How young is too young to learn about racism?

Published 9:22 am Wednesday, February 27, 2002

By Staff
Jenny Cunningham's 5-year-old son didn't know what to make of a newspaper tabloid his kindergarten teacher sent home.
Peyton Cunningham, a student at Valley Grande Elementary, began his formal education on black history last week when a newspaper published by The Greene County Democrat discussed, in detail, the gruesome reality of racism's history. The publication was distributed in every school in Selma and Dallas County.
One article spoke of blacks hanged in trees. Another told the story of a slave tied to a plow where vultures eventually came to feast. Yet another told of a slave caught cooking a chicken. She was forced to eat the boiling chicken, which quickly killed her.
One reason for young Peyton's fear is that he never knew about racism before the publication.
Cunningham said her son feels like his black friends look at him different now.
Cunningham isn't the only one concerned.
Julie Jones' 5-year-old daughter, Kirsten, also came home with the publication and her mother was not happy.
Jones threw away the publication, as did Jenny Cunningham.
Both Wayne May, superintendent of the Dallas County School System, and Dr. James Carter, superintendent of the Selma City Schools, approved distribution of the tabloid.
May wishes he hadn't.
Neither May nor Carter read the tabloid before it was sent into their schools, though both said they surely will now.
Time to tell
And that leads to the toughest question of all. Slavery is real, as is its perverted history. Jones and Cunningham realize that, but they don't think kindergarten is the best time to start teaching it. So when is the right time?
The Parenting Leadership Institute addressed teaching racism to children, and Patty Wipfler said parents must be careful about introducing the social wrongs to their children.
Jones, adamant that her child learned too early, said later in school is better.
Carter doesn't think the education of slavery's violence has to start that late.
Joann Bland, of the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, doesn't buy a bit of the "too early" argument. She said kids should learn as soon as they can.
The point of history
Whether slavery and the violence that accompanied it would ever happen again is an entirely different question. But Carter said students do need to learn from history.
But Carter warned that teaching about the wrongs of yesterday can be done the wrong way.
February is Black History Month across America, and Cunningham wishes young students would learn what's happening to improve on what happened in the past.
What happens now?
The publication, which has already been distributed to all schools in the city and county system, cost "somewhere between 15 and 20 cents a copy," May said. With nearly 10,000 students in Selma and Dallas County, nearly $2,000 was spent to distribute the tabloid.
Both Jones and Cunningham wish the money would have been used in other places.
Cunningham said she sends liquid soap, air fresheners and "two things of Lysol each semester."
As for how the schools systems will handle it, May said he'll make it a priority to read through literature distributed in his schools.
Carter also said it's important for his school system to keep an eye on what children read.

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