“They are WAY to young to understand!:” What Harriet Tubman taught my White five-year-old

alexandraLRby guest blogger Alexandra Lopez Reitzes

My five-year-old tends to have a Song Of The Week—the random tune she warbles to herself all day, every day, until a new song comes along. Last winter, one song stuck around far longer. It was being taught at school and had several verses so as she learned more, so did everyone who came within five feet of her:

Come on up, I got a lifeline. Come on up to this train of mine. They said her name was Harriet Tubman. And she drove… for the Underground Railroad

My kids go to a school that introduces the story of slavery age-appropriately in Pre-K as the foundation of a 10-year curriculum on social justice. And even in our current moment—in the era of Black Lives Matter—parents of all colors and cultures run the gamut from thrilled to highly concerned as they confront their four-year-olds learning about the history of enslavement of Black people in this country.

Reasons are deeply personal, from “We want this to come from us, not the school” to “They’ll feel guilty/angry/confused/sad.” But for the most part, the concern is:

“They are WAY too young to understand.”

I empathize. Its big stuff. The biggest. And big stuff should come from home, right? Especially historical big stuff—which, according to Understanding Slavery, a site devoted to supporting educators and parents who want to teach about the transatlantic slave trade, is beyond the grasp of a four-to-five year old:

Children aged ten and under are often not able to contextualize and make sense of the transatlantic slave trade. This may be because they lack the broader historical knowledge of the economic and social conditions that drove Britain from the 16th century onwards—essential to understand how such an abhorrent system of trade could flourish and be widely accepted.”

Yet this site assumes that the triangle trade must be taught with the breadth and depth of a 4th grade social studies unit. My daughter’s Pre-K teachers know the four-year-old brain, heart, and social-emotional world exceedingly well, and see things quite differently.

They believe that children must learn about the realities of their world in order to become active citizens in it, and that there are many developmentally appropriate ways to do this with young children.

So why begin with slavery?  When in doubt, ask a five year old.

Mama: Why do you think (your teachers) told you the story of Harriet Tubman?

My daughter: Because she carried so many people!

Mama: …carried?

My daughter: She carried people to freedom! She came when everybody was sleeping and said really quiet, “Come on, lets GO! I’ll help you so don’t be scared!”

And then I get it. In the hands of smart teachers, Harriet’s story isn’t a story of the triangle trade and its aftermath. It is the story of heroism and bravery and going back until you get everyone out, of all the things four- and five-year-olds must know they can do to navigate their big world:

Help people who are sad or hurt. Share what you have. Don’t let fear stop you. Keep going when you feel like giving up.

Harriet captures the four- and five-year-old imagination in ways that sound a lot like their adoration of dinosaurs, princesses and superheroes—she was powerful and unstoppable—but also, she was Black. She was a woman. And she was REAL.

harrietAs the year went on, Harriet remained a touch-point for our discussions of the news my daughter would overhear: Police who had killed Eric Garner and Michael Brown received non-indictment verdicts. Black Lives Matter grew. Syrians fled their country and were stranded, and saved. And as I continue to listen and think and answer her questions, my daughter’s response is so often reflected through the language she learned from Harriet’s story:

“The protesters spoke up so people will know this is not fair.”

“It is OK to tell me about scary things because they got hurt, and when you are hurt you have to not keep it a secret because then nobody can help you.”

“We have to not let anymore hurting go on—we have to do something about it.”

When you’re bigger, it goes by many names: Activism. Freedom Fighter. Justice. It has so many faces and stories. It is nuanced, and the older you get the more you see the gray areas; the struggles when there was no possible action without complex consequences.

But when you’re four, it’s simply being a real-life superhero. Like Harriet.


Alexandra Lopez Reitzes is an educator, artist, food doula, herbalist and consultant. She develops content and curricula where art, farming, food, medicine, and social justice intersect. She is the founder of Mamis Unite, an 4,800-member online solidarity community, and a proud mama.

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