The Snowy Day

February 20, 2012

African American History, in my opinion, should be celebrated.  No doubt.  There should be a time where this rich history is highlighted.  February?  Fine with me, as long as it is done.  Too many unsung heroes.  Let’s focus on them. Lets clarify the contributions so there are no mistakes about them.

However, the reality is that African American history cannot be divorced from American history.  Just the idea sounds a little insane.  In America there has been a sharing of ideas and experiences among and between groups whether some groups liked it or not.

This brings me to The Snowy Day.   Since my childhood, I assumed Ezra Jack Keats was African American.  After all, he wrote children’s books with Black children as the prinicpal protagonists. Who else  but a Black person would write Whistle for Willie?

Okay, we do suffer in the shadow of the ugly reinterpretations of Little Black Sambo (it wasn’t originally as offensive as it became over time). However, Keats’ books, by contrast were so inoffensive.  In fact, they were beautiful, simple stories about a child’s experience.

I recently took in an exhibit of Keats’ work at The Jewish Museum in New York City.  I went because my son now has an appreciation for Keats’ books, but also for myself because I thought the books were so beautifully drawn and I wanted to see more of this man’s art.

Up until a few days before the visit to the museum I was still thinking that Keats was Black.  However. a visit to the museum’s website to get a little more background history clarified all of this.  Keats was in fact a Jewish man who was born in 1916 and lived in East New York, Brooklyn.

Many of his books were autobiographical in the sense that they were reminiscent of experiences he had as a child, even if the character himself was not Jewish.

I thought this was quite profound;  that Keats was able to focus enough on the universal experiences of children such that race was not an issue.  The Snowy Day was written in 1962, at the height of the civil rights movement in this country.  It was brave and forward thinking.  The book was a hit among all groups, but Keats did get slack through the few decades following for his main character not confronting his Blackness in the story.

Keats was so much smarter than this.  Children are children.  They don’t go around confronting their ethnicity all the time.  They just want to be children. The experience of children in their curiostiy and exploration of their world is universal.  I later discovered that his book was endorsed by people like Langston Hughes.  Wow.

So, The Snowy Day is well-known for being the first full-color children’s book to feature an African American protagonist. So, the book was not written by an African American, and it wasn’t even necessarily written for African Americans. Nonetheless, it’s publishing was an powerful moment in American history.

Now when I read the book to my son, I think of the power behind it, and I have more hope for humankind.

Some people can live outside their societal boxes and celebrate the fact that at the end of the day we are all just people.

Southern Discomfort

January 15, 2011

The main point of this post is for us to think about why we hit our children. I am saying this first because it takes a minute for me to get to that point in the blog.

There were some unpleasant feelings that came up in terms of my summer vacation South in November 2010. I was concerned about returning to the only place I had ever been where I was called a “nigger” to my face. Surreal for me. ” No thanks, I’ll pass”, I thought when the opportunity arose, but then as you read in my last post I found some really beautiful things in the South (Southern Exposure: https://makeitplainonline.wordpress.com/2010/12/31/southern-exposure/).

Negative feelings did come up though, as my family was entering an old plantation (this was not planned, we just happened upon it during a drive through Edisto Island).  My toddler aged son had some sort of fit and began refusing to enter.

His resistance started a cascade of thoughts for me. Especially, what must it have been like to be a child slave? I will share the cascade with you.

First of all, at what age exactly did they start beating children to shape slave behavior?

At what age was it necessary to conform to slave behavior? When parents say “It’s for your own good?”did this come from a place for black people that really meant, ” learn to be a docile person because that will save your life”?  Certainly, having a strong will or any will would not have been tolerated and was perhaps a matter of life and death.

Were slave children allowed to play?  What was life like for them before they had to work? When were they made to work?  Were they neglected?

I consulted an old book on Black child development about this: Alvin Poussaint and James Comer wrote: Black Child Care in the 70s that referred to the slave child as “abused”. They were often assigned to care for Caucasian sickly people, their elderly or Caucasian children. It didn’t say when they started to work.

