Tangled Conversations: Teaching American Slavery to Kids

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For the past twenty years, Linda Donnelly has taught an in-depth study on American slavery and abolition to her 5th- and 6th-grade students at The Common School, a small, progressive, private school in Amherst, Massachusetts. Linda is, by her own description, an “old white lady,” and while the white part is evident enough, the old seems contestable, especially given her continuous efforts to reevaluate and update her teaching strategies over the years.

When she was in high school in Illinois in the late 60s, a series of racial conflicts emerged between students at her school. The incidents were violent and confusing, loaded in numerous contradictory ways. Officials tried to sweep the whole thing under the rug. “I kept waiting for someone to talk about this, to hold a conversation,” Linda said at the end of this past summer, just before the start of the new school year.

That conversation never came, but one can argue that Linda has devoted at least a portion of her career to ensuring that such difficult conversations are conducted in her presence, whether the participants feel comfortable or not.

Few subjects are more polarizing in our society than the question of the relevance of slavery to the privileges, or lack thereof, from which our nation’s citizens either do or do not benefit.

Minefield. Viper-pit. Total set-up. Such are the phrases that come to mind at the prospect of teaching about the atrocities of slave society to a group of American schoolchildren (and, by implication, their parents). It’s heavy stuff for anyone, but especially for ten- and eleven- and twelve-year-olds.

It is also, potentially — if placed in the wrong teachers’ hands — supremely boring, which is the final and worst viper-pit of them all.

To avoid these and other pitfalls, Linda and her co-teacher, Chad Odwazny (who is younger than Linda, newer to the curriculum, and also white), will often devote some weeks of their summers to reassessing the content and the goals of their study.

But this time around it was different. This summer, in the context of an election season defined by increasingly racist provocations; in the context of recurrent incidents of racially-motivated violence erupting across the country — and in the context, too, of a series of racially-polarizing situations that had recently emerged at their school — a group of adults sat down together, at Linda’s invitation, to read books written for children about the condition of American slavery.

Since my ten-year-old son (who, like me, is white) would be among their students in the fall, and since I was interested in the question of how one might teach about the nature of systemic oppression to a group of children, many of whom have, through no fault of their own, largely benefited from those very acts of historical and recurring oppression, I decided to join them.

We met once each month from May to August. Nine parents in total, sometimes the school librarian, sometimes the curriculum coordinator, always Linda and Chad. Our first encounter was moderated by the head of school; she led us in a highly structured protocol which had been designed, it seemed to me, by people who’d spent a few too many hours in meetings that had devolved into brawls. I appreciated the use of the protocol, and I appreciated, too, our participants who more-or-less ignored its strictures and said what they had to say.

Above all, this first meeting served the function of showing us that Linda had put in her time on numerous layers of this study; that she was genuinely open to our feedback; that she was aware of the potential contradictions inherent in an “old white lady” teaching about American slavery in depth.

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The Triangle Trade

Because that in-depth part is really no joke. Linda and Chad devote not four, not eight, but fourteen weeks of their students’ fall and winter to the emergence of the triangle trade; to the mutually dependent economies of North and South; to black abolitionists of whom most Americans, including myself, have never heard; to the grave contradictions inherent in the war that led to the legal termination of slavery; to the forms of disenfranchisement which endure in our racially traumatized society.

“I can’t think of a piece of history that has shaped our world as much as this one. We are clearly still living with the leftovers of this history. It’s in the news weekly.”

She described with teacherly enthusiasm the complex geographical factors that impacted the formation of American slave society and the course of the Civil War. She talked about her students’ use of primary texts, the challenge of the critical reading in the class, the wealth of perspectives the kids had access to, the incredible historical characters they encountered during the study.

But above and beyond any academic goals, Linda has something else she wants to accomplish. It’s not a thing that all teachers, or even most teachers, want from their students. She wants the children in her charge to become uncomfortable, unsettled in their seats, uneasy in their own skins. She wants them, in regard to race — maybe not always but occasionally — to say the wrong thing.

Which is, let’s face it, a thing that few people in this country except for Donald Trump actually want to do. Yet Linda believes that 5th- and 6th-graders are ready, with guidance, to tackle the world’s contradictions head-on. “The kids are just, at this age there’s something that happens where they don’t want to be a little kid anymore. They really are eager to dive into material that’s deep and relevant and interesting. There’s not an easy answer, you know.”

