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Will We Be Slaves Again?

by Mary Kent

November, 1963

The following “reflection” was discovered by one of Mary Kent’s daughters, Rachel Kent, while going through some papers of her late mother.  (Note:  At the time this was written “Negro” was commonly used instead of “Black” or “African American”).  

As some of you may know, I am a substitute teacher in Arlington schools.  For the past six weeks I have been working in a fourth grade room in Drew Annex.  This school has a school nurse who is white, one sixth grade teacher who is white.  The rest of the school staff and all of the students are Negroes.  It was in this room that I received word on Friday, in a one-line note from the office, that “President Kennedy has been shot and is in critical condition.”  As teachers all across the country did, I asked for a moment of silence so that we might pray for our President.  After this the children asked many questions...” Who shot him? Will he die? Where was Mrs. Kennedy?  Where were the children?”

 

Since I could not tell them any of these things, I suggested we go about our tasks until we received more information.  I told them not to ask any more questions.  However, one little girl--one of the best-behaved as well as the best informed children in the class-- stood up beside her desk and said, “Mrs. Kent, I have a very, very important question to ask.”  I gave her an answer I have used many times before, “If you are sure it is important, you may ask it.”

Standing beside her desk the little girl asked, “Mrs. Kent, if President Kennedy dies, will we be slaves again?”

And no one laughed.  And no one spoke. And no one moved.   I had the complete attention of every child in that room.

And what did I say?  I am not really sure … something about the impossibility of this ever happening ... something to assure her that the days of the slavery of her people was 100 years back in our history ... something to the effect that if the President died another man would take his place at once and that so far as most of us were concerned, everything would be just about the same as before.  I'm not sure what I said.  I remember what I thought: “My God, what have we done?!”  And I prayed that God would help me help this child who had fears in her heart that I could never have imagined ... and I knew I must answer seriously but not let my voice quaver because this child would think I was upset because there was a possibility that what she feared might happen ... that she could not understand why the question she asked could upset me.  So I answered the question, but I don't know how well.  I told her teacher who returned to class yesterday what had happened so she might in some way speak to the child's fears.

Why should the child ask such a question?  Think of your school books.  How many pictures are there of Negroes?  There are very few, and those few are those which show them as slaves.

When we take a course and when we read of the problems of minority groups, this fact -- that people of minority groups are not given stories and pictures of their own race -- is mentioned. But the importance of it never reached me before.  If there are only a few pictures, those few take on an importance far greater than we expect it to.  And the child asks, “If President Kennedy dies, will we be slaves?”

Why should a child ask such a question? Partly because a child has no sense of time and the sequence of history.  The Civil War was a long time ago -- and so was Christmas -- and surely nothing could be farther in the past than First Grade.

There is another reason, perhaps, why the child can ask such a question. That is that there has been nothing in his experience or knowledge of the White Man that has erased a fear of slavery. At Halloween I overheard one of the boys in my class telling his friend about what he did for Trick-or-Treat.  And in telling it he mentioned going to a ‘white' house, and that white man said, “I don't have anything for Trick-or-Treat.” But the boy said, “I could see he had a big bowl of Hershey bars on the table. And we left and some white kids went to the house and he gave them Hershey bars.  He had them Hershey bars for white kids.  He didn't want us there.”  And the boy was angry and his friends weren't angry.  It was just a thing that happened, that by the time the boy was nine years old, he more or less expected this from whites. 

My feeling is very deep that this is not a thing we can solve by discussion.  We could talk about the education of Negroes, about integration, segregation, and these problems, and we could solve nothing.  Each would bring his own intellectual and emotional thoughts, his background, his experiences with Negroes.  These would be numerous and varied.  The discussion might be interesting and informative, and would surely be lively, and perhaps heated.

But perhaps what we should do, especially as people interested in the field of Guidance, is to think what we can do to help children grow up without a fear of slavery by his fellow Americans.  It seems that no thinking compassionate person would want children of our nation to know such a fear.  Those who believe in segregation of race, how can you erase this fear?  Those who believe in limited integration, what will you do?  Those who believe in complete and unlimited integration, what will you do?

I don't and can't speak for anyone but myself, but I don't want any child in the nation ever again to stand beside his desk, and with all seriousness and in deep earnestness, ask, “Teacher, if our President dies, will we be slaves again?”