I think about my kid and how he always says “no” and that is the process by which we begin to establish a separate identity and find our own voice. It is only normal and natural for children this age to do this. How was this handled with slave children? I can only guess that they were beaten severely, by either caregivers or slave masters.

Like the Seligman dogs from a famous psychological experiment many years ago. The dogs were shocked through the floors of their cages with no way to escape.  After a while, even if they were shocked they no longer tried to escape.

I think of my child, and know I will not hit him. It’s a lot more work to train a child in socially acceptable behavior without hitting, but it makes no sense to me to shape a human whom you want to feel worthy of respect by giving the child pain. He spends a hell of a lot of time in time out but he is getting a consequence that does not involve physical pain.

That’s my choice. You may have a different one. But I think it is important in terms of living consciously to think about why you are doing it. Is it because you were hit? Is it because everybody else is doing it? Is it because people from your community or family may judge you if you don’t hit? Are those good enough reasons for you? Chances are this pattern was passed down through generations and may not make the most sense when you step back from it a little and get perspective.

People will argue: Spare the rod and spoil the child. But I really don’t think this needs to be taken literally. After all, I don’t know many people using rods on their kids. I do think kids need limits and structure to learn and without these things a child may have more difficulty in society.

Southern Exposure

December 31, 2010

 
 

The few trips I have had to the South were mostly pleasant experiences, such as meeting my maternal grandmother’s family in South Carolina at a reunion in 2000.  There were some unpleasant experiences as well that I will address in the following blog:  ” Southern Discomfort”.

This year, for my summer vacation which did not occur until November, I had the pleasure of spending some time in Savannah, Georgia and Sea Islands (Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina) known for their beauty, but less well-known for the exquisite culture of the Gullah people.  

My grandmother would try her best to distance herself from this massive group, but I suspect that our heritage is closer to theirs than she really wanted to admit.  Some of the language she used was just too similar and some of the recipes were EXACTLY the same when I looked in Gullah cookbooks.  I think the close linkage to Africa that is clearly accepted in Gullah culture and maybe some of the religious differences and beliefs may have been the point of concerns for my grandmother and her family who were trying very hard to just be “American”.

Africans in this region during slavery, were often left without a Caucasian presence, to tend  land in the “lowcountry” where their Caucasian owners found the weather difficult to bear.  This made it possible for them to retain many aspects of their African language and culture.  To this day, many are able to trace their history directly to Africa, many from Sierra Leone. 

The language is what many linguists would call a” pigeon” which is a mixture of languages, like Creole, or West Indian dialects.  The culture is also mixed and this is evidenced in the religious practices which tend to be Christian, but outside of the church sustain a African based belief structure on healing and how to learn life’s lessons.  These beliefs coexist in the same way they do for those who practice Santeria (which is fundamentally African) in Latin cultures.

There was representation of this culture in 90s cinema and on television with the movie Daughter’s of the Dust by independent filmmaker, Julie Dash which was a story about a Gullah Island family at the turn of the last century.  I think the movie has some of the most beautiful cinematography I have ever seen.  Take a look: 

Ronald Daise and his wife Natalie have shared about Gullah culture through their very popular 90s children’s television show: “Gullah Gullah Island” which continues to air on Nick Jr. in the middle of the night.  The videos are available through their website http://gullahgullah.com/, and on Amazon.  Their delightful show focuses less on the language and more on the way of life and spirit of community in Gullah culture.  Ronald Daise also has some children’s books that I find beautiful in their presentation of this little talked about and little understood area of the world.  These books have positive Black imagery and relationships for African American youth.  They would make great Kwanzaa gifts.

The power in all of this is the recognition that we come from somewhere, and there is a link to whence we came, as much as we try to deny that at times.

For more information on the subject see: http://www.penncenter.com/

I also like this blog about the subject:

http://www.rosalindcummingsyeates.com/blog/labels/Gullah%20Culture.html

The Santa Claus Bag

December 12, 2010

 

When I was very small my mother transformed all our Caucasian Christmas figurines to African Americans.  The Santa right down to the elves.  I did not witness her doing it but I could tell she’d painted them.  And the thing was my mom was no Black Panther.  She was not the rebellious kind by any stretch of the imagination.  But something about her very young child looking at all these representations of joy and none of them appearing to look like her daughter bothered my mother.

