I knew that writing about Harriet Tubman for my newest book, Before she Was Harriet (which releases today) would be a difficult task and that is exactly why I waited years to do it. Since childhood, Harriet was my hero. Courageous, rebellious, fierce, she was everything the anxiety-ridden, fearful me wanted to be. Her story stood in stark contrast to others I’d read in my grade school textbooks that in my child’s mind, portrayed enslaved peoples as willing participants in a system orchestrated by “savvy” whites over “docile” blacks. As the only black in a classroom of whites, I felt shame wash over me during these lessons where my entire ancestry was painted as one of victimhood. In all of these stories of slavery, Harriet Tubman emerged as the outlier, proof of a people with a rebellious, fighting spirit.
As the years passed and my education broadened to include a more accurate history, I often found myself engaged in heated discussions with many who clung to those textbook versions of historic events. And in those arguments, I often came away battered and bruised and angrier. But that is what difficult conversations do.
Slavery is the piece of history no likes to discuss. It creates deep divisions and reopens wounds. Emotions range from guilt to defensiveness to shame to fear. But when is a good time to have difficult conversations?
Some of the most difficult conversations I have had are with one of my closest girlfriends who differs from me in nearly every way—racially, culturally, socioeconomically, geographically, religiously. We met during our freshman year of college, and I was drawn to her assertive, politically incorrect style, which was in direct contrast
to my New England tact and liberalism. She came armed with strong opinions and stereotypes, compassion and curiosity in equal measure at a time when I was raw with the pain of too many classrooms of people who didn’t look like me who told me told me that my history was less than when I now knew better. We talked. We argued. We challenged. And surprisingly, it was as invigorating as it was respectful. Through the years, we went our separate ways, moved away, made new friends, and came back together, stronger in our beliefs but softened too by how the ugliness of the world could be cushioned just a bit by a friend with whom you could ask hard questions and receive honest answers. Gradually it was trust and then love that allowed us to talk without fear of judgment and have genuine discussions. On many topics, we will never agree, but the difficult conversations continue to grow us in our understanding of each other and the worlds in which we live.
I will be the first to confess, I struggle with initiating more of these honest conversations outside of my echo chamber. I am not all that interested in hearing why you believe (insert opposing political and social viewpoints here), but I do recognize the importance of having the conversation. They can clarify our thinking, help us sort through difficult topics, remind us the world is full of people with a variety of viewpoints and every so often, those varying thoughts can also offera new perspective.
.Conversations are a step in the right direction, but when we can’t find people with whom to share difficult conversations, an understanding of history may be the best weapon we have in combatting the “isms” we all face.
The writer Chinua Achebe once cited the African proverb, “Until the lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” As a child, all those years ago, the full story, the truth, was owed to every child in my classroom. Not just the stories in the textbooks. Not just Harriet’s. But the many more that reflect the wide-ranging experiences of peoples that provide an accurate, alternative view of history to provide context and deeper content.
When is a good time to have difficult conversations? Books for children that commemorate diverse historical figures may just be a good place to start.