How do we explain the past to children?

As I young child, my elementary school would host book fairs. During this time, they would transform the library into a “bookstore” and set aside time for each class to go down to the store and peruse the shelves. With the booklet (catalog) in hand, i’d pick up countless titles and add it to my “wish list.” I’d bring this booklet (with the wish list) to my mom so that she could peruse all of the titles that were available at the fair and the titles that I wanted. My mom would then send an envelop with money and final choices  with me to class and I would turn it in.  I would then wait patiently for my books to arrive. When the books arrived and I opened my box–I was surprised to find a book titled “The Story of Ruby Bridges.” This was a picturebook about an African American girl who was the only one (the first) to attend an all-white school after desegregation (Brown vs. The Board( The story of Ruby Bridges was part of a larger history of the civil rights that at the time was foreign to me–however, it would open up many conversations between my grandmother, mother and I. Thinking back to this introduction, I can’t help but to wonder: How do you best articulate painful histories, oppression, acts of violence, hatred and racism to children? When is the best time and what is the most useful way to explain these issues to children? (Another question is what is the most effective medium to introduce this history).
These questions loom of the earlier section of Azie Mira Dungey’s interview about “Ask a Slave” series. In the interview Dungey’s recalls one of her toughest experiences working for A children’s theater in the Ripley Center for Black History Month. There she would talk to the children about the Civil rights movement. One afternoon she was participating in a mock sit-in training. It was there that one young Black  girl would open Dungey’s eyes to the difficulty of explaining racism to children. She states, ‘I remember the time a little black girl asked me blank-faced, ‘Why do they hate us so much? (41)’” Dungey was at a loss for words. The urgency of this question, not the answer she gave, still haunts Dungey. As she looked down at the little six year old girl who looked so much like her little sister she’d carefully crafted her response stating that wanted to be sure that the response “was more about addressing her self esteem, so she would know that racism wasn’t about anything that she had done wrong (41).”  This leads me to ask: how do we know how much of the past to share with children- what truths should we omit? 

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