Showtime at the Apollo

 
Image via Associated Press
I would like to be the person that gets out of the house on her own and visits neighborhoods just to take in their historical relevance.  But I’m not.  This could be part of my love affair with my son, that when he has free time, I want to use it.  It is no longer easier to stay home and take in the rays from the window, because I have an amazing mind by my side ready to see what’s in this world.  So when Roan had this past week off from school, we found time to visit The Apollo Theater in Harlem.


As I started to tell Roan about the theater, it’s history and why it is special, I entered some interesting territory.  I realized that Roan has never articulated noticing any difference in races.  He’s reached for different colored crayons when drawing different friends, but has never identified anyone in conversation according to their color.  He’s brought home stories from school about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and he’s mentioned that President Obama is the first black president, but I didn’t know if Roan was aware of racism, bigotry, slavery, and prejudice.  More importantly I didn’t know if I wanted to introduce those concepts to him if he had escaped them so far.

 

So I told him we were going to a famous theater in a famous neighborhood.  I told him that it was an important theater because it gave some performers a chance to sing and dance and entertain, during a time when they wouldn’t have been welcome in other theaters.  Obviously he asked “why”, and so I took the leap and asked if he knew that people don’t treat each other in a way that is right sometimes?  I asked him if he knew about the old days, when a black person couldn’t drink from the same water fountain, couldn’t go in certain restaurants, and even before that was forced to work for white people?


Roan started digging around in his five-year-old brain and found some context.  “So”, he began “like in Teen Titans, Robin would make Cyborg do everything?  Because Cyborg is black.”  I went with it, and said that was exactly it.  Roan explained that it wouldn’t make sense because Cyborg is Robin’s teammate has his own special powers and they are all friends.  Roan moved on pretty quickly and said that 

“it isn’t the truth”.  It was fascinating to see that  it wasn’t terribly attention grabbing to him because it was nonsense.  Obviously all the superheroes are different colors, from different planets, with different powers, and they all work together.  There is no reason why one color would be better.  And that is Roan’s reality. 

Just to emphasize to Roan that it is (or at least should be) different now for non-superheroes, I started listing all the things that everyone can do, stating, “Black people now can be anything they want to be.  Doctors, Lawyers, President of America, Chefs…” then I was interrupted with Roan’s idea: “And they can be computer nerds, let’s go” I have no idea where that came from, but I felt that the conversation could end on that note.  We went to Harlem and spent the day there.  He didn’t mention anything about race and I’m guessing that the concept was lost on him, but I’m still thinking about it.  I wonder when he needs to become aware of racism?  I’d prefer for him to preemptively understand that it has no place in our life, but I also don’t want to plant the concept there while it is absent.  I don’t know what the right answer is.  Instead, we just got on the stage at the Apollo Theater, took in some history and returned home with our world a little larger than it had been before. 
   

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25 responses to “Showtime at the Apollo

  1. Jodi, I’m Joe’s sister and I love your blog and I love Roan (because he loves Sophia, of course). With my (then) 8 year old, we watched the movie “Hairspray” together to start a conversation about segregation and what that was. The movie is only about dancing, so it isn’t terribly violent. If there is such a thing, it was a gentle way to introduce an ugly part of our history. Now that he is a little older, he’s seen a couple of sports movies that dealt with the topic in more serious ways, and that has led to more conversations. My family and I are coming to NYC in a few weeks — we would love to meet Roan (and you and Anson too…). Take care, Jackie

  2. I think that when kids start noticing differences that’s the time to gently introduce history to them. It is sad that we have to tell them these stories, but I think in the context of showing progress, it could be a positive. In that same vein, I appreciated Sean Penn’s statement about shame in the eyes of people who preach hate (prop 8) that will be reflected in their grandchildren’s eyes. Many people say it isn’t the same thing, but I believe it is. Hate is hate, and it is time to progress past it, and pass on stories of progress to our children.

  3. I think it is really cool that you take your son to all these places, and it makes me want to explore my own community a little more. I have to ask you though if you think you could have taken him to this theater without the history lesson? Is it really necessary to introduce slavery before you go to Harlem? I’m not being sarcastic, it is a real question. Do you think that the journey would be as important without all the lessons attached, just to go for the experience? I have a four year old, and think about all this stuff way too much.

