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Q&A with Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum

Talking to Young Children About Juneteenth

Written By

Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum

Questions

(click below to jump)

Can you briefly explain the significance of Juneteenth?

The Noggin Bubble Guppies video about Juneteenth does a good job of explaining the holiday in simple terms for very young children. For parents who want to know more about the occasion, here are the basic facts.

Why is it important to talk to my child about Juneteenth?

Whether or not you talk to your child about Juneteenth will likely depend on the age of the child. Preschoolers who are old enough to be aware of community celebrations may hear references to Juneteenth and will want to know what that word means, or what the occasion is. Rather than ignoring such questions, parents should take the time to explain it in age-appropriate terms. However, you can’t explain Juneteenth without also explaining the concept of enslavement and talking about the history of slavery in the United States. A parent who wants to initiate a conversation about Juneteenth should start by explaining the concept of slavery.

How do I talk about the history of enslaved people in the U.S.?

Slavery is a topic that makes many of us uncomfortable. Yet the nature of Black-White race relations in the United States have been forever shaped by slavery and its social, psychological, and economic legacies. It requires discussion. But how does one talk to a four-year-old about this legacy of cruelty and injustice?

I began at the beginning. I knew my son’s preschool had discussed the colonial days when Europeans first came to these shores. I reminded him of this and said:

A long, long time ago, before there were grocery stores and roads and houses here, the Europeans came. And they wanted to build roads and houses and grocery stores here, but it was going to be a lot of work. They needed a lot of really good, strong, smart workers to cut down trees, and build roads, and work on farms, and they didn't have enough. So they went to Africa to get the strongest, smartest workers they could find. Unfortunately they didn't want to pay them. So they kidnapped them and brought them here as slaves. They made them work and didn't pay them. And that was really unfair.

Even as I told this story I was aware of three things.

1.

I didn't want to frighten this four-year-old who might worry that these things would happen to him (another characteristic of four-year-old thinking).

2.

I wanted him to know that his African ancestors were not just passive victims, but had found ways to resist their victimization.

3.

I did not want him to think that all White people were bad. It is possible to have White allies.


So I continued:

Now, this was a long, long time ago. You were never a slave. I was never a slave. Grandmommy and Granddaddy were never slaves. This was a really long time ago, and the Africans who were kidnapped did whatever they could to escape. But sometimes the Europeans had guns and the Africans didn't, so it was hard to get away. Some even jumped off the boats into the ocean to try to escape. There were slave rebellions, and many of the Africans were able to escape to freedom after they got here, and worked to help other slaves get free. Now, even though some White people were kidnapping Africans and making them work without pay, other White people thought that this was very unfair, which it was. And those White people worked along with the Black people to bring an end to slavery. So now it is against the law to have slaves.

What are some resources to help support this discussion with my children?

While I think it is necessary to be honest about the racism of our past and present, it is also necessary to empower children (and adults) with the vision that change is possible. Concrete examples are critical. For young children, these examples can sometimes be found in children's picture books:

Here’s a resource for how to talk to a preschool child about slavery in an age-appropriate way:

Discover Noggin’s Juneteenth booklist, curated by our friends at Diverstories.

What are some meaningful ways we can honor and celebrate Juneteenth as a family?

If you live in a community that has a tradition of Juneteenth celebrations (parades, for example), you can join in the celebration. If you don’t, you can consider how you might join with friends and family to start a tradition of celebration. This might be especially meaningful for African American families. For other families, taking time to learn more about the history of Juneteenth might be the best way to start, perhaps by looking for information at the local public library – which might also have programming in place that families can participate in. Though the experience of enslavement in the United States is specific to African Americans, the end of the injustice of enslavement can be acknowledged and celebrated by everyone.

It is important, however, to also acknowledge that the end of slavery did not mark the end of racial injustice. Continuing to work with others to ensure that everyone is treated fairly is something that families can model as an important family value, and they can demonstrate that value through collective community action.

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