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My 5-Year-Old Black Daughter as a Confederate?

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What was my daughter's school thinking?

young black girl as confederate soldier

Kimberly Seals Allers: The governor of Virginia recently decided it was a good idea to issue a proclamation marking April as Confederate History Month. What was he thinking?! That decision has turned into a hornet's nest of CNN proportions, and he was forced to feign contriteness and reissue his statement. You expect that kind of stupidity in politics. But you can imagine my shock when I found myself in the middle of a Confederate clamor at my daughter's school, of all places.

A few years ago, my daughter attended kindergarten and first grade at an exclusive (expensive), mostly white (expensive) private school (expensive). The headmaster, who was retiring, was an avid Civil War buff, and there were several events planned throughout the school year to honor his tenure and service to the school.

I attended most, and did my working-mom-with-a-one-hour-commute best to be supportive. Toward the end of the school year, the faculty and PTA announced that the annual Field Day event would have a Civil War theme, with the students -- even the kindergartners -- playing on either Confederate or Union teams. Seriously?

This is where things went too far.

I'm all about celebrating history. And I can even stomach the parts that I don't like. But I really couldn't see my 5-year-old brown daughter playing on the Confederate team. And I thought it was extremely insensitive and disrespectful to the fewer than 10 African-American children in the whole K-8 school to have them play games under the banner of a group that wanted their ancestors to remain enslaved.

Some people may take lightly what the Confederacy stood for, but I don't think educators should be on that list. I arranged a meeting the headmaster.

I calmly expressed my concern over the Field Day theme and stated that, as the school strives to give students "teachable moments," I was concerned about the lesson they would get from playing games as Confederates. I also reminded him that the Civil War was a war to maintain slavery -- a system that denied African-Americans their human rights. Is this really the right backdrop for relay races and kickball?

He said the war was about state rights. "Yes," I said, "a state's right to keep slaves."

He said I was being overly sensitive and looking too deeply into it.

"Really? Seems like somebody didn't think deeply enough," I said, as I tried my best to remember my NYU and Columbia vocabulary -- even though I felt my Brooklyn, N.Y., roots bubbling to the surface.

At the end of the extremely frustrating conversation, it was clear I was getting nowhere. I respectfully let him know that my daughter would not be attending school that day to participate in the disgraceful Field Day. He just smiled and said that was fine.

I walked out of that office feeling voiceless and invisible, and left it alone.

Ever since then, I've regretted not going one step further. I'm a journalist, for crying out loud -- a journalist who could have summoned three newspapers and a television station before I left the school parking lot. But I didn't.

After working so hard to try to "fit in" with the school culture, the other moms, the PTA and the board, I chose not to fight that battle, especially because of my daughter. She was already feeling uncomfortable with getting so many questions about her hair being braided in cornrows. It's another one of those Black mom thingsthat not everyone will understand. It's one of the kind of trade-offs that often frustrates me.

Although my child was getting an excellent education, it was clear on that day that the headmaster didn't care about all of the students (that was my daughter's last year there). And that's the problem with Gov. Bob McDonnell. While throwing a political bone to the Sons of Confederate Vets, he forgot that he represents all Virginians -- even the African-American ones.

I'm just glad to see that he wasn't able to get away with that kind of disrespect.

63 comments so far | Post a comment now
Angela April 12, 2010, 11:01 AM

I think that maybe there is a double standard on behalf of the author. How is it not ok for her daughter to participate in something confederately themed but yet my daughter is required to attend school during a WHOLE month when they teach black history?

melanie April 12, 2010, 11:50 AM

I’m sorry I don’t see a problem with your child having to participate. If there is a WHOLE month dedicated to Black History I think it’s only right that there are months dedicated to other races. I have been waiting a VERY long time for this day. Also I think you need to look at Confederate History Month for what it really is about. This is about teaching people about history not race.

michelle April 12, 2010, 11:51 AM

Well, Angela, if Black History Month were about defending black people’s right to keep white slaves, then we would have a real double standard. But it’s not, so pls spare me your “reverse racism” BS. The Civil War was about slavery, no matter what certain white people want us to believe. OK, so now that we’ve cleared that up (again), here is a better comparison. How would we all feel if Jewish kids were required to participate on the Nazi side in a WWII-themed reenactment? That would be TOTALLY unacceptable, right? So how is what Ms Seals-Allers’s daughter went through any different from that?

michelle April 12, 2010, 12:04 PM

Melanie, if Confederate History Month is not about race, then why did you present it as a month dedicated to “another race” and a counterpoint to Black History Month? Your racist underwear is showing.