  4. Hey Jackie!First thanks for stopping by – I’m a fan of your entire family, from Joe to Glo!Hairspray would be a great fit for our family to start these talks – thanks for the idea. I’m guessing the new one would keep Roan’s attention because he’ll recognize “Troy” from HSM. Also, who doesn’t want to see John Travolta in drag? Wait…probably many people. Maybe we’ll go with the John Waters version…ah, Divine, RIP.I look forward to meeting you – we’ll definately be around.

  5. Yay for Sean Penn!! Yeh, that was awesome for him to include those sentiments. I have long believed that when people look back on the discrimination of people based on their sexual orientation, it will be through shame-filled eyes, similar to the way we look back on denying women the right to vote, and yes, similar to the way we treat each other based on race. I do love your idea that we are passing on stories of progress rather than burdening the kids with the knowledge – that seems more positive. Thanks for that.

  6. Jack – Oh geeeeez this is the holy grail of questions for me. Honestly I struggle with my tendency to turn everything into a lesson. I know that sometimes an experience can just stand alone – certainly this one could have. While I did want Roan to know why this theater was special, why we were taking the time to visit it, I also just wanted him to enjoy the day. I suppose that’s the balance I try to go for – when it occurs to me to teach, I try to. When I start seeing his eyes glaze over, I try to stop. That’s not really an answer, but it’s all I have!

  7. We just adopted 2 children from Ethiopia, so we think a lot about race and how are we going to give our kids the healthiest possible self perceptions…One book that helped me was “I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla,” by Marguerite Wright. It explores how children really see (or don’t see) “race” and “color” at different times in their lives.

  8. Chris – Ok I just checked out your site and man that picture of your daughter with stickers on her face is deadly cute. Looks to me like you know what you’re doing if you get smiles like that.Thanks for the book idea – I’m going to check my library for it. Looks like you’ve got quite an adventure going on in your home….thanks for taking the time to stop by here!

  9. My advice would be not to talk about it until he asks. I think that children learn their attitudes directly from their parents – especially when they are little. When he senses an injustice or needs more information about history, he will ask. As for how he treats people that are different, he will learn that from you.

  10. Its amazing how children view the world, isn’t it? Sounds like you and Roan had a wonderful day!

  11. Jodi,I love the fact that kids don’t “see” color where people are concerned. We lived in Jamaica for a year and a half and my son attended school there. My son has red hair and very white skin. Needless to say he stood out there and was the only white kid in his school. We had some visitors in our home from the US and they were engaging in conversation with my son and they asked him if he was the only white kid in his class and he very emphatically answered, “No!” During our time there he never once mentioned the fact that he was the different one. He made some lasting friendships, loved going to school, and loved playing on the football (soccer) team. Oh, if we could all be more like Roan and my son. Racism to them, is just not an option.

  12. Kristi – That’s probably some advice I could use – my penchant for turning everything into a lesson (see above comments from and to Jack) seems to be something I might want to look at.Suzanne – Yes, it is. Everyday I feel like I get some balance from Roan’s view. Thanks.Carla – What a great life it sounds like your boy is having. Seriously, Jamaica? That’s kind of unfair for you to even write about that while finishing up grey and cold February in New York. Anyway – I love your story – it is a great illustration of the same thing I saw with Roan. That’s the goods.

  13. I grew up in a small town. It was nearly 100% white, but I watched Sesame Street and was blissfully unaware of racism until I was eight or so and saw some episodes of All in the Family at a babysitter’s. I didn’t entirely get it for another couple of years, though, when I overheard some relatives saying some not very nice things. I think my complete intolerance for racism now is in part to my somewhat late discovery of it. I’m not a parent and have no business offering you advice of any kind, but felt like sharing that story. Thanks for letting me.

  14. Well thanks for taking the time to!  It is interesting that All in the Family sort of turned on a light bulb for you – I had the same experience I think,  I remember kind of feeling some agitation when I would watch it, and not really understanding why.  I think that the media back then was not as preachy as it is now, but it had a certain effectiveness in getting messages across.  

  15. Last year my daughter described her new school friend by the hat type, hair ribbon and socks. When 400 kids in school uniform are rushing the front gate it would have been much easier to say she was from Uganda.

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