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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 things that 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
Meghan April 14, 2010, 8:05 AM

@Elena - Can I live with you guys, please? Thank you for the kind words.

lisa April 14, 2010, 8:47 AM

I would like to know if all the people that are opposed to Black History Month, are they also opposed to Women History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Autism Awareness Month etc? They were created with the similar premise. The comments that are in opposition to the author’s view are just plain racist. It still surprises me that when African American are sensitive about any issue around slavery, we are told that we’re “being too sensitive”, “to let go”. However, when Jews or Japanese-Americans are upset about issues around their Halocaust they are treated with more compassion. Why is that?

April April 14, 2010, 8:58 AM

Oh gosh! Don’t ever let any kids play cops and robbers or cowboys and indians either!

Elena  April 14, 2010, 9:27 AM

Meghan: Come on over :)

Laila April 14, 2010, 9:40 AM

Meghan - I don’t think you’re understanding the statement. Slavery in and of itself is indeed horrid. However, during the Civil War is was secondary - the war was not started to free the slaves - it was started due to disagreement regarding States’ sovereignity. Therefore, learning the confederate perspective is not at all wrong. I mean honestly as a black woman I don’t even see why it would be threatening/wrong/etc. I wish our schools were more open about true history. As another poster stated I did not learn until Junior High even that Africans were not the first slaves in this country or that slavery is still practiced.

michelle April 14, 2010, 10:36 AM

Um, @Laila, what do you think caused the “disagreement regarding States’ sovereignty”? Slavery!! Specifically, the slave economy and the competitive advantage it gave the South. I know you want to wish this away, but history is history. But all this is not important. Debating the reasons behind the Civil War is just a way to deny the Seals Allers family’s very real and painful experience of the very real racial baggage we have in America. People who insist the war was about states’ rights are really trying to de-legitimize the black perspective. As if the next 100 years of Jim Crow never happened, and black people are complainers who don’t know what they’re talking about? PLEASE.

Laila April 14, 2010, 12:23 PM

Um@ Michelle- I am a proud black woman and I certainly know what I am talking about. I minored in American History and can guarantee I am well informed. Are you unaware that many Southern BLACK families owned slaves as did Northerners? Are you unaware that slavery was perpetrated by Africans themselves? The war was ultimately NOT about slavery specifically. I am embarassed when people of my race cry “racism” over each and every incident they disagree with - it saddens me.

Leah April 14, 2010, 12:24 PM

Clearly this article was written to be controversial and has clearly done its job. I have no problem with learning about ALL aspects of history.

tmonise22 April 16, 2010, 8:29 AM

@ Problems…What do you mean you people. That just goes to show that racism still exists.

Taylor April 16, 2010, 8:57 AM

The fact is it is history. No matter how you look at it, history is valuable. Confederates were not right in their values, but they were part of history! They did not ask her to support anything they did or conform to it! She is ACTING as a Confederate soldier in a CHILD’S play. I’m sure it can’t get too brutal. Please keep an open mind and stop making such a big deal out of this. I do not support Confederates at ALL but I would not be throwing a hissy fit because I had to act as one.

Lindsey April 19, 2010, 11:55 AM

Thanks for the article. It makes you think how many other Moms have faced other situations, and chosen not to speak up in order to protect their children from being embarrassed. Such a hard decision to have to make.

Sam April 19, 2010, 10:36 PM

While it think it should certainly be taken into account the racial tensions surrounding the civil war, I think the author here was taking it a bit too far. It is greatly contested how much the civil war was fought over slavery vs state rights in general. In addition, I think a reenactment of the Civil War is extremely beneficial to children of all races. It doesn’t mean you’re a Confederate neo-Nazi racist if you reenact events from the Civil War. It means you’re interested in history and understanding all sides of it. To remove your daughter from school over this is to remove her from an educational event that would give her greater insight to the history of African-American slavery and the intense debates, conflicts, and outright violence that surrounded it. I really think the author not only became too easily offended, but deprived her daughter of something truly educational.

Anonymous April 21, 2010, 10:40 AM

Uh hello, we study white history all year round, especially in most public schools, because that is the dominate culture. And the minorities, women included, are supposed to be grateful because the majority throws us a bone by giving us Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, and Asian Heritage Month? Puh-lease! The headmaster was insensitive and unwilling to see Seals Aller’s perspective. I bet it would have been quite different if someone had suggested perhaps the white children come as slaves. It’s important that we teach the history of all races and cultures. A well rounded individual who is going to be successful in this global community must be able to see many perspectives AND we can’t rely on the schools public or private to do that!

Shnike April 23, 2010, 12:49 AM

For what little it matters, I’m white. What matters more is that I agree whole-heartedly with the author. I am appalled that there are so many ignorant comments on this message board that seem to deny that racism isn’t just as salient and subversive as it was 50 years ago. I know I can never understand racism like black Americans or other racial minority groups, but I have heard enough talk from my white peers to convince me that there IS RACISM AND IT IS PERVASIVE. Just because the President is black (or half black) does NOT mean this country is not racist. Just look at some statistics, for heavens sake!

Also, I object to so-called color-blindness. Black Americans are still oppressed, and ignoring our skin color isn’t going to make that go away. Putting a little girl in a Confederate uniform is ignorant and insensitive.

This ignorance is just absolutely disgusting! Also, the Civil War was fought over slavery. Pick up a damn history book.

MyBrownBaby April 27, 2010, 1:22 PM

Woo… I made it through all the comments and now I feel like I need to take a loooong shower. But I’m grateful for them; they remind me that there is much work to be done and that the world is full of fools. Thank you Kim for sharing your story; it was enlightening and certainly a fantastic study on what it means to be a smart, outspoken African American mom navigating parenthood. I appreciate your perspective.

lainey May 3, 2010, 12:55 PM

Because your if your daughter is as ignorant as you obviously are to even had asked that question Andrea, then she needs to go.

L.S. May 19, 2010, 8:11 PM

Hello, I am going through the same thing right now with my 5th grader in Arkansas. Probably 5% of the school (5th and 6th graders) is non-white. Most of the non-white kids are probably here because they are part of a military family. My child’s school is having Civil War Day. My child has been called a slave a couple times already. They are being taught the “Disneyland” version of this history. Arkansas is VERY racist especially in Cabot, where we live. My daughter was crying tonight because all of a sudden she is not like her friends anymore. She does not understand why her friends would want to dress up like Confederate characters. It is really hurting her feelings. This are kids we are talking about here! I can’t tell my daughter “Get over it, there’s always Black History Month”; they barely even mentioned that at her school. I just don’t understand what there is to celebrate here! Especially in the South and especially based off what the students are being taught about this war. Confederates lost; what is there to be proud of? All this does is give ignorant kids with ignorant parents the chance to be really ignorant! But regardless of how I feel, what do I tell my daughter? She is not going to school that day and my husband and I are planning on meeting with her principal…She has had an awesome school year up to this point and now she is asking when the military will move us so we can leave Arkansas…

anonymous June 23, 2010, 8:44 AM

The Civil War was about state’s rights. The Emancipation Proclamation was only issued as an act of war, and only freed Confederate slaves.

Just get your facts right.

Anonymous July 1, 2010, 7:15 AM

Hilarious comment about Shnike above about black people being “oppressed” - I literally LOL’ed. If you are so “oppressed” why can’t white people can get scholarships, jobs, and grants for housing simply based on the color of their skin like African-Americans? Right - becasue racsim/oppression against African Americans really doesn’t exist in this country

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