Dara April 12, 2010, 12:35 PM

How can you compare confederate history month to black history month?? Confederates were pro-slavery and nothing to be proud of. I also don’t like when it’s refered to as “southern pride” when it is nothing more but pure racism.

Tiffany April 12, 2010, 12:40 PM

I can see how this can cause some controversy. Apparently the teacher forgot what the Civil War was about! The Confederates (southerners) wanted to keep the blacks as property…slaves. They didn’t believe the blacks had any rights to a better life. I am a History College Major and I know what suffering these people endured!!! I agree with this mom!! If the roles were reversed and the whites had endured suffering, slavery, and torture by the hands of the blacks….we would be just as offended for our children to participate!! Some people just aren’t educated! If anything…the african-american children should’ve been on the UNION SIDE! Oh and btw, I’m white!

Danielle April 12, 2010, 12:43 PM

While I understand her feelings, we all need to understand that learning history means learning the good and bad. As much as I hate hearing about the bad, we should all learn it. This way, going forward, we can try to avoid repeating it. 

Mo April 12, 2010, 12:54 PM

The Confederates wanted to secede from the Union. The reason behind this, the Union wanted to abolish slavery and the Confederacy did not. Why, would a person even remotely think that this is a good idea? How is this in comparison to learning about African American history? As another person stated, would you have Jewish children re-enact the Holocaust?

Hannah April 12, 2010, 2:58 PM

Ok first of all you were sending your child to this school. If you didn’t like their curriculum why not send your kid to public school? Or better yet home school then you’d know the curriculum and wouldn’t have to worry about this. Also Their PRETENDING. They do this all the time in school for A LOT of history. What if they were re-enacting the escape of slaves like the gentleman that escape in a box? I don’t think you’d be complaining then. It’s the same thing. History is history even if we don’t like what happened. I don’t like what happened in world war 2 but it wouldn’t make me angry if they had some children portray nazis. It helps them to understand what was going on back then. They’re not asking them to become confederates for real. It’s just acting. Some kids learn better by seeing and hearing things happening rather than just reading. Think of movies like the boy in the striped pajamas. Or the sound of music. Or anne frank. Or roots. Is it evil to have asked those people to act that out? Some people played nazis. Now do you think in real life the people who portrayed nazis were REALLY nazis? Or that the confederates in roots were all REALLY confederates?
And last. I myself have a problem with “black history month” how come it’s okay for blacks to have a whole month devoted to just blacks but if someone wanted to have “white history month” people would be up in arms? The racist card is getting so over used these days.

Hannah April 12, 2010, 3:08 PM

Also I would think you would be more offended if they asked her to be a slave or would only let the black kids be on the union side. Wouldn’t you have been more offended if they’d have said well shes not ALLOWED to play a confederate. That would offend me more. I’d be like why not? So only the white kids are allowed to play on a certain team wheres the fairness in that. If they’d have said ONLY white kids could play in this role or that role wouldn’t that have offended you? Or this is a role “suited” to your child (because she’s black). Were they asking her to say anything derogatory about her race? It’s sad the world we live in when children can’t even act out history without parents being ticked off.

Gail Cooke April 12, 2010, 3:36 PM

And if her daughter wasn’t allowed to play a Confederate, she’d be Howling Holy Hades about it. I understand the dichotomy here, but what, are they supposed to tell the kid no?

Taunya April 12, 2010, 3:44 PM

It seems that you all may need a history lesson…first of all, there were more slaveholders in the union army than the confederate army. Of the 6% of southerners that owned slaves, many were free blacks themselves. On top of this, Lincoln offered for the south to keep their slaves if they joined the union, but the south refused. Lastly, the south freed their slaves five years before the north did. Consider yourself enlightened and please try not to rewrite history.

David April 12, 2010, 6:21 PM

I had heard over the years that some considerable number of African Americans served in the Confederate army. At I queried Several sites yield some basic answers, which were: somewhere around 60,000 to 90,000 African Americans, slave and free, served in some capacity in the Confederate military; some where forced or commanded to take up arms, others (esp. the freemen) did so voluntarily, often with the idea that if they fought for the Confederate cause, it would be to their advantage and liberation after the war was over. That kind of thinking was what fueled many African Americans in the Union army (and, as far as that goes, in the U.S. Armies of WWI and WWII). So on one hand, I would imagine it could “work” to have your daughter role-playing one of those black soldiers.

