Giving Culture to Our Kids: Reflections During Black History Month

Thames, Coromandel, North Island, New Zealand.
Thames, Coromandel, North Island, New Zealand.

I came to the United States from Turkey when I was 11 and didn't speak a word of English. I knew nothing of American traditions other then what I had watched on Dallas. I thought this was a place where people spoke with their teeth clenched as they flashed huge smiles, and I expected everyone to live in lavish ranches. I thought all Americans were alcoholics with questionable morals. Well, except for Bobby, of course.

The America depicted in one of my favorite TV shows as a child was obviously not the America I found. I focused instead on how to unwrap the social hierarchy at school, where I saw that I had just one choice: to figure it out--and quickly--or stay at the bottom of it. So, I did what I had to do. I assimilated.

The transition went less smoothly for my parents, who tried to hold on to every bit of our Turkish past. For them, it didn't seem like there was ever enough room for our ethnicity and our new culture simultaneously. They were very strict with my siblings and me, almost as if they could make the rules so rigid that we would be able to live in America, this land of opportunities, without becoming Americanized. Why? I think, more than anything, they feared not being able to relate to us. It's easy to see now, especially as a parent with two kids myself, how terribly that stronghold backfired for them.

A few of my siblings rebelled full-stop, embracing their new-found heritage without a second glance. I took a more measured approach, wanting to connect with my cool American peers but also wanting to please my frantic parents. I straddled the line between Turkey and the United States like I was walking a tightrope.

As an adult, you can no longer hear my accent when I speak English, but I married a Turk. And we find ourselves challenged with the task of determining how to imbue a sense of cultural heritage in our kids that honors both their American lifestyle and their Turkish roots. How much do we teach them? What do we let go of? These questions, even the small ones, don't always have straightforward answers. I understand more of what my parents must have felt when they first moved us across the Atlantic to start a new life here.

There's no denying that, no matter how wonderful America is, this country was built on the backs of Africans brought here without their consent. Despite the strides we've made toward equality, until all people are celebrated for their contributions to the United States' history, initiatives like Black History Month are important in helping our children recognize and appreciate an American history that is more rich, diverse, and inclusive than a solely Western-European narrative.
But as I witness my children learning to be Turkish in the same way I originally learned to be American--mostly from dated soap operas--I can't help but wonder what this experience is like for African-American parents who similarly hope to pass down the culturally rich threads of their heritage to their children. My talented colleague Cara Everett recently wrote on this topic for Posh Seven magazine through the lens of a culture project her kids are asked to complete at the start of each school year. Writes Everett:

I realize that those who develop the curriculum for our children have great intentions to teach students about civics and geography. Hopefully, these lessons will provide a foundation for better understanding our differences. I get that, but for an African-American family like mine--it's not that simple. The quick answer is that my ancestors came from Africa. This is true, but from exactly which of the continent's 54 countries did my family originate?History tells us that slaves were kidnapped from the western countries of Africa. So, we spin our globe and pick a country for the sake of this assignment....

When discussing today's black history in America, my children are familiar with the standard icons-- Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr. But as a family who has explored our ancestors from various African countries, we talk about the scientists and inventors like Garrett Morgan, the creator of the stoplight; Louis Latimer, creator of the light filament that led to Thomas Edison's creation of the light bulb; Otis Boykin, inventor of the electronic control devices that led to NASA's mission controls; and, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, the first open-heart surgeon. We discussed that "necessity is the mother of invention" and that our African ancestors, perhaps from Mali, produced the genes that led these inventors to their successes.

I know after my husband and I pass, our kids will be less Turkish than they were when we were alive. And in turn their kids will be less Turkish, and so there's a chance our legacy and history will disappear within just two lifetimes. What was built over thousands of years will be erased in two generations. I see, now, more of what my parents were so desperate to hold on to. This is what I think about when I sit down with my own kids and talk to them about their heritage, about Turkey. All we can hope is that we tell them enough to instill that sense of story in them, to make them hungry for more of the narrative--to teach them how they can have an identity that honors both Turkey and America so that when it comes time to complete their own children's culture project, they'll know what to tell them.

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