My Family’s Visit to The African American History Museum Should Be Your Reason To Go

By Jillian Lankford

Welcome to Black History Month. I’ve been contemplating the best way to share my most recent adventure with my littles as we have begun to immerse ourselves in black history. Not just for the month but more regularly throughout their little lives.

My sons are three and four years old. It may seem like a young age to teach about oppression and racism but it is a part of our DNA. They may not look it, but my boys are part black. They have a biracial momma and a white dad. I was raised on America’s One-Drop rule, in that if one-drop of “black blood” is in your genetic make-up, you must categorize yourself as black. Not a big deal, unless you don’t fit in, read: Resolving My Childhood Identity Issues 25 Years Later: Welcome Halfie. I have been criticized for educating my children on where their skin color comes from.

“They are little white boys, they can’t go around telling people they’re black.”

That statement alone negates who I am as their mother. A biracial woman. Both black and white. Long story short, they will know about all of their ancestors. And regardless if America considers them black, or sees their family is black, or they have black friends or enemies; understanding African American history is a part of American history and their very own.

The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit has been on my list of places to visit with my sons. My memories of visiting the museum in my adolescence, on school field trips, left meaningful impressions. We were joined by my brother and his ten year old son that day. We first glamoured at the King Tutankhamun exhibit of Egypt’s 18th century dynasty in awe of the shiny gold artifacts and video lecture on mummification. And enjoyed a series on the Red Tails that introduced us to America’s first black military pilots and the history of black men in the armed forces.

The main exhibit called “And Still We Rise” provides an immersive walk through African American history. Maps, photographs, and mannequins of black men and women tell a story of the origin of African Americanism through a detailed chronological journey from it’s birth place of Africa. On my recent family trip, the most profound part of the exhibit was walking through the slave ship.

Like toddlers do, my boys breeze pass the literature and one dimensional presentations and are immediately drawn to 3D interpretations of history. The first to catch the eye of my oldest (for more than his normal 45 second window of interest) was the branding of slaves. He sees a black mannequin in chains, on his knees, being held in place by a white crewman with a threatening face and a steel poker in his hand. An audio speaker echoes the sound of the slave screaming “it burns”.

“What burns momma?”, my son asks. I explain how these black slaves were either stolen or sold from their home and placed on this ship to be brought to America. In order to keep track of the many men and women taken from their land, slave owners and crewmen had to burn them with a hot iron to identify them as property, or even punish them if they misbehaved on the trip.

“Did it hurt?”, he asks.

“Yes”, I said.

“That’s not nice.”

We continue through the exhibit and walk down stairs into the dark lower deck, or basement, of the ship. It’s scary, even for me. In order to get to the next part of the exhibit you have to walk through this dark and scary place. My toddlers ran. They ran past the double deck of shelves lined with black mannequins spooned together laying on their sides. No blankets, no pillows, just bodies of sad, malnourished prisoners chained in place. I walked through the exhibit and met my boys waiting under a bright light at the very end.

“I don’t want to be here”, my three year old said.

“I don’t like this”, my four year old said.

“How do you think the slaves felt?”, I ask.

My nephew responds, “like a sack of potatoes”.

Exactly. Some of my family’s ancestors were treated like nothing more than a sack of potatoes. And while this tour of a slave ship might have been a factor of a few sleep interruptions that night, the lesson was worth it. My goal was not to scare my children or spook history into them but to be impactful and provide an impactful experience so they begin to manifest a real understanding of the history in the world around them. And, most importantly, help them to start getting comfortable with the uncomfortable parts of this world and it’s history.

It is far too often I hear parents teach the simple, thoughtless message that the color of a person’s skin doesn’t matter. This may be your opinion too. Read: “I Don’t See Color”. That’s Nice, Do You See Me? It is a wonderful desire to believe that the pigment of our skin has no adversity. But it just isn’t true, it’s not real, for many of us. And that statement doesn’t go deep enough into the reality. By declaring we all are the same regardless of our skin tone erases the history of hate and discrimination blacks, American Indians, immigrants, and refugees have had to live with. We weren’t born to dislike someone because of their race, it has simply been bread into our environment. If we don’t teach our children the truth – what is real – what impact will they have on the future?

If black history isn’t in your DNA consider educating yourself first on African American History in the United States to better understand my perspective. Below are some suggested links and articles. Let my family’s visit to the African American Museum inspire you to take a journey to a better understanding of why black history matters.

Comments and critiques are always welcome!

Celebrate Black History Month with Brand New Books For Every Age

DEI in Your Child’s School

What I Hear When People Say “I Don’t See Color”

Reasons Black History Is Still Important

Racism Is Real – Systematic Racism

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