Walking up to our elementary school the other day, my 10-year-old daughter and I ran into art teacher Malcolm Goff, who’s been teaching her or her sister for the past four years.
“You want to help carry some art?” he asked.
Malcolm had framed some of his ink drawings for an exhibit in the PTA art gallery. He had a series on John Hope Franklin, the great African-American historian. Franklin would teach at Chicago, Cambridge and Duke, but Mr. Goff’s sketches show this great scholar’s struggles as a black man, to sit where he pleased on a bus or to gain access to historical data against resistance from white bureaucrats.
My youngest and I helped Malcolm haul the pieces into the school. I noticed one of them had an inscription, “In honor of Michael Brown.” It showed a young black man with his hands raised up in defense, his eyes and mouth wide with fear.
“Do you think it’s too political for elementary school kids?” Malcolm asked me.
What a generous question! Here’s a black man, a native Brooklynite who pursued art education and Black studies at the State University of New York, and he wants to know what this white guy from rural New Hampshire thinks is appropriate political art coming out of the African-American experience. Given our country’s racial histories, it’s probably my task to listen, rather than offering my own opinion, and I can’t speak for anybody else nor their kids, but I know this much: My own child was eager to talk about the drawing. She started telling a story she’d heard on TV or the radio about a “colored” woman who got handcuffed after calling police about a break-in at her own home.
“Colored.” Where did she hear that word? That’s not how we talk in our house. I confess, I don’t know how to say exactly what’s wrong with “colored.” I mean, I guess if you think about it at the level of Crayola, and you’re willing to concede that some human beings are “white” – which none of us is, of course – then I suppose anyone else might be considered “colored,” in the mind of a fourth-grader. That’s what we get for making European ancestry normative and symbolizing it with a falsely neutral concept like whiteness. But whatever rationale the word “colored” might or might not have, there’s this: It’s what white people called African-Americans when Jim Crow was in force, and we don’t want any echoes of that. More important: It breaks humanity down into whites versus everybody else. If we’re going to divide and distinguish one another, it might be nice to be a bit more specific.
I wanted my daughter to know we don’t use that word, but I bit my tongue for the moment, as she led us in a conversation about how most people have lots of different racial origins in our DNA, and we’ll probably only become more integrated, genetically speaking. At some point, Malcolm brought up a “person of color” – Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates – who was arrested trying to break into his own home, and I knew this was my chance.
“Did you hear what Mr. Goff said?” I asked her. “’Colored’ is a pretty old-fashioned word. It’s important to always listen to how people of color refer to themselves, because the right language is probably going to change over your lifetime.”
Malcolm was asking a deeper question: How do we teach our kids about racial inequities? The truth is, I don’t often know how to navigate those questions myself, let alone convey what I’ve learned to my child. She knows that something’s wrong when police detain people in their own homes, falsely assuming they’re perpetrators, just because they’re black. If a piece of art causes students to reflect on such things, to grow up and fight against them, then, no, I don’t think it’s too political. I’m glad my kid is learning art from a teacher offering her a perspective that I can’t.
An artist and educator, Malcolm Goff blends abstraction and social realism. For more information about his work, please visit http://malcolmgoff.carbonmade.com/.