The first was in the car a few weeks ago. Unprompted. Oh, I'm sure it had been brewing for a while. Occasionally, I will gently remind my children and my husband that I am not a slave.
H: Mom, what's a slave?
N: Uuhhh... A slave is a person who is owned by another person. Slaves have to work very hard and they do not get paid. They don't get to take a vacation. They have to work even when they are sick. The people who own the slaves treat the slaves like they are animals instead of treating them like they are people.
H: I don't think being a slave would be very fun.
N: That's right. It's very sad.
That whole time, I was wondering if I should bring up the fact that many Americans used to have slaves. And, in particular, that the slaves were black people. Hannah changed the subject, so I didn't have to decide right then.
Already, we live in one of the only parts of California where Hannah could play on a soccer team made up of a bunch of blond-haired white kids. We see very few African Americans around town. There is one black child in Hannah's class and one in Jonah's. That seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
It's hard to know just how much information to give a 4-year-old. For one thing, she doesn't have a very firm grasp on the concept of history. To her, anything that happened before she turned 2 is a very long time ago. I can just imagine her on the playground at school telling Jacob that he has to be the slave because he is black. At the same time, I feel like I want to be in control of these conversations about the history of our country, about slavery, about the way Indians were treated, the way women were treated. I at least want to be in on these conversations. I want her to hear the whole story, to make sure she understands and to make sure she knows how to question the way people tell these stories.
The second conversation happened last night. We were taking a walk with Jayme and Mickey after dinner. We stood in the doorway at the karate school for a few minutes and watched a young man and a young woman who were practicing some moves together. Hannah had fallen and scraped her leg and asked if I would take her back to the house to clean her up.
H: What were those people doing?
N: That was karate.
H: Oh, I thought they were China people learning how to fight the Huns. They don't let girls be in the army. (She's watched Disney's Mulan a few times.)
N: I don't know about China, but gilrs can be in the army here. But they aren't allowed to fight.
H: What do the girls do then?
N: Well, they can do all kinds of jobs. They can--
H, looking at me very seriously and with a tinge of anxiety in her voice: Mom! The girls don't have to be the slaves, right?
I stopped. Looked at her. We both laughed. Because we both knew that it was, in a way, a joke. I also was laughing out of sheer delight that my daughter is growing up so strong and smart and stubborn. And that no one will ever get to tell her a story without having to answer some questions.