On the other hand, I think it is doggone shallow for a bunch of white folks to be busting the onions of a black parent for, at the very least, feeling some internal conflict over the plan to have her daughter portray a Confederate. Y’all are making this sound like it is some simple equation: Black History Month + Confederate History Month = All is now well in the U.S. of A. It’s not that simple, though, because you’re presuming that a dose of linear or rational thought is sufficient to overcome emotional responses … and by doing so, you are implicitly calling this author’s emotional responses into question. To what end would you wish to do the latter?

The dumbjohn headmaster is talking as though the jury were still not really out on what exactly the War Between the States was all about. It gets revised and reinterpreted every generation or so. What if we are in some transitional period in which standard interpretations of the past two decades are on their way out. The headmaster was not taking the author’s concerns seriously, which is short-sighted. The headmonster’s best bet would have been to invite the author to speak to this topic, perhaps in a panel or some other forum, in which both views could be aired.

All of this just goes to show how thin the ice is on which we stand when we talk about race in this country. The trauma of formal accommodation of crude, blunt hate may be gone with the set of laws passed and liberations enacted since the late 1950s; and yes, the Pres. of the U.S. can claim African ancestry, and can attribute to himself identities rooted in the USA’s African American “black” culture as well as its “white” European culture. And yes, we’ve “come a long way” since I was a young man (I was born in 1952).

But we still have miles to go before we can sleep the sleep of a virtuous nation.

Christina April 12, 2010, 6:30 PM

I think it actually may be a step in the right direction that color was not considered when assigning children to the opposing sides of the Civil War. As someone who lost family members in the Holocaust, I think I can say truthfully that if it were part of a history class, I don’t particularly have issues with my children being assigned to the Axis side v. the Allied side.

Now, all that being said, I believe the school made a poor choice in that 1) these assignments were made in connection with a Field Day rather than as part of a scholarly activity; and 2) its participants were too young to understand either the significance or the history of the Civil War.

I went to school in Texas for part of elementary school and all of middle school (junior high). The subject of the Civil War was explored in great depth - but not until 8th grade (this was before the current batch of psychos hijacked the school board). Our history class was divided into North and South, and it was a fascinating way of bringing history to life. I was assigned to be a Confederate, and while it had no impact on my views about slavery and racism (very bad things), it did force me to look at an issue from another’s perspective - something I’ve found very valuable in life.

makeda martin April 12, 2010, 7:14 PM

As an African Canadian with American roots I would indeed take offense to my child having to celebrate a confederate, responsible for the enslavement and death of my ancestors.
If there was more “Black History” in the main stream curriculum there would be no need to set aside a month were Black History is celebrated.
For too long our culture has been ignored,erased,embellished and out and out denied it’s place in the history books.
How does learning about the history of blacks in America threaten the status quo?
Everyday of my life as a child I was bombarded with imagery that excluded my race or painted us in a subservient fashion.
Wake up America we as a people are a very important integral part of the fabric of America.
It is a shame that at home we still struggle for this respect.

tennmom April 12, 2010, 7:50 PM

My fore-family had not long arrived from Ireland and Scotland when the so-called Civil War started. Few had a nail to hang their hats on, some didn’t have a hat to hang on a nail. NONE ever owned a human being, so I resent the general thought that all Southerners agreed with slavery. Some of my relatives were called deserters, spent the rest of their lives in hiding because they had left countries because of the fighting and were not willing to fight another fight.
Not all, not many, actually, of the Confederate soldiers fought because they wanted to keep slavery intact. Most fought because they were told to, forced to. Black men fought for the Confederate army, too, let’s remember that.

Problems April 12, 2010, 8:47 PM

I think confederate history month is a fantastic idea. I do not agree with black history month and we have to hear about that all the time. There is no racism anymore…. you people got what you wanted.

samham April 12, 2010, 9:45 PM

The Civil War wasn’t just about slavery….How about you read up on the Civil War before writing half truths. The cause of the Civil War was sectionalism!

Terri April 13, 2010, 2:44 AM

Black History Month was started because there was almost NONE in American texts and school curriculum. How much has that changed over the years? I’d be willing to bet…not much, except during Black History month! What does it say about you if you’re “against it?” And good gravy marie, that’s not ALL that’s taught all-day-every-day for that month!

BAMA April 13, 2010, 4:08 AM

For Black History Month, my daughter had to write a report on a famous “African America” and also dress as the character for her presentation. When the black parents heard about this, they called the school in protest. Apparently they were assuming white children were going to come to school in “black face.” GET OVER IT ALREADY!

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