Forty-five years ago this spring, my brothers and I (ages 5, 6, 7 and 9) went to a Saturday afternoon showing of Pinocchio at the Uptown Theater in suburban Baltimore. Our mom had errands to run, so she sent us with our babysitter, Elizabeth.
Outside the theater, we noticed that Elizabeth was engaged in a hushed conversation with the woman in the box office. Apparently, she was having trouble buying our tickets. "But I'm the babysitter," Elizabeth said coolly. "I have to stay with them."
After a bit more whispering, we were admitted to the theater and seated as a group in the glassed-in balcony. My brothers and I had never sat up high before, and we were enchanted by it all. What we didn't know was that we had no choice. Elizabeth was black and not permitted in the lower seats.
When I tell my daughters (Audrey, 8, and Bridgette, 11) this story, they look at me wide-eyed, as if I'm concocting some wild fiction. To them, skin color has always been a non-issue, as inconsequential in their personal relationships as hair color, eye color or even the color of a blouse.
Audrey's first "boyfriend" in pre-school was a handsome little man named Mekahel, a black child with an infectious smile and boundless energy. The only time Audrey and Mekahel ever discussed color was over crayons.
Bridgette's godfather Guy, meanwhile, is also black, a trait she finds far less interesting than his computer wizardry or the fact that he was the first person she ever "danced" with--at a wedding, when she was just 4 weeks old.
To my daughters and their friends, the days of America's apartheid are sepia-tinted, blurry, a giant chapter of our national story that, once shouted from pulpits in Birmingham and Memphis, has now been compacted for easy listening. Sure, they're taught about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks maybe once a year in school; and perhaps they'll casually glimpse some boring documentary their parents are watching in the den.
But for the most part, kids of any generation tend to see the past as the past--and, besides, a new episode of American Idol is on tonight.
So as we celebrate Black History Month, I wonder: What kind of responsibility do parents have in educating our children about the sad legacy of racism that has run through our nation's life like a persistent electrical current? Do we bequeath that shame to our kids out of a sense of obligation, charging them with the task of carrying the long, hard fight of our troubled heritage into a new era? Or do we quietly give thanks for their blissful naiveté--their lucky late-century birth--and hope that the deeper sense of fairness that is already evident in their new generation may take root in America's future? Do we leave well enough alone?
To be sure, our country is experiencing a transformation that would have been unimaginable half a century ago.
Our last two Secretaries of State have been African-American (likewise, both 2007 Super Bowl head coaches); our most talked-about presidential candidate is black; people of color populate executive suites and statehouses across the country in increasing numbers. And the only conversation about race that seems to interest Major League Baseball anymore is the one about the pennant.
Yet just because America's more notorious racial injustices are thankfully behind us--the segregated lunch counters, the unconscionable lynchings, the ignominious Jim Crow laws--thick capillaries of discrimination continue to pulse beneath our national skin. These lingering vestiges of that old-time racism are, in many ways, just as insidious as those we thought we'd thrown off with the great Civil Rights acts of the '60s, if only because they are more cleverly cloaked from view.
Blacks continue to be shut out of polling places because of dubious technicalities. Families of color continue to carry a disproportionate share of our country's worst afflictions--from poverty to unemployment to teen pregnancy--at national rates that have consistently remained two to three times that of whites for the past 20 years. Minority youth continue to be isolated, not embraced, by our education system, despite the efforts of No Child Left Behind. And in November, another unarmed black man was killed in a hail of police bullets, just a subway ride from where my daughters go to school. It was a flashback to the bad old days.
This, to me, is what Black History Month is really about--a time to step back and measure our growth as a nation against the work that remains to be done. Certainly, I appreciate honoring noteworthy figures who somehow never made it into my childhood classroom texts (black scientist Charles Henry Turner; 1867-1923; the first to prove that insects can hear). But our children also need to know that America's complicated relationship with race is an unfinished story, and it will one day be up to them to write its ending. That's why, as a parent, I'd rather spend this month--not to mention the 11 around it--making sure that my kids understand that black history is their history, too.
Just like their dad at that movie theater nearly 50 years ago, Bridgette and Audrey live in a country that still struggles to do the right thing. But unlike their father, they were born in a time of progress, a time of hope. We haven't yet reached Martin Luther King's mountaintop in America. But I have to believe that our children may one day take us there.
This essay originally appeared in USA Today.