With my six-year-old daughter on my shoulders, I walked from Atlantic Terminal to Windsor Terrace in Brooklyn. A man stopped me on Flatbush Avenue to ask directions to Grand Army Plaza. “What’s that?” my daughter asked. I told her it was the spot at the top of the park with the fountain and the statues and the arch. “But what’s the Grand Army?” she asked. I gave her the quick, elementary school version of the Civil War, stripped of Ken Burns nuances—North, South, union, secession, the armies of the Potomac and Virginia, the end of slavery. I didn’t mention who the slaves were, where they were from or how they were distinguished from the free. I didn’t have to. A six-year-old knows without being told. If there were slaves in this country, she knew who they would be. “I’m glad they won,” my daughter said. “I wouldn’t want to be a slave. I wouldn’t have toys or time to play. I wouldn’t get to read or go to school.”
When asked about her heritage, my daughter says she is Irish—she takes Irish Step Dance classes and marches in St. Patrick’s Day parades—she honors her Celtic heritage more than any family member has for two or more generations. That is about as white as a child can get. My daughter is also half Indian, by way of the West Indies—her maternal grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Guyana some forty years ago. When I told my daughter about the slavery that had been allowed and sanctioned in this country before the Civil War, it haunted and disturbed me that she jumped so easily to the accurate conclusion that she, having dark skin, would have lived among the enslaved. The concept of white privilege boiled to the surface—itching and burning. I remembered, at a similar age, learning about slavery and the Civil War and imagining how uncomfortable it might be to own another person.
–contributed by Paul Hawkins, author of the new memoir Other, Please Specify: Notes from an Off-white American