Black Children and Black History: The Importance Of Teaching Our Kids the Complexity Of Us

I was in the car headed to the Atlanta OneMillionRising rally with Mari and three of her female classmates, singing Prince’s “Adore” loud and off-key, when girlpie commandeered the radio dial in search of—what else?—hip hop. “I can’t believe you turned off Prince,” I sniffed. “Since your little friends are in the car, I’ll give you that, but please be aware: I’m not feeling Lil’ Wayne in general and, because of his nasty lyrics about Emmett Till, today I particularly don’t like his behind, so he will not be on my radio, please and thank you.”

“Wait, huh?” the girls asked, practically in unison. “What did he say?”

Typical. The girls had no clue that one of their generation’s most revered rappers was being called out by the Civil Rights icon’s family for comparing sex with the brutal, merciless beating that killed the then-14-year-old Till. For kids, that kind of news never appeals; they nod to the beat, Tweet about what Kim Kardashian did on her latest reality show, obsess over Mindless Behavior Instagram posts and ignore that which gets the adults all riled up. Never mind that, though: I was pissed and I wanted them to understand why they should be, too. “I mean, besides constantly making it seem like the only good sex is violent sex, this fool callously used the brutal murder of Emmett Till to describe what he’d like to do to a woman’s body. You should be infuriated.”

And then I stopped myself short. “Wait: Y’all do know who Emmett Till is, right? Right?

And in that moment between my question and their answer, I really had to wonder if, as a black mom in America, I’d failed my children. Because I couldn’t be so sure that I’d taught my own African American babies that particular piece of history. I mean, I thought I’d had, but I couldn’t be sure that I’d actually sat them down and said, “Emmett Till was dragged out of his bed by a gang of white men who beat him bloody, gouged out his eyes, shot him in the head and tied him to a cotton gin fan with barbed wire and tossed him to the bottom of the Tallahatchie river for allegedly whistling at a white woman, and his mother’s courageous decision to show his battered, broken, bloated body in an open casket funeral for the world to see was the impetus for the Civil Rights Movement.”

Be clear: I think I’ve done a helluva job instilling positive self-esteem in my black girls; though they still have their moments of self-doubt—what girl doesn’t?—I’d like to think that surrounding my daughters with black children’s books, music, poems and consistent messages about how intelligent, smart, thoughtful and, yes, beautiful they are has gone a long way in making them understand that no matter anyone else’s opinion, they’re some baaaad little chicks.

But there are some days that I feel like I just haven’t done enough when it comes to the nuts-and-bolts of who we are as a people—that I’ve become complacent with our history. It’s like February rolls around and someone says something nice about Martin Luther King and Harriett Tubman and names all the stuff George Washington Carver made out of peanuts and then we drop it all until the next Black History Month comes creaking along.

This is unfair to my babies. And to our people who came before us—who paved the streets with their blood, sweat, tears and sacrifice so that my daughters and I could really live. And failing to teach our children the importance of those who paved the way creates a breeding ground for the tomfoolery advanced by the likes of Lil’ Wayne, who would traffic in hurtful, nonsensical metaphors about our heroes simply to shovel his woefully misogynistic rhetoric on young fans too busy nodding to the beat to understand just how blatantly disrespectful he is to our daughters and our sons.

Of course, there are those who are quick to argue that slavery and Emmett Till and Jim Crow are ancient history; consider the outrageous comments U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia made just last week when he suggested, out loud, that the Voting Rights Act—one that people lost limbs, blood and lives for; one that was tested as recently as during last year’s presidential election—is a “racial entitlement.” And in states like Texas, Tennessee and Arizona, conservatives are flat out trying to pretend our history never existed in the first place by either revising it or, in some cases, outright erasing facts about blacks and Mexicans in the U.S. from their school curriculums. How many times have you heard white folk make the (stupid) argument that they’ve “never owned any slaves” and therefore shouldn’t have to answer to any of the race remnants that continue to fester and puss throughout our land? Post racial? Yeah. Okay. *insert massive side-eye here.*

I don’t need their revised, whitewashed history books or their acknowledgement. I only have to look to my father to be reminded how important it is to remember our history and recount it to our children. Just last week, when I appeared on HLN to talk about the year anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s shooting death, my father called to congratulate me and we ended up talking for hours about his experience as a young black man in the deep South, where segregation ruled, Jim Crow was the law of the land and an African American teen would have to be mindful to step off the curb and avoid looking a passing white man in the eye, lest he earn himself a trip to jail and a beating—or worse, the business end of a rope and tree limb.