In Linda’s view, her kids are specially well-suited to getting something not-quite-right and coming back to try again. “That whole thing,” she said, “of being in a difficult conversation and being able to say something that’s not perfect, and being able to think it through, and people to be in there with you, respecting you back. That’s huge.”

It was in June, when our group convened for its second meeting, that our work began to get messy and interesting. Now we were a “reading group” with the formal job of reviewing the fiction and nonfiction texts that had been used in the past or might be adopted for the study. Our first text had the unpromising title of If You Lived When There was Slavery in America, by Anne Kamma and Pamela Johnson. Linda and Chad had used this book for a number of years as an overview of the subject; their students read it together. Now we too read this book in each other’s company, a sort of test-drive for the texts we’d mostly be reading at home. But in order to be able to perform our task we first required a way of reading — Linda had intuited this — and she had provided us prior to our meeting with a piece of academic reading.

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In “Examining the Representation of Slavery within Children’s Literature,” authors Rich and Bickford of Eastern Illinois University delineate the numerous traps a writer of the history of American slavery can fall into (e.g. omission or heroification). They also explore a staggering set of statistics: while the vast majority of people who were enslaved in North America never became free, the vast majority of books about slavery depict people who earn their freedom, or are granted it through their owner’s benevolence, or else secure their freedom for themselves by escape.

This juxtaposition was, for me, both obvious and illuminating. I had not previously realized how powerfully the narrative of the escaped slave had entered my consciousness, and how limiting this trope can be. If we only know the stories (fictional or not) of the enslaved people who manage to escape, we are at risk of ascribing a failure of character upon the many who do not succeed in attaining their freedom, or who never were able to try. It becomes not the failure of a society which systematically destroyed people’s agencies; rather it is the fault of the individual: they didn’t get out because they weren’t clever or strong or quick enough to make the break.

To conduct their study of the available children’s literature, Rich and Bickford had created a fairly awkward survey for reading their texts. Linda had decided our group should also use this rubric, imperfect as it was, and thus we started by reviewing and critiquing the very questions we would be seeking to answer as we read. Clarifications were made to the survey; modifications discussed and adopted.

One of our members, a Kenyan man whose son would enter the 5th grade in September, remarked upon an American penchant for glorifying the individual above all else. In doing so, he argued, we lose sight of the power of the collective, the resiliencies and strengths that only become meaningful in the complex relationships between members of a group.

So this was added to our survey: How is the collective organization and community characterized within the book? It was a question that many weeks later played a significant role in helping me to understand the strengths of Elijah of Buxton, the middle-reader fiction by Christopher Paul Curtis which Linda and Chad eventually decided to adopt for the class.

A worthwhile book should portray the enslaved person’s beauty, and even his or her individual agency, without tidying over the need on the part of slave society to defile that beauty and to obliterate that agency entirely.

We read in silence, together and alone, which of course is what the act of reading is: an immense privacy which one shares with their fellow readers. And as we read I became aware of a number of things.

A worthwhile book about slavery for 10–12-year-olds must somehow convey the actual brutality of enslaved people’s circumstances — rape, murder, starvation, beatings, psychological trauma — without performing renewed acts of trauma upon young readers.

A worthwhile book must compel the young reader forward (i.e. give them hope) without undermining the degree of hopelessness intentionally inflicted upon an enslaved person’s consciousness.

A worthwhile book should portray the enslaved person’s beauty, and even his or her individual agency, without tidying over the need on the part of slave society to defile that beauty and to obliterate that agency entirely.

A worthwhile book should do all of this and more for kids whose reading levels and readiness to tackle complexity vary hugely within a single class.

I found the burden of these contradictions exciting. It seemed to me an extraordinary challenge for a writer of history to create a through-line between our American ancestors (Black, Native, White, etc.) and the imperfect, impaired, unfinished beauty of our contemporary American selves.

But there was a problem. As we finished the book — stretching our arms, clearing our throats, shuffling our notes — there hung in the air a collective, unspoken question. It was like, Huh? Really? This is the best we’ve got?

