by Janice Celeste
When I learned that one of my dear friends was the descendant of the late great Frederick Douglass, I knew she would have a powerful perspective on the United States Independence Day as a mother of two young girls, a wife and as Douglass’ descendant. As I read Faith Skinner’s words, I can hear Douglass’ tone from his original speech, “What Is The Meaning Of The Fourth of July To The Negro?” reverberating and can feel the connection. This interview is part two of two parts, released over two consecutive days. Here is the link to Part 1, if you haven’t read it yet.
5) Others say we shouldn’t focus on our past but work toward our future, yet at the same time, there is an African proverb that states, “You can’t know your future until you know your past.” Which saying do you believe is best and why?
The Africans got this one right. We really ARE the same people. Our forefathers, slavery and the Civil Rights Movement are not a part of ancient history, by any stretch of the imagination. If there’s one thing that I hope people understand when I say that Frederick Douglass is my grandfather’s great grandfather is that American slavery did not end that long ago. My parents and grandparents lived during a time of legal segregation. We are all still living our history, right now. Perhaps the fact that we have laws passed that put an end to legal discrimination has lulled us into a sense of comfort as it concerns whether discrimination exists. But there is the law, and then there is the way men and women carry out the law. The hearts, minds and understandings of many of us are not so different than our forefathers. And even as it concerns people who consider themselves progressive, sometimes all it takes is one bad experience, one difficult downturn in life, too much exposure to charismatic people with regressive and hateful ideas, to reverse the ideological progress.
6) How do you think we as Black parents can find a balance in raising our children to be patriotic knowing the horrors our ancestors endured throughout the history of our country?
“This country is our home. Like any home, you may love it, but when there’s a leak in the roof you can’t go into denial. You have to fix the leak. If you’ve purchased a fixer-upper, there’s no sense in denying it.”
First of all, I don’t personally think it’s appropriate to expose young children to everything about the evils of slavery. It’s just not appropriate to expose a five-year-old to the horrors of kidnapping, whippings that drew blood, human enslavement, and murder, under the guise that you are teaching them their history. That kind of talk doesn’t instill an understanding of history. That kind of talk is the stuff of nightmares. We introduced our girls to children’s books about Frederick Douglass when they were preschoolers. However, those books focused on things children could relate to, learning to read, being brave, inspiring others, speaking up for what’s right. My 8-year-old understands that her famous forebear was actually owned by another human being, and that he is famous mostly for being a freedom fighter. Now, having said that, I don’t think African American parents can afford to whitewash our country’s history at all. Knowing as much truth as possible about our history, for better and for worse, is key to helping our children grow up to be the kinds of citizens who can enjoy the freedoms this country provides, yet recognize that these freedoms need to be protected. Protection of these freedoms requires first, that we understand the threats are real. We human beings are no different than those who lived in Frederick Douglass’s time, or in 1776, for that matter. There were plenty of people who decried slavery before America declared its independence. And yet this country’s founding fathers wrote of lofty principles and rights they sought for themselves, while at the exact same time denying them to so many others. So, back to the original question, how do we find a balance between raising patriots while also raising children who know the horrors of our history in this country? The answer is in the question, it’s a balancing act. This country is our home.
Like any home, you may love it, but when there’s a leak in the roof you can’t go into denial. You have to fix the leak. If you’ve purchased a fixer-upper, there’s no sense in denying it.
We avoid putting children into situations where we would have to explain things to them that are inappropriate for their age. And let’s face it, the details of slavery are very much an R-rated horror show at the very least. However, there is no way to teach my children about how absolutely heroic Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and so many others without introducing them to some level of truth about the circumstances slaves lived in. And my goal has never been to raise racist children, so the balancing act starts from the beginning. My parents simply told me about Frederick Douglass’ life, little-by-little, until I was able to read his writings for myself. And even when I was able to read the autobiography of Frederick Douglass,” I still had misperceptions and questions I wasn’t about to formulate simply because I didn’t know how to explain what had left me confused. For example, for a long time I didn’t quite understand how being enslaved was truly any different from an adult having to go to work, or a child having to do his or her chores, and obey his or her parents. It’s important for parents to realize that some concepts are hard for children to grasp because to a certain extent the freedom to determine one’s own destiny is not a part of the life experience of a child. A child’s world is full of have-to’s. You have to explain the difference between slavery and the feeling of putting in eight hours of labor each day, to the activity of your choosing, with the full expectation that you will be paid for your contribution and then you can determine what you will do with your own money. Children don’t understand that experience. And what child can understand why one human would want to own another?
“I don’t personally think it’s appropriate to expose young children to everything about the evils of slavery.”
7) Your daughters have participated in some honorable events to celebrate the late great Frederick Douglass. What was their favorite event so far and why?
My girls, ages eight and 11, like to play Minecraft, go to the movies, and do arts and crafts. The events in which Frederick Douglass is being recognized are events where they are required to wear itchy dresses, be on their best behavior and act as if they care as much about the past as they care about the present. They have met Nancy Pelosi and other famous government representatives, and they were no more impressed by them than if they had met an average adult on the street. However, the opportunity to see Frederick Douglass’s own handwriting on documents, up close and personal, did make a strong impression on them. They are very much in the process of learning how to balance how truly special and unique their lives are, with the joys of being regular kids.
8) Can you tell us a story about Douglass that not too many people know or that’s not in the history books?
No one has any special stories! Can you believe that? But I do believe it’s because there were people in my family who made it a point to make sure that anything they knew about Frederick Douglass was very well-documented and preserved in historical records for the education of future generations.
9) What do you think Douglass hoped for his descendants? What do you hope for your own children and their children’s future?
Oh. That’s easy: “Agitate, agitate, agitate.” We are never to be complacent about injustice in this country. Never. I’d like to tell you that he wished a life of ease for his descendants. But no. I’m confident he would hope we each would continue to fight injustice and inequality, even if it was in our own small ways.
Editor-in-Chief | @JaniceMCeleste