Monday, February 6, 2012

On teaching my child about Apartheid

When Eldest had just turned four, we took a trip to South Africa to visit my father-in-law and other aunts and uncles. Before the trip, we got some books about South Africa from the library. I read most of them to Eldest, but I couldn't bring myself to read the pages about Apartheid. I just didn't want my child to know yet how awful human beings could be. So I didn't say anything.

We still haven't told him about Apartheid, two years later. Until today.

Yesterday, Eldest's Nana gave him a copy of Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a picture book version of Mandela's biography. He was too busy with other, flashier presents to notice it yesterday, but today at lunch I reminded him of it. I told him about Nelson Mandela, that he is an amazing South African. I told him about the unfair laws under Apartheid, and how Mandela and others were sent to jail for fighting against those laws.

His eyes nearly bugged out at this. To Eldest, jail is where bad guys go. To hear that somebody good could be sent to jail was, I'm sure, a head trip for him. So we talked about how good and bad can sometimes be hard to figure out. Eventually, we got to the part where Mandela was released (the same year my husband came to Canada with his mother) and the first democratic election and how most people voted for Mandela (including my husband, from here in Canada).

We also had to go over the fact that Africa is not a country but a continent with about 50 countries, one of which is South Africa. (Eldest was quick to say, "No wonder [his friend whose family is from Ghana] lives here so I made sure to emphasize that not all African countries had such unfair laws.) And we talked about democracy too.

As we read the book, I remembered - and told Eldest - that my husband's grandfather owned or ran (or both?) one of the schools Mandela went to as a child in the Eastern Cape. When we got to the part about Mandela marrying Winnie, I told Eldest I would show him the photo of my husband and I with her in Soweto - a totally chance encounter. When Mandela was sent to Robben Island, I told him I'd show him the photos we took there before Eldest was born.

One spread was especially difficult, about the Sharpeville Massacre. I didn't want to read it, but when I told Eldest I didn't want to read it to him, he insisted. And he'd already seen the picture, so I thought not knowing the words might scare him more. So I read it. Right down to the part where the Police, who to Eldest are always Good, opened fire on unarmed people who were protesting the pass book laws. They killed 69 people.

At times I nearly cried, imagining Eldest's experience of hearing this story. Like the details about Mandela's jail cell at Robben Island and his solitary confinement for reading a newspaper one of the guards left behind. Or when Mandela got released, after his hair turned gray, and he got to see his grandchildren. Twenty-seven years is a very long time.

It occurred to me that no other one-day-away-from-six-year-olds in Canada probably learn about Apartheid. I worried it would upset him too much, that I was damaging him. But this is part of his family history, kind of. And then I thought about the six-year-old black children under Apartheid, who were forced to learn first-hand about Apartheid and human cruelty. I don't know if it was right or wrong to tell him this now; I never will.

But after we read the book, we looked at the photos I mentioned, and we listened to some South African music from the Amandla! soundtrack, which as it happens, I'd just started listening to in the car again since this drive. I've actually been singing this song for weeks. The video I've attempted to embed below of Hugh Masakela singing "Bring Back Nelson Mandela" in 1987 when Mandela was still in jail is worth the watch.

So this is home/unschooling. In one hour we covered history, geography, politics, social justice and music. It was relevant and meaningful to his own interests, family and life experiences (he's been to SA twice already), so I suspect he will retain it better than weeks of dry grade 7 desk work. Granted, the subject matter is advanced, but he was utterly engaged. Every time I asked if we wanted to take a break from the book, he was adamant that he wanted to keep going. I remember doing an independent project on South Africa in grade 7 or 8. But all I can remember from it are that Johannesburg is on a plateau and they mine diamonds and gold. This is such a gross oversimplification of a beautiful and complex country. I also remember learning the term Apartheid, but it was such a dry description in the encyclopedia I was using that it never occurred to me to imagine what one person's experience might be like under that system. Today, Eldest imagined at least two versions of what that experience might be like -- Mandela's from the book, and his own father's experience as a privileged white person - and also his grandparents and what they did or didn't do to support the struggle for freedom.

I still worry about the effect of stripping the safe but false binaries from his world so young. But I think about that six-year-old child whose world was restricted by Apartheid, and I remember that we can't shelter our children from all the world's evils.

Edited to add:
Apparently it was actually my husband's great grandfather who ran one of the schools Mandela attended. And legend has it that he was the first white person Mandela ever shook hands with.

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