The problem was that the book pretty much sucked.

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Illustration from If You Lived When There was Slavery in America (Scholastic)

I mean, it could have been worse. It was not as if it referred to those Africans abducted and packed into the hulls of ships as “workers,” nor did the book assert that most African-Americans are descended from immigrants (both of which a 9th-grade textbook adopted a few years ago in some Texas school districts manages to do). The book did not include staged photographs of black children acting the parts of content-looking slaves, as does one of the “history books” Linda displayed for us with unconcealed horror. It wasn’t that bad, but still there was something fundamentally off about If You Lived When There was Slavery in America.

He described the ways a spiritual truth can emerge in the presence of such beauty, and how it was this — the possibility of such redemptive beauty — that he hoped his daughter might discover as she studied the brutal history of American slavery.

For me it was not the factual errors, the gross omissions, but simply the fact that the book was criminally boring. I imagined myself as a kid reclining on a couch reading If You Lived When There was Slavery in America, and it seemed to me that the pages had been dipped in chloroform, and a thief had snuck up behind me and pressed the placid, anodyne sentences to my face. The book had knocked me unconscious for some unspecified amount of time (maybe twenty minutes, maybe fourteen weeks), and when I awoke I had no idea what had happened; the only thing for which I was certain was that history, as a subject, just wasn’t my thing.

I tried to convey this sensation to my fellow readers, but the best word I could come up with was that it was “flat.” I found myself repeating this word again and again. Another member of our group did much better when he said that the book, not because of the atrocities it depicts but because of the insipidness of its summary of those atrocities, might give his 5th-grade daughter bad dreams.

This man, who is of African- and Native- and European-American descent, proposed an illustrated, wordless book by the artist Tom Feelings as an antidote to the detached and unflappable presentation of If You Lived When There was Slavery in America. We passed this other book, The Middle Passage, from hand to hand, while our fellow reader attempted to put into words the value he saw in the severe and horrific beauty of Feelings’ illustrations.

He described the ways a spiritual truth can emerge in the presence of such beauty, and how it was this — the possibility of such redemptive beauty — that he hoped his daughter might discover as she studied the brutal history of American slavery.

Then, in a bold act of inspiration, this same man suggested that the kids actually should read If you Lived When There Was Slavery in America, but that they would be better off reading it toward the end of the fourteen weeks, in order to be able to critically engage with its flaws. Linda said they’d done that sort of reading before in the class with great success. The rest of us voiced our enthusiasm and relief at the proposal. The work of the collective. And this more or less became the plan.

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Tom Feelings — The Middle Passage: White Ships/Black Cargo (Scholastic)

There is no mandate that Linda or Chad or any other Massachusetts teacher cover the topic of American slavery with any degree of thoroughness at all. Indeed, if my son’s teachers were obligated to follow the actual mandate of the state (which as private school employees they are not required to do), thoroughness of any sort, about any subject, would be fully proscribed. There is just so much ground that a Massachusetts public school teacher is obligated to cover.

5th-grade teachers take on a broad expanse of early American History, right up to the Civil War. 6th-grade teachers cover an even broader swath of world geography, touching down on every continent for two or three weeks. And — with the exception of a handful of baffling inclusions — every single item in the state-mandated curricula for these grades is interesting, a gleaming treasure worthy of exploration.

The problem, however, is that in order to tackle this breadth of material a teacher can not go deep. The historical world flattens; the dynamic matrix of interrelated causes and contradictory effects is pulled thin, stretched to a single layer of bullet points skitter-scattered across a level ground. There are few mysteries here, zero contradictions, only facts to suck up, and those natural detectives, our children, are at risk of becoming thwarted in their natural art, deformed into vacuum cleaners as they suck up each next crumb about Juan Ponce de Leon or the Stamp Act.

Thus, among the ninety-three bulleted points in the combined learning standards for the 5th and 6th grades, as published in the Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Framework, couched between item 5.11 (concerning maritime trade in the colonies), and item 5.13 (concerning the establishment of Harvard and other institutions of higher education in the colonies), there is a single mention of American slavery and the Atlantic slave trade.

5.12 Explain the causes of the establishment of slavery in North America. Describe the harsh conditions of the Middle Passage and slave life, and the responses of slaves to their condition. Describe the life of free African Americans in the colonies.

