When I used to ask my five-year-old son Christopher who the President of the United States was, he’d squint his eyes, give a mischievous smile and say, “Barack Obama.” In retrospect, it’s occurred to me that not only is Obama the only President he’s ever known, but by constantly seeing him and First Lady Michelle Obama on TV, he thinks having a black president is normal. This made me think about myself as a child, and how TV informed my sense of reality.
At age 8, I remember seeing a man named Nelson Mandela being freed from prison. I didn’t know who he was, but the staggering coverage — continued to this day by projects like BET’s new Madiba miniseries — led me to believe that he was a big deal. The important black men I knew about in my childhood were four Michaels: Tyson, Jordan, Jackson, and King, Jr. (Born Michael Luther and renamed Martin) — all of whom I saw on TV in one form or another.
It’s fascinating — and startling — how much the black community must rely on the entertainment industry to learn about black history. If the success story of Hidden Figures is any indication, the classroom is not a primary source for discovering black heritage. As parents, it’s understandable to be irate at the education system for this. When black history isn’t completely omitted, it’s often downplayed. So, it’s up to us to introduce our children to history and current events involving black life — and TV and movies are a great way to reinforce those teachings.
Exposing children to the world is a complex task that all parents must endure. But black parents in particular have a greater plight. I often read Christopher books before bed. When he was an infant, I half-jokingly told his mother I wanted to read him The Autobiography of Malcolm X. She was un-amused and flatly said no. Although I was being (fairly) light-hearted, I understand why: That book is too heavy for someone so young. Still, it made me think: When is it a good time to introduce your children to civil-rights issues?
Choosing the right time to explain the world outside of their protective bubble requires care, thought, and intuition. When you feel the time is right, talk to your child about where they come from, and how their family came to be in America. Try to start telling them early — as early as three years old, even — before they begin to ask questions and catch you off guard.
If they inquire about things they hear or see themselves, inform and reassure them so they’ll be prepared for the next step: ingesting the news. Sometimes as parents it’s hard to believe, but our children hang on every word we say, even if we’re not talking to them. Between elementary and middle school, I’d hear political mutterings of adults filtered through the mouths of my classmates: “George [H.W.] Bush ain’t done nothing in four years”; “O.J. did it; he’s a murderer!”
With history ingested successfully, it’s now time to gradually incorporate the news into our kids’ lives, by reading news stories with them. In this endeavor, we must be patient, cautious, and gradual, slowing almost to a crawl. The intricacies of stories about, for instance, the police shooting unarmed men and women of color will come with time, so stick with the basics.
As a child, outside of the Rodney King beating and the O.J. Bronco chase, any visuals of news events were scarce. Now, with social media, sheltering our children from images of an Eric Garner or Laquan McDonald may be difficult, but it’s important we start to allow children a basic understanding of the world around them in real time. The visual element of real life may prove too brutal. Therefore, we turn to the on-screen dramatization of history.
TV has been a great innovator in “edu-tainment.” But when it comes to black history, TV is the main source of information, not a supplement. TV can be an easy springboard into a greater understanding of black history, but you should make it a family event, so that children will be engaged, and you can offer contextual commentary. As you watch the mentioned BET miniseries Madiba, tell them what apartheid was, and how South Africa’s plight was similar to America’s.
I first found out about slavery after reading a picture book about Abraham Lincoln in fifth grade. It wasn’t until my father sat me down and we watched Roots that it all clicked. By having it visually right in front of me, I was able to comprehend the details of slavery’s physical viciousness, psychological condemnation, and capitalistic sadism that came with it. Then, from watching the King mini-series, I was able to connect this legacy to the Jim Crow Laws from the 1950s and 1960s. Along with that, I learned that MLK, Jr. was much more accomplished — and complex — than the condensed version of him I learned in class.
Television can be a great way of easing civil rights and black history into our children’s lives. Just remember: After the program is over, have them look it up! After you watch Madiba, have them read Mandela’s books. After they watch Roots, point them to Alex Haley’s novel. Let them know this is the difference between knowing history and knowing the whole story.
Today, any time I talk to Christopher about something, I always ask him, “So, what did I mean by that?” And here comes that sly smile of his again. That’s when I know he knows the answer, and that’s when I know we’re doing something right.
Madiba, the definitive story of Nelson Mandela (played by Laurence Fishburne), an epic three-night miniseries directed by Kevin Hooks, airs on BET just in time for Black History Month. #MadibaBET
Parents can visit the Madiba educational program for lesson units and printables on Nelson Mandela, as well as material that compares South Africa’s resistance with the civil rights movement in the United States.
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based music journalist and television producer. His work can be found in Ebony, Jet, The Village Voice, Red Bull Music Academy, and on BRIC TV.