How Black History Month was Influenced by "Schindler's List"

Since February is Black History Month, under the category of "Things I never thought I'd have to think about," this past weekend I started to fixate on the fact that in the next couple of years, I'm going to have to figure out how to acquaint my now one-year-old biracial daughter with her culture and her history, on both sides of the aisle.  Her mother is African-American and I am white-American and culturally Jewish (although the fact that being Jewish is deemed a culture more than a religion is troubling on many levels).

Of course, the month of February is replete with newspaper and television stories on great African-American figures in history and their accomplishments as well as reports of people with unique circumstances that pull at your heartstrings or that simply make you pay attention and reflect on your own life.  None of those stories made me realize how I, as a father, will need to address my daughter's heritage as an, at least partial, African-American.  Rather, it was while I was watching "Schindler's List" on Saturday night that I "awoke" to the fact that there are more things to consider than just what I was taught as a child and what I have learned growing up.

As a Jewish person, watching "Schindler's List" is difficult enough.  (If you don't know the story, I'm not going to tell it here.  If I'm lucky enough to have you reading this blog, then you probably know it anyway.)  As a Jewish person whose mother escaped Germany by the skin of her three-year-old teeth, it is difficult for me to watch; as it is difficult for me to watch knowing that my mother's grandparents did not survive the Holocaust, as they were not on Schindler's List or anyone else's list, but rather died in a concentration camp - victims of anti-semitism and Hitler's insanity.

So, as I sat on the couch watching this movie for the first time in several years, I started to think that I really need to make sure that my daughter knows and understands her Jewish history and her family's struggles.  Some parts of her family were exiled from Russia in the early 20th century and others came to America on ships with a few dollars in their pockets and with no knowledge of our language or customs.  She should know about her grandfather who came to Chicago before my mother and my grandmother and secured a job as a Fuller brush salesman so he could convince the US government that his wife and daughter would not be a drain on American society.

I watched "Schindler's List" and wondered who among us is descended from the people who Schindler saved and who may be on the train with me in the morning or standing in line at the Starbucks in the morning and how lucky they are and how lucky I am as well.

It then dawned on me that I was watching this movie during what has been designated as the month for studying and respecting African-American history and, it also dawned on me that for purposes of a child's cultural awareness, my one-year-old daughter has another side to her.  She is not just white, European-American and Jewish.  I can't just sit around and reflect on my own upbringing and family history.  This little toddler is everything from which my wife and her family come from as well -- African, American, native American, Irish, and other parts yet unknown to me.

In light of these "revelations" it's time for me to set aside my intellectual laziness as well as my cynicism about the creation of months and holidays honoring certain groups and take the time to learn something.  African-American history is far more than just Martin Luther King, Jr. despite the fact that this was seemingly the educational focus while my older kids were in school.  It is far, far more than the grammar school lessons I remember that were limited to stories about  George Washington Carver.  I'm not looking for a "village" to help me with this.  It is my responsibility and I plan to invest the time and effort to ensure some results that are lasting.  I'm just glad something jarred me out of my comfort zone albeit that it was a surprising trip around the cable tv dial that accomplished it.

Martin Luther King, Jr. 1964 (source: Library of Congress) (Library of Congress)

I need to spend time with my in-laws and learn about where they came from, who their ancestors were, and how they all got to this country and settled in Chicago.  These are the important aspects of a person's history that you can't learn in school or from a book, but which makes us what we are.  These are the things that my daughter needs to know and which I can't, at this point, tell her.

Raising kids is tough enough.  Raising them to be safe, polite, self-sufficient, healthy and kind is a struggle.  Adding in the piece that they will be aware and proud of their culture and background is, in many cases, a bonus.  So I'll do what I can to help my daughter Sasha feel good about herself from all angles.  But, just because it's me and because I can't get away from my love of sports, I'm going to have to throw some Sandy Koufax as well as some Gale Sayers at her for good measure.

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