Now that I have a child, I know what she felt.  Is it alright to have children of color looking to the Caucasian Santa as the source of all the goodness and excitement.  I say no. Especially since the real Santa Claus bag essentially belongs to me, and I don’t look anything like a fat, jolly white guy.  I am saying the source of the joy is really in my hands.

I think children need to experience the possibility that Santa can be from any group.  On a subconscious level it is dangerous to believe that only white stuff can be good stuff  and yet I still see so many people, young and old falling into that trap.  I plan to teach my child that Santa Claus looks like him when he enters our home, and he looks like others when he enters theirs. 

Why participate in the Santa thing at all if it has to be this complicated?  Why don’t we just do Kwanzaa instead?  Well I remember believing in Santa was great fun, and it is a chance to believe in magic which I think is good for the imaginations of little children.  But I want to  handle this consciously, in a way that is sensitive to self-esteem development.

And by the way, these days you don’t have to put your figurines into blackface (although I used some brown powdered foundation on one of my decorations and I think it turned our pretty good).  You can buy them already Black. There are several websites I found on line including: 

http://www.itsablackthang.com/AfricanAmericanChristmasDecorations-Black-Santa.html

I also love this post from a couple of years ago where a journalist interviewed several Black Santas:  http://weekendamerica.publicradio.org/display/web/2008/12/13/inside_blackness_black_santa/

Happy Holidays Everyone!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

See: The King’s Speech

December 1, 2010

Add King George VI of England to our list of famous people alive or deceased with a learning disability.

I am usually so disappointed with movies that I expect very little from them. 

The King’s Speech, however, shattered my beliefs about going to the movies these days.  I actually could be entertained and maybe even learn a little something.  The cast included people you may be familiar with including  Geoffrey Rush whom I predict will get the Oscar for playing the king’s speech therapist. 

It also evokes acknowledgement of something I left out in previous discussions of learning disabilities and that is that some learning disabilities may have an emotional piece (either triggered by or exacerbated by emotional stuff.) 

The movie may be good for teens, especially because it helps to know learning disabilities do not discriminate.  I would not go younger as some of the language can be inappropriate. 

You may think,” How could I possibly relate to a King;  even if he never had to utter a word, all his needs would be met; he doesn’t have to face the real world with a learning disability?”.   King George could have withdrawn from his life and from service,  but he chose to do his best in spite of his limitations.  It is a story of courage and that is relevant to anyone who is feeling hindered by circumstances outside of their control. 

See Colin Firth’s  interview on Charlie Rose:  http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/11313

See Related Post:  Learning Diablilities 101:  https://makeitplainonline.wordpress.com/2010/11/06/learning-disabilities-101/

Learning Disabilities 102

November 14, 2010

 

What to do if you suspect your child may have a learning disability?

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) every child has the right to a free assessment to determine whether they have any disability that may interfere with learning.  If such a disability is found, states are mandated to address the disability.

This applies to children from age 0 (yes, zero) to age 18. 

From 0 to 3, Early Intervention is the governing body that addresses these issues.  Some states arrange for interventions to be done in the home while others have you bring your child into a clinic type setting for services.  But know that the state is mandated to provide services, so there is often little or no fee.  Some examples of interventions a child may need at this age may be speech therapy, occupational therapy (which usually focuses on eye-hand coordination issues), or behavioral interventions.

I strongly advocate for Early Intervention services as they are free or low fee and address learning issues early on, which may help close the gap or eliminate the problem as the child approaches school age.  With some issues such as autism, early intervention can have a profound impact.  They are also good because a caregiver is present and monitoring the situation as well as maybe learning ways to help the child.

Records are sealed after the child turns three so that schools will not have knowledge about your child’s involvement in Early Intervention unless you tell them.

Beyond age three, Special Education may become involved.  If parents ask for a child to undergo an assessment for a learning disability, the district must comply.  I would suggest having the child privately assessed in addition, however, as district evaluations are usually limited in scope and interpretation.