So a fifth-grade teacher in Massachusetts is, at least officially, expected to explain the causes of American slavery, and toward this goal he or she is given at least two or three hours of their precious instructional time. That Linda has chosen for twenty years to take those two or three hours and multiply them exponentially reflects her own curiosity, as well as her own impatience with recurring forms of injustice. It also reflects the fact — this is obvious but still bears scrutiny — that she is at liberty to make such a decision about her classroom.

And there you have it: three syllables as fraught as any that an American citizen can utter. Because the liberty that we Americans are rightly convinced we invented was formed in tangled federation with the highly elaborate slave society we also invented. They were made together, birthed in a knot, and the cords have not yet become disentangled.

So there is no small irony in the fact that a group of students from a private school — a school, in other words, that exists on the basic premise of exclusion — are the ones who will be afforded the time this fall and winter to study the institution of slavery in meticulous depth. Nor is it any small irony that more than three-quarters of the students who are at liberty to engage with this year’s study are white.

“Listening to you, my heart is breaking. What you’re describing, this way of thinking about kids, it’s exactly what our students need.”

She had spent the day at a training on how to bring trauma-informed protocols into the public schools that serve our poorest communities. As she sipped her coffee, she described to me the pervasive resistance she was encountering from teachers and administrators in her district, not so much to the idea that violence or neglect will impact kids’ abilities to learn, but to the assertion that it is an educator’s responsibility to acknowledge this trauma and to engage with it directly.

In contrast to my acquaintance’s day, I had spent my own morning discussing safe and productive ways to teach about historical trauma to kids who, by-and-large (although there are plenty of exceptions), are growing up with significant economic and educational privilege . I told her what Linda and Chad were up to.

“Listening to you,” she said, “my heart is breaking. What you’re describing, this way of thinking about kids, it’s exactly what our students need.”

So I began to understand Linda and Chad’s in-depth study of slavery and abolition as trauma-informed education for the less-traumatized, and I began to see that the ironies here are not just not-small, they are actually ridiculously large, as overblown and unwieldy and discordant as our nation itself.

The privileged kids have the privilege to examine the contradictions inherent in their privilege, and the kids who’ve already been shafted get shafted again.

But what are Linda and Chad going to do? Give up? Spend a couple information-soaked days on Lee and Grant and Lincoln and move on? They could do this, certainly, but they don’t. Instead, they attempt to ask better questions each time this study comes around.

There was an especially good one — a hard, unanswerable question — that emerged over the course of our four meetings. It had to do with how far we parents felt our children should be emotionally pushed.

We talked about our kids’ “shut-off valves,” those limits in their abilities to process disturbing information, the danger that in an effort to tell the history like it was (and is), the children might be forced to close off their emotional selves, or become so confused and overloaded that no lesson is possible at all.

Our concern was real, but overall I sensed a strong consensus among our group — from parents of color and from white parents, too — that there were more dangers in being temperate, in sugar-coating the brutality of slavery, than there was in laying the history straight. “This is private school, right?” said one mother, a white woman. “We can tell you it’s OK to go ahead and make our kids cry.” Most of us nodded our agreement.

The need to protect our children had risen powerfully to the surface; our bravado was gone, replaced by a fear of transferring the weight of this history onto our kids.

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But between our June meeting and our July meeting a number of incidents occurred. Alton Sterling was shot and killed by police officers in Baton Rouge. Philando Castile was shot and killed by an officer in Minneapolis, his death streamed live on social media. Nine officers were shot and killed in Dallas by a lone gunman during an otherwise peaceful protest against the murders of Sterling and Castile.

When our group reconvened it was as if all the wind had been taken from our sails. Our enthusiasm, that whole go-on-and-make-my-kid-cry attitude, suddenly seemed nuts. We were reeling from the sheer overwhelm of attempting to process these incidents of escalating racial violence; it felt as if the recurring cycles would have no end. Our cavalier attitude now seemed a provocation.

One mother said she’d been rethinking her earlier comments about how far she felt comfortable in pushing her child. A white mother of a black boy described the ways in which her son and his peers felt “under siege” by the images that were flooding the news. Another mother, a black woman, described her efforts that summer to keep her kids away from the stories, and the stories away from her kids.

