When my son was in pre-school at a Christian academy in Virginia, Child Evangelism Fellowship arrived to deliver the gospel to the three and four-year-olds. The presentation was illustrated by three color-coded hearts: the black heart, the red heart and the white heart. I imagine my son wiggling with excitement, sitting among the children gathered at the feet of the pink-faced, blond-haired lady turning the pages of a giant book.
The black heart, she said, representing darkness, was full of lies, thievery, murder and every evil imaginable. A red heart stood for the blood of Jesus, the Lysol of the heart, if you will, that washed away all sins. The end result was a white heart, spotless as fresh snow. The children’s eyes cut around the room and settled on my son, the dark-skinned child, the African. The one who appeared unclean. That’s when the taunting began. My light-skinned daughter fared better.
I had no idea until he burst into tears one day, clawing at his skin, despairing he couldn’t enter Heaven with his dirty skin. Somehow the children had concluded that black skin reflected dark innards, including the heart. I did my best to set him straight, but he didn’t believe me. Children have a tendency to disbelieve parents when it comes to school-acquired knowledge, however wrong.
A high school teacher in the same school, I carried my concerns to the pre-school director. Her response was to point out that in her experience, only two other black children had been affected by the presentation, as if those two didn’t matter. She also failed to recognize an important fact: not all children can articulate their hurt. It would have been enough to explain to the children that skin color had nothing to do with a person’s wickedness or lack thereof. The school missed an opportunity to deliver an important lesson in diversity.
The white kids had no need to run crying to their mothers. They simply refused to stand near my son lest they be contaminated. It didn’t help when missionaries returning from Africa, in their zeal to raise money, brought stories about Africans eating rats, making no distinction between the bush rat, the grass-only-eating game meat, to the household pest. From that moment, if my son contributed to class parties, no one touched his food.
As one who grew up in Ghana and had little experience with racism, I failed to understand the depth of his anguish. I told him to ignore his tormentors. “They’re just stupid,” I added. It didn’t work. The brilliance faded from his eyes. He took to looking on the ground as he walked, as though he was ashamed of himself, as though he wished to disappear. He went from hugging to fighting his peers. With each passing year, his grades plummeted. His teacher suggested testing him for learning disabilities. This was a kid who played the piano at age four, read the Chronicles of Narnia in second grade and could recite passages from Shakespeare. I foolishly held onto hope, convinced he was in God’s house. I couldn’t conceive of him attending a public school which, in my view, was populated by delinquents. Even now, I tear up when I think of how I almost failed him.
The last straw fell when I walked into his fourth grade classroom one day and found him cornered behind the door, fighting off two attackers. Brutally honest as children are, they explained they hit him because he was black and African. I felt the fault lay with the fabric from which those children were spun. So I went to see the principal to discuss ways of dealing with racism. I proposed a meeting with the parents to figure out how to help the kids understand. The principal did nothing. Furious, I removed my children from the school. Because of the prohibitive cost of private schools, I decided to give homeschooling a try. I quit teaching and landed a writing job with a political lobby group that allowed me to work from home, giving me the flexibility to homeschool. It turns out my son has a superior IQ. In sixth grade he went from scoring under par to vaulting over high-school level in standardized achievement tests. He became a trusted baby-sitter and dog-walker in our predominantly white neighborhood, keeping copies of people’s house keys. But some scars remain. He doesn’t trust easily.
Word of mouth about my kids’ achievement brought other homeschooled students to my door, and what a world it opened me to. Because parents are not equipped to teach every subject, cooperatives hire teachers like me to tackle what is referred to as “enrichment subjects,” like Literature, Drama and Foreign Language. If religious schools in America can reinforce prejudice, some homeschoolers take it up a notch.
When I taught World Literature, my attempt to include African and Asian literature was firmly rejected. It surprised me to discover this wasn’t unusual. Some Christian schools refuse to include African literature in their curriculum because it’s not considered part of the American cultural heritage. There’s even a “Heritage” school particularly proud of this. In World History, Egypt is the only African country covered. It is a travesty, because to know a people’s history is to humanize them, and a well-rounded education must include knowledge about the diverse world we live in. Unfortunately, among some American Christians, there is a real fear that including any type of “non-western” element will undermine their Anglo-Saxon heritage.
In the mind of these extremists, inclusion is a step toward globalization, a prospect as terrifying as communism, which is why some Christians avoid having their children take Spanish. They believe foreign countries are poised to rule over America and spread their unwelcome ideology. During Hugo Chavez’s presidency, Venezuela was particularly suspect. But these parents have no problem with their children taking German, French or even Russian. The obvious reason for this disparate stance is that the Hispanic community isn’t white, hence the threat. Let’s say for the sake of argument that their fear is founded. Shouldn’t one learn the language of one’s so-called enemy, the better to eavesdrop on them?
Bill Gothard, founder of the Institute of Basic Life Conflicts plus the Advanced Training Institute, programs popular with some homeschoolers, teaches that African music is evil. This is because fetish priests are fond of drumming. What’s more, says he, African music causes people to move their hips and dance, a sure indication of demonic influence. (This is from a man accused multiple times of sexual abuse.) Gothard does eschew all other rhythmic music but African music is especially ungodly. He asserts further that the once popular Cabbage Patch Kid dolls from Asia have demon-gods ascribed to them and therefore pose a danger to children. According to him, kids who play with those dolls exhibit “ungodly” behavior such as…throwing tantrums. Such teachings are pernicious, for they imbue children with latent racism and xenophobia. This type of white supremacy persists within some congregations.
Some churches still teach that interracial unions are contrary to God’s ordinance. Others insist albinism is the consequence of racial mixing. They claim it is divine punishment for humans ignoring this Bible verse: “Each animal shall reproduce according to its kind.” For all they know, interracial union is tantamount to breeding a snake with a dove. It’s ironic that those who cited this verse to me were the same ones who later tried to match me with a poor white man suffering from a severe disability, someone the white girls didn’t want to marry. It astounded me that whites who declared “We don’t believe in the mixing of the races” would attempt to foist him on me. The superiority of whiteness is all too implied.
I’ve sat in a so-called international Bible-study class where Americans gave presentations on Ghana. Though I offered on several occasions, I was never given an opportunity to talk about Ghana. When I inquired as to the reason for the refusal, the leader’s response was a blank stare. An old white lady subsequently asked me, “If you were in Ghana, wouldn’t you like to hear about America from a Ghanaian?” Sure I would, but I’d also want to hear from the American who could explain or correct any misconceptions, who could provide more depth. She gave me a dismissive smile and moved away from me. Here I was, an educator and now an International Affairs Specialist for the US Foreign Agricultural Service charged with training teachers, deemed unequipped to explain Ghana’s history and politics, as opposed to a less educated white missionary confined to a remote part of Ghana. It galled me to think I was considered less aware by dint of my race or African-ness.
The refusal to hear from other perspectives implies others aren’t articulate enough. It implies they are inferior. Until Americans open their ears as well as minds to diverse people, until we include books written by diverse groups, until we provide a well-rounded education for our children, Americans will continue to breed prejudiced humans. They may become law enforcement officers, good fathers who have no qualms gunning down people of color.
By: Bisi Adjapon
Image: Crystal Heart