Having a daddy who can recall those days of separate bathrooms and water fountains and the indignities of being a black man in pre Civil Rights era America puts perspective on things, I’ll tell you that much. It also reminds me that there simply is no room for letting our babies be ignorant of our history. We must tell them the story of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers. We must tell them about Bloody Sunday and the Four Little Girls. They need to know about Cinque and Ebo Landing and the Gullah culture—the one-room school houses and the colored water fountains and the department stores that wouldn’t let even our children try on clothes in the fitting rooms, even though they were quick to take our money. We can’t stop at Harriett Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks and those 28 days in the shortest month of the year. Black history is our history.

American history.

And if we don’t remember it, talk about it and pass it on, surely it will die.

More importantly, if we don’t teach it to our children, they won’t know it—and this will be nobody’s fault but our own. Most schools won’t be teaching it. Our children are not going to learn it on the television. And they sure as hell won’t pick it up in a Lil’ Wayne lyric. This doesn’t mean that our children don’t care and aren’t interested in learning it. It simply means that we parents are falling down on our jobs when it comes to making sure that our children are up on the history, its context and what it means to their world today.

I thank goodness that Mari and her fellow students—one an African American girl, two white—knew the story of Emmett Till. Mari told me later that she couldn’t remember if I told her about him or if she learned about him in school. I’m grateful that she knew, no matter who taught it to her, but I know that there’s a lot more for my daughter to learn. I’ve got work to do. How about you?


1. Celebrating Black History Month All Day, Every Day
2. Black Gold: In Praise Of Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society and Its Focus On Black Children
3. Why White Parents Should Teach Their Children About Race
4. Black & Proud: How I Teach My Children to Love Their African-American Heritage

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. Barbara Soloski Albin

    Dear Denene, We probably have failed our children when it comes to ALL history and geography. I think we just assumed that they were learning these things in school or picking them up while listenine to our talk in the house. When my kids were little, I bought every book I could get hold of that involved history for children, I think I still have them all, but today many parents have become use to the computer and the kids maybe missing out on a lot of history. Recently I understood that a group of children did not know what the 13 colonies were, a friend of mine a few years back went to a store and wanted to send her sister in New Mexico a gift, the store told her that they don’t ship out of the country. When I was age of your kids, the story of the Holocaust (details) were kept from us, we were considered to young, even in our early teens, that of course has changed today. The story of Emmett Till is a difficult story to talk about, even for many adults, so I can understand how we parents might have let it slip by. I still think books, in the paper form, are the best way for our children to learn about history. One of my favorite books is Faith Ringgold’s Dinner at Aunt Connies, of course it is for younger children, but it gives all children a history of so many important African American women in history, plus the illustrations are beautiful. I used to order a magazine for my sons called Cobblestone (it probably is out of print), but each month it was filled with history, all history. I think the books are still in the garage packed away. Again, they may not have talked about Emmett Till. This was a wonderful, needed, posting of yours. Sorry for being so wordy. Love to you and your family, Barbara Albin

  2. I am from the civil rights era and my grandmother taught me about her world. The fact that was blue eyed and could pass made her teachings more important. My mom told stories of fighting off white men who would attempt to abduct her and her friends to and from school in the 30s and 40s. It is not only is not only the Tills stories it should be about folks in your family tree. We were there and can give an accounting of our history. Blacks used to be church centered so that provided a platform for extended education. As we have moved away from the church as a cultural center it is our duty as families to be the village in the rearing of our young. You did the right thing in telling the kids why you could not support the rapper idiot. They can only get this information from us, the media has dumbed down everything.i hate to admit that Tipper Gore was right about metal music and MTV. Speak out loud and often you are the only defense your child has against a machine out to destroy critical thinking.

  3. First of all, I loved reading every last bit of this. Do you have resources compiled of books, poems, etc.? My husband has a mixed daughter that unfortunately lives in a 99.9% area and school district. She never sees people that look like her until she visits us. As a teacher this absolutely infuriates me. We’ve done what we can to talk to her, build her up, share knowledge and information with her. She just views herself as a different looking white kid that got some special stuff from her dad’s side. Any advice, books, resources you could offer would be much appreciated!

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