A father described his own nervous breakdown a couple years prior to that summer, which had come in the wake of the earlier killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. The need to protect our children had risen powerfully to the surface; our bravado was gone, replaced by a fear of transferring the weight of this history onto our kids.

It sounds simple, sure, but what I understood Linda to be describing was a complex form of apology in which the teacher makes herself present not only with her students’ immediate discomfort, but also with the broad-ranging and tentacled roots of their pain.

She also had a simple plan to incorporate a higher degree of choice into which texts the students read. They would be offered brief descriptions which would provide a sense of the focus of the material, the genre, the tone, the author’s approach to complex or potentially disturbing material. With their teachers’ assistance, each child’s curiosity would guide them toward the readings they were ready for in a given moment. Changing one’s mind was allowed.

It occurred to me, as I listened to Linda’s plan, that she was describing a form of “trigger warning,” that unfortunate and also much-maligned phrase describing efforts (and counter-efforts) in higher education to come to terms (or not) with the presence of trauma in stories, texts, films, and in the words spoken in the classroom.

For Linda, the point of offering descriptions and multiple options to her students was not to halt individual learning; it was to figure out how to be present and responsive to the kids’ varying levels of curiosity and determination. She wanted to help each child learn to gracefully surf the edge of his or her own wave.

“The easiest thing would be to not teach this material.”

Yet the conversations Linda had convened went to a depth that I was unaccustomed to reaching, especially in the company of adults of diverse racial backgrounds. The imperfect and sometimes aggravating structures Linda imposed upon our conversations were her way of giving us something to push against, to wrestle with, to form ourselves in relation to.

But the comment from Linda that stood out most to me had to do with how she responds to individual kids when they hit a rough patch in the study. I mean those occasional moments when one or another child begins to shut down or break down with a new awareness of the harm their white ancestors may have inflicted upon the enslaved, or else the harm their enslaved ancestors may have suffered at the hands of white owners, or — for some children at least — both of these possibilities at once.

“I’m so sorry that this happened,” Linda will say in such moments, or that’s at least how she described it to us parents, although I imagine there’s more specific nuance in each particular instance.

It sounds simple, sure, but what I understood Linda to be describing was a complex form of apology in which the teacher makes herself present not only with her students’ immediate discomfort, but also with the broad-ranging and tentacled roots of their pain. It’s a small example of an adult taking nuanced responsibility for the unjust world in which our children are becoming themselves.

I was moved by Linda’s description of that presence and that apology. Without even being aware of it, I tucked the phrase, simple as it was, away.

I left that meeting with a confidence that Linda and Chad would be able to do good, difficult work with our kids. And, yes, it was likely — it was even necessary — that the teachers would make more than a few errors. Their conversations in the classroom would be far-from-perfect because the material itself would be devastating, and because the children who could most use the conversation would be excluded from it. But that was no excuse to stop.

“The easiest thing would be to not teach this material,” Linda said during that meeting, but her statement was obviously just the rhetorical tactic of an old white lady. We knew there was not a chance in the world that Linda wasn’t going to try.

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The summer wound down and the work of our reading group came to an end. I interviewed Linda; I reached out to some of the other parents in the group to see whether the conversations we’d had that summer were as rewarding to them as they had felt to me.

And then, oddly — especially given how much I was already thinking about the question of tolerance-levels and “shut-off valves” — I made a huge mistake.

I had been one of the parents advocating for a greater sophistication in the historical readings, and for the teachers to be fearless in taking on the toughest questions. Then, through a series of substantial misjudgments on my part, I brought my son to a performance that was way out of his league.

I was completely overtaken, which is to say that during this time I failed to consider my son’s experience much at all.

I myself had seen Twilight Los Angeles on film twenty years earlier and had been waiting for decades to see her perform live. So I dragged him along to Cambridge to see her latest work, Notes from the Field, in which Smith would be interrogating the entanglements between school discipline, racism, and mass incarceration.

The educational materials on the theater’s website described the show as appropriate for 7th-graders and older. It would be a stretch for my son, but I felt Smith’s performance would be commanding enough to guide him through the uneasy or confusing parts.

