At first discovering the world means learning about frogs that turn into princes. It means learning about the scary old crones who hide in the forest and who then, surprisingly, reward the good and punish the wicked.
But at some point, even for children, discovering the world as it really is means learning about injustice and oppression and the insidious role of culture in perpetuating inequities.
My husband is somewhat obsessed with tyrants, and perhaps as a result, our eleven-year-old twin boys often refer to Hitler and Stalin and Kim Jong-Un and Nicholas II of Russia. Earlier today, for example, while lounging on the sofa, Philip asked, “Would Hitler like me?”
“Of course, not,” I said. “He’d want to kill you.”
“Well, for one thing, you’re half-Jewish.”
“Yeah, but besides that.”
“You’re part-Puerto Rican. He didn’t exactly favor anyone with people of color in their family tree.”
“Yeah, but besides that. Is there anything about how I am right now, that he could just see for himself, that would make him not like me?”
There sat my boy in his red pajamas, brown-haired and hazel-eyed, with pale skin and a serious expression. How could anyone not like him?
“No,” I said. “There’d be nothing he could see just by looking at you that would make him want to kill you. But if he noticed you helping people he didn’t like, he’d kill you then anyway.”
I said this to the boy whose teachers have told me is exceptionally kind to other children.
Now Philip stared into the middle distance for a moment. Then he picked up his iPad and began to kill some animated zombies.
My sons are reaching that age where the enemies stop being exclusively up on movie screens and begin to appear in the newspaper and on the TV during political debates. Often the boys notice injustice without any prompting from me.
Henry has gotten to the point where he starts ranting after every few commercials and during every movie we watch on TV. “Why are there only white people in these ads?” he’ll shout.
“I know,” I’ll say.
“Oh, I guess black people don’t buy detergent,” he’ll say sarcastically. “I guess black people don’t buy insurance. Oh, wait! Look! They had a crowd scene there with one black man in it. Wow.”
About every couple of weeks, Philip will ask, “Why are all these comedies about men? Unless they’re romantic comedies.”
“I know,” I’ll say.
“And most books are about boys.”
“It’s like girls don’t do anything.”
“I know. Except they do. In real life.”
I showed the boys the recent Saturday Night Live clip called, “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black,” and they rejoiced in the clip’s comedy about how white people are most comfortable when they think black people don’t exist. But it’s so rare, I think, to see a television show that kids can watch that acknowledges any of that pervasive racism. About the only other place my sons and I can find that perspective with any regularity is when we turn to ABC and watch Blackish. That show is hilarious, but it’s more than that. It provides the balm of seeing a fictional world that hasn’t been bizarrely painted mostly white.
Learning about these various injustices, and ultimately doing something about them, is the work of a lifetime. I haven’t yet regaled my sons with every piece of family history that touches upon oppression. A lot of that can wait until they’re older. But last week, before we saw the Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, I summarized a bit of the story and told the boys, “This is the story of your dad’s family.”
“Was Great-Grandpa Jules a milkman?” asked Henry.
“No,” I said.
“Was he a fiddler?” asked Philip.
“No,” I said. “He came to the United States and became a lumberjack. But if Tsar Nicholas hadn’t been such an anti-Semite, maybe Great-Grandpa Jules wouldn’t have had to leave Russia.”
We also can spend a lifetime reclaiming what we’ve lost. Through this effort, the stories of childhood – of wrongs righted, of miraculous redemptions – can be revivified. The poor can be raised up. The exile can come home.
The night of the play, my husband said good night to Henry, the eldest twin, in his usual way – by saying, “Spokoynoy nochi, Tsesarevich.”
Good night, firstborn son of the tsar.
Photo: of other days