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Symbols on the Doorframe

[Editor’s note: Our friends at Square Halo books have a brand new collection of essays called Wild Things and Castles in the Sky. Together, these essays form one cohesive guide for choosing books for children. Today, we’re grateful to share with you an essay from the book written by Shanika Churchville, in which she discusses the ways that the book of Deuteronomy offers a guide to families on how to discuss race with children.]

In Deuteronomy 6:4–9 and 11:18–21, as well as throughout the Pentateuch, God encourages the use of concrete images and tangible symbols.1 Symbols on hands, between eyes, and on doorposts would mark these ragtag nomads as the people of God and create a basis for lessons and conversations between parents and children, ones full of stories of God’s goodness and faithfulness.2

I suggest that Deuteronomy provides modern day readers not only with examples of how to talk with our children about God’s protection and provision but also with a model for conversations about race. The Black Church has historically claimed as its own the story of the 400-year enslavement of God’s people and his liberation of them in Exodus.3 Following in its steps, we can use Deuteronomy to frame conversations with children about race.

While I write this, America is grappling with issues of race. Many are awakening to the experiences and realities faced by people of color related to racial injustice and centuries-old oppression. Some white friends and acquaintances have confided to my husband and me that they have never talked or thought about race and feel ignorant of the perspectives, experiences, and history of Black people. I’d like to suggest that God has given Christians of all races, but particularly white Christians, a pivotal opportunity to think and talk about race. If we want our children to grow into adults who can lovingly and respectfully engage across racial or cultural lines, we must begin by having conversations about race with them at home.

With Deuteronomy as our guide, I’d like to offer myself to you as a fellow learner on this journey. I am a Sri Lankan American and have had the privilege of living in both Sri Lanka and the United States. While I’ve had to navigate life as a person of color in largely white spaces in the United States, I’ve also lived as a member of a privileged family of a majority culture in Sri Lanka.

Two decades ago, I married my husband, who is Black. Over our years together, I have learned much about the history of this country and the beauty and suffering of Black people. I have had to learn the painful realities of historic and systemic racism. I have had to grapple with my own prejudice and ignorance and acknowledge the unearned benefits accorded me by my privileged background. God has blessed us with two sons. In raising them, I have had to become more intentional about learning and teaching them their history and the realities of living in a society that might misunderstand them at best and seek to destroy them at worst. It has been both exhilarating and incredibly painful, and it has been one of the most profound experiences of my life.

I recognize that I have kept my focus very narrow here. I’ve chosen to share how I celebrate Black history and experience with my sons. I haven’t shared about how I communicate Sri Lankan culture to my sons or how a parent could teach their children about the varied ethnic and cultural experiences of white, Asian, Latino, Native, or multi-racial peoples. However, I believe the following principles hold true when making any intentional choice to enrich children’s reading experiences and expand their cultural competence and sensitivity.

Be Concrete

You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. —Deuteronomy 6:8

God reinforces the power of the concrete in his exhortation to parents. The beauty of children’s books is their power to deliver the loftiest truths and the deepest sorrows with simple stories and vivid imagery. I love sharing Faith Ringgold’s books with my boys. Her gorgeous, vibrant artwork provides a stunning and fanciful backdrop to her depiction of the Underground Railroad in Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky. Picture books provide a solid, touchable way to engage in conversations about race with your children. Research shows that children as young as six months begin to nonverbally categorize race and that toddlers begin to make inferences connected to racial categories.4 It is never too early to begin talking about race in open, affirming, and age-appropriate ways. Books, particularly picture books, provide a marvelous way to do that. 5

Be Humble

Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the Lord. —Deuteronomy 9:6-8

God reminds his people that their possession of good land had nothing to do with their faithfulness or goodness. He calls them to humility and to recognize himself as the source of their blessings. As Americans, we have also been given “this good land” and the accompanying freedoms many of our global neighbors do not enjoy. While we may enjoy certain rights and privileges, God calls us to remember that he is the source of those blessings, not our own goodness.

It is humbling to face the guilt of oppression and injustice built over centuries. Books provide an age-appropriate way to exercise this humility, along with our children. Shanika Churchville

In Deuteronomy 9, God also calls his people to remember their sins of stubbornness and rebellion. Our country’s history, while full of evidence of God’s goodness, has also been marked by a stubborn refusal to face and change deeply held beliefs about race. To engage with children about this stubbornness in our racial divide is to exercise humility. It is humbling to face the guilt of oppression and injustice built over centuries. Books provide an age-appropriate way to exercise this humility, along with our children. Read books such as Jeannette Winter’s Follow the Drinking Gourd and Deborah Hopkinson’s Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt and open your children’s eyes to the specifics of slavery and the Underground Railroad. Read Jacqueline Woodson’s The Other Side and Margaret Mason’s These Hands and facilitate discussions about the indignities of segregation.

God does not protect his people from memories of disobedience and waywardness but recounts a story of both blessings and rebellion. Neither should we, in an effort to protect our children, whitewash memories of our disobedience to God’s commandments—disobedience that has included the subjugation and oppression of Black people.6

Be Amazed

For your eyes have seen all the great work of the Lord that he did. —Deuteronomy 11:7

Any hearer of Moses’ words would be amazed, contemplating God’s “mighty deed and his outstretched arm” (Deut. 11: 2). Towards the end of Deuteronomy, we hear Moses praising God for his faithfulness (Deut. 32:1–4). Indeed, the book of Deuteronomy is a hymn to the amazing deeds of the Lord.

When I look at my sons, I see in them the sheer determination and triumph of their ancestors who overcame historic hardships. I think of the following from Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise”:

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise I rise I rise.7 —”Still I Rise,” Maya Angelou

Don’t settle for the abridged and anesthetized version of Black history served up in elementary schools every February. Open your family to the glory and beauty of Black history. In our house we celebrate Martin and Malcolm, Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman, Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, as well as our Black students, colleagues, family members, and friends. Fight against the prevailing narratives, both the paternalistic ones that caricature all Black people as helpless and hopeless and the destructive ones that depict all Black people as dangerous and criminal. Share books with your children like Derrick Barnes’s I Am Every Good Thing and be amazed!

Curated and edited by Leslie and Carey Bustard with Théa Rosenburg, Wild Things and Castles in the Sky explores topics like classic literature, imagination, art history, race, poetry, young adult novels, faith, and more. The aim and hope is that these essays would encourage parents, grandparents, teachers, and friends to share the power of a good story with a child they love.

To learn more about the book from its editor, listen to Leslie Bustard’s conversation with Jonathan Rogers on The Habit Podcast.


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