What Harriet Tubman Taught My White Five-Year-Old

What Harriet Tubman Taught My White Five-Year-Old June 14, 2016


Image: Wikimedia Commons

My five-year-old tends to have a Song Of The Week—the random tune she warbles to herself all day, every day, until a new song comes along. Last winter, one song stuck around far longer. It was being taught at school and had several verses so as she learned more, so did everyone who came within five feet of her:

Come on up, I got a lifeline. Come on up to this train of mine. They said her name was Harriet Tubman. And she drove… for the Underground Railroad

My kids go to a school that introduces the history of slavery in an age-appropriate curriculum on social justice. And even in our current moment—in the era of Black Lives Matter—parents of all colors and cultures run the gamut from thrilled to highly concerned as they confront their four-year-olds learning about the history of enslavement of Black people in this country. Reasons are deeply personal, from “We want this to come from us, not the school” to “They’ll feel guilty/angry/confused/sad.” But for the most part, the concern is:

“They are WAY too young to understand.”

I empathize. It’s big stuff. The biggest. And big stuff should come from home, right? Especially historical big stuff—which, according to Understanding Slavery, a site devoted to supporting educators and parents who want to teach about the transatlantic slave trade, is beyond the grasp of a four-to-five year old:

Children aged ten and under are often not able to contextualize and make sense of the transatlantic slave trade. This may be because they lack the broader historical knowledge of the economic and social conditions that drove Britain from the 16th century onwards—essential to understand how such an abhorrent system of trade could flourish and be widely accepted.”

Yet this site assumes that the triangle trade must be taught with the breadth and depth of a 4th grade social studies unit. My daughter’s Pre-K teachers know the four-year-old brain, heart, and social-emotional world exceedingly well, and see things quite differently.

They believe that children must learn about the realities of their world in order to become active citizens in it, and that there are many developmentally appropriate ways to do this with young children.

So why begin with slavery?  When in doubt, ask a five year old.

Mama: Why do you think (your teachers) told you the story of Harriet Tubman?

My daughter: Because she carried so many people!

Mama: …carried?

My daughter: She carried people to freedom! She came when everybody was sleeping and said really quiet, “Come on, lets GO! I’ll help you so don’t be scared!”

And then I get it. In the hands of smart teachers, Harriet’s story isn’t a story of the triangle trade and its aftermath. It is the story of heroism and bravery and going back until you get everyone out, of all the things four- and five-year-olds must know they can do to navigate their big world:

Help people who are sad or hurt. Share what you have. Don’t let fear stop you. Keep going when you feel like giving up.

Harriet captures the four- and five-year-old imagination in ways that sound a lot like their adoration of dinosaurs, princesses and superheroes—she was powerful and unstoppable—but also, she was Black. She was a woman. And she was REAL.

As the year went on, Harriet remained a touch-point for our discussions of the news my daughter would overhear: Police who had killed Eric Garner and Michael Brown received non-indictment verdicts. Black Lives Matter grew. Syrians fled their country and were stranded, and saved. And as I continue to listen and think and answer her questions, my daughter’s response is so often reflected through the language she learned from Harriet’s story:

“The protesters spoke up so people will know this is not fair.”

“It is OK to tell me about scary things because they got hurt, and when you are hurt you have to not keep it a secret because then nobody can help you.”

“We have to not let anymore hurting go on—we have to do something about it.”

When you’re bigger, it goes by many names: Activism. Freedom Fighter. Justice. It has so many faces and stories. It is nuanced, and the older you get the more you see the gray areas; the struggles when there was no possible action without complex consequences.

But when you’re four, it’s simply being a real-life superhero. Like Harriet.

This post was originally published by Raising Race Conscious Children.

Alexandra Lopez Reitzes is an educator, artist, food doula, herbalist and consultant. She develops content and curricula where art, farming, food, medicine, and social justice intersect. She is the founder of Mamis Unite, an 4,800-member online solidarity community, and a proud mama.

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  • Brandon Roberts

    i’m not against teaching kids slavery (i’m an advocate for teaching all relevant history regardless of race gender etc. of who was involved) but i also think it’s important to teach kids slavery was not their fault and africans sold other africans into slavery. mainly cause “white guilt” has had catastrophic consequences. and before any of you accuse me of racism i don’t hate black people i just don’t want kids to end up being psychologically messed up or end up thinking the world owes them because of skin color

  • Jon-Michael Ivey

    It needs to be taught that she was violating laws whose justification under the US Constitution was at least as strong (if not stronger) than any of our modern immigration regulations. It needs to be taught that the legality and constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Acts does not make them just, as that it is better to flout unjust laws that to submit to them. It does not make sense to oppose the 19th century internal migration laws while supporting modern protectionist legislation that forbids the poor from coming to America to try to make a decent life for their families or which imposes the burden of enforcing these laws on American employers. The State has no more of a right to forbid its citizens from hiring illegal immigrants than it did to demand they turn over runaway slaves to be shipped back south.

    It should also be noted that the conductors of the Underground Railroad did some terrible things. Tubman always carried a revolver and used it primarily to threaten any of her passengers who began to have doubts and wanted to turn back. She drugged children and smothered a few infants to keep them quiet when their crying could have alerted the slave patrols of their presence. The blame for such crimes however remains primarily with the legislators who made them necessary by forbidding legal travel. Similarly, the abuses of the Coyotes and other people smugglers today are primarily the fault of modern governments.