What I didn’t know was that the performance would feature large-scale projections of many of the videos that have come to define our historical moment: Freddie Gray screaming as he is brutally transferred to a police van; a black high school girl violently wrestled from her desk and thrown to the ground by a white police officer; another black teenager, this one in a bikini, crying for her mother while a white officer forces her face into the ground.

My son was aware of the existence of such videos, was aware of the contested realities regarding violence inflicted upon black bodies in America, but he’d never seen any of the footage himself.

If the goal was to help my son ride the front edge of difficult content, I had accomplished the opposite. Taking him to that show was more like a full-body tackle in which I’d knocked him off the surfboard and sent him under the waves.

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Anna Deavere Smith in “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education.” Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

The lights went down, the first act began. For eighty unrelenting minutes Smith careened between a dozen-or-so characters, her virtuosity obliterating every distraction inside or outside the theater. I was completely overtaken, which is to say that during this time I failed to consider my son’s experience much at all.

There would be questions — I knew that much — a lot for us to talk about, some confusion to unravel. But when the lights came up and I looked at his face it was clear that the whole thing had been too much. If the goal was to help my son ride the front edge of difficult content, I had accomplished the opposite. Taking him to that show was more like a full-body tackle in which I’d knocked him off the surfboard and sent him under the waves.

The second act of Notes from the Field would be an experiment, a guided “conversation” in which a community leader would help the audience discuss some of the challenges inherent in the material of the performance (after that Smith would return for a final monologue).

I was interested in how Smith and the community leader were going to pull off this dialogue. I felt certain it would be awkward; I wondered if it would feel useful.

He was freaked out by the images, and even more by the sounds. Some of the violent stories in Smith’s monologues he would never forget. He said Freddie Gray’s screams were the worst thing he had ever heard.

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In the end, however, I didn’t get to find out, because the difficult conversation for which I actually needed to show up occurred a couple blocks away from the theater, on a narrow stoop, where I sat with my son while he released a wild torrent of rage and tears.

He was freaked out by the images, and even more by the sounds. Some of the violent stories in Smith’s monologues he would never forget. He said Freddie Gray’s screams were the worst thing he had ever heard. He alternated between ferocious expressions of anger and long moments during which he seemed almost completely shut down.

I felt worried and, in truth, defensive; I was annoyed at myself for not better thinking this one through. But I knew — and part of the reason I knew this was because of the conversations I’d had in previous weeks with our reading group — that my job at that moment was to put my own annoyances aside in order to be present with my son’s fury and confusion and pain.

A couple weeks later, over breakfast, during a conversation in which I asked my son whether it would be OK if I wrote about my error in judgement (and in which he said OK, as long as I made sure to mention the gigantic sundae I had purchased for him later that afternoon), he actually managed to delineate some of the strands of his fury.

He was angry at me for taking him to the show.

He was angry at whatever reviewer I’d read whose review had not mentioned the videos.

He was angry at whoever had decided the show would even be OK for 7th-graders to watch.

He was angry at the police officers, certainly.

He wanted to be angry at Anna Deveare Smith — or at the fact that the videos existed — but he didn’t know if that was OK (I suggested it was possible to be angry at a society in which the violence documented in the videos was allowed to persist).

All in all, it was a stunning dissection for a ten-year-old to perform, and it made me think, as we sat at our kitchen table, about the tangled furies in which our country remains embroiled, how useful it would be for many of us — and particularly for those of us who live and breathe inside the construct of Whiteness — to attempt to piece these furies apart. But that was only later. On the day we saw Anna Deveare Smith perform, there wasn’t much disentangling going on.

I sat on the stoop, rubbing his back. I, too, was still hearing Freddie Gray’s screams in my head, so I didn’t say much, only that I was sorry, so sorry this had happened. I was apologizing to my son for my mistake, sure, but also, more so, for the fact that those of us with the privilege and the power to make a difference could still allow such devastation to be exerted upon the bodies of young black women and men.

Sorry, I said to my kid, although I was attempting to speak also — as inadequate as it seemed — to Freddie, my hand on his back, and sorry again.

(Thanks so much for reading. A shorter version of this story can be found here.)

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Writer. Farmer. Dad.

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