in Asia, there are slaves in the U.S., and there are sex slaves in Dubai as well as worldwide. Women, in particular, understand that slavery is far from extinct.

So we have to be sensitive in the delivery but we must inform if we are to be true educators, especially if we keep a mission of social justice. I do not think we can withhold the truth and still be honest. But we can be honest in sharing the truth in ways that builds understanding and empathy; in this, we chip away at the divisive nature of racism and isolation.

The second question is a harder one to address. I have had a similar conversation with the poet Martha Collins regarding her book, Blue Front, which addresses lynchings in America is a stunning and stark manner. Her quandary (and even the objections of others at times) was did she have the agency as a White woman to address this topic, one that is so rooted in the African American experiences of racism and terrorism that results?
The person asking the question of me said that she did not feel she would have the right to tell the story, particularly not to turn it into a first person narrative, because she is White. I started the story out in second person plural, with a creative visualization prompt of “imagine we are all African, in our village on a warm sunny morning…” At some point, well into the journey, already on the plantation, for some unknown reason in the moment, I switched the pronoun to “I” when it came time to plan the okra seeds that had been clung to throughout the horrid transfer from one continent to another, during which each of us had lost our status and identities as human.
I don’t know if I have done this before but I did last Saturday. It was about one person taking action to plant those small seeds that would provide the taste and sustenance of home, and remind us of and root us in a time when we were fully human, rather than diminished to chattel. A food that keeps the truth within our hearts.

But my points are these:

1) we have to remember that this history of slavery is not just for Black America, it is the history we all carry one way or another as a nation so we must be familiar with it, own it, take responsibility to change the course, especially now;

2) the only way to resolve the issues of racism is to create an understanding, an empathy in all people so that the actions that result from racism are no longer tolerable.

We must be able to internalize the horror to combat it. And it takes each of us to do so. If my taking the character to heart and sharing it means that the 6th grade blonde girl in Watkins Glen, NY, cries from the realization of the truth, then so be it. I have the agency to do so. And so it did happen one morning last January. That child may find it very difficult to tolerate racism much less commit acts that harken it in the future because she was able to picture herself within the shackles herself. I would do the same in sharing the horror of the Holocaust of Nazi Germany, had Anne Frank not done so already.

There may be some who do not agree, and I would not take a story that another has developed to use as my own, particularly of a cultural heritage outside of my own. You will not ever catch me attempting to do “Signifying Monkey,” though I relish every moment I hear a storyteller or griot launch into it. But the story of okra is also a part of me, that descendent of North Carolinian farmers who did not own slaves but who discovered the delicate taste of a vegetable rooted in the Motherland of all humanity. So I will tell it and I will remember what courage is, a courage that I have not had to draw upon but I admire greatly. 
And I will continue to ask children to picture themselves in a West African village on a sunny day, feet warmed by the hot dust beneath them, that moment when everything was intact and serene, before the kidnappers…before we were forced to overstand brutality.
Thanks again for following my blog. I appreciate your consideration of my words and thoughts.

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