Depending on the school district, some special education programs are good, and others not so good.  Parents participate in the planning for children when they are to enter Special Education.  If there is anything you disagree with you have a right to refuse services, such as if the child is not receiving interventions to address his disability. 

http://www.disability.gov/education/laws_%26_regulations

http://idea.ed.gov/

Learning Disabilities 101

November 6, 2010

I remember a few years ago when it was revealed to the public that Fantasia (the singer) had difficulty with reading.  There was a lot of misinformation floating around and suggestions that this was somehow her fault and she needed only to practice reading more to rectify the problem. 

Okay, I do not know why this isn’t more common knowledge in our “information age”, but some people are just not hardwired to read.  Their brains aren’t able to organize and make good sense of what they see on a page.

Furthermore, because I do so many evaluations to determine learning disabilities, I will add that this issue is not one related to ethnic background or privilege.

I worked in a school for children with learning disabilities and a great many had this problem.  In every other way they were normal and in some cases obviously very bright, but they were unable to read.  (Another huge misconception is that if you are unable to read you are not bright.  So Wrong!)

The lack of understanding among many about this issue was a source of great stress for many children as they often find themselves misunderstood or even labeled as “stupid” .  It is a tremendous burden for these kids.

Nonetheless, many of the children find their way, employing their strengths to make up for their weaknesses. In fact, because children with a reading disorder or other learning disabilities (there are many) face obstacles in terms of learning in “traditional” ways,  in other areas they can become more flexible thinkers and people who are creative or think outside the box.

It helps to know that many people familiar to you  in the media or through history identify/identified themselves as having a learning disability.  Some include:  Walt Disney, Thomas Edison, Cher, Whoopi Goldberg, Wintson Churchill, Albert Einstein, Mozart, and Dr. Cox from the tv show, Scrubs (I forget his real name, sorry).  See the following link for a comprehensive list:  http://www.buzzle.com/articles/famous-people-with-learning disabilities.html.

So What is A Learning Disability?

Having a Learning Disability may involve difficulty in memorizing and retaining things, and with retrieval and presentation of retained information.  There are four main forms of Learning Disabilities associated with four stages of information processing:

INPUT

ASSIMILATION

RETENTION

OUTPUT

With care and support, children with Learning Disabilities can go on to have fulfilling lives.  I did.  Yes me.  I didn’t have any problems reading or writing (in fact, I was well above average in terms of those things) but I certainly have a speech processing issue on the OUTPUT end.  There is an enormous discrepancy between my ability on the INPUT end verses my ability on the OUTPUT end with regard to speech production.   You learn to maximize your strengths.  For instance, it’s easier for me to write than give speeches.  I used to think it was stage fright but I understand that it is a speech processing issue that runs in my family.

Teach your children to know their strengths are and support them around any weaknesses.

A Good Resource Site:  http://www.ncld.org/

What do you do when the school suggests that you have your child tested with an intelligence measure?

#1.  Arm yourself with information!

The best thing you can do is first understand that these tests have limitations.  At best, they are measuring your child’s current capacity to use typically Euro-American ways to process information.  Many of us are very good at this.  If your child scores at least within the average range on an IQ test as they are currently designed he or she will probably function in typical school settings.  If your child scores lower, he may need more supplemental help at home to bolster weaknesses.  You do not have to rely on the school to provide the extra help (i.e., special education) you can give the support yourself. 

Also, know that African Americans score about 15 points on average lower than their Caucasian counterparts.   However, unlike many Euro-American analysts in the past that attributed this to weaknesses in thinking for African Americans,  (See:  Scientific American’s Debunk of Hernstein and Murray’s  The Bell Curve, maybe the most racist book written in my time.  http://www.mdcbowen.org/p2/rm/sciam1.htm ) other analyses are more plausible in my opinion.  Many of these past analysts like to argue that IQ correlates with “success”, but until we eliminate racism this is a flawed argument. 

There are two main issues here.   First, our current measures for IQ are weak and are susceptible to environmental influence, so whether or not they are measuring “IQ” (a supposedly “fixed” attribute in a human being)  is still a problematic question. 

Second, and in some ways most important, statistical analyses of these tests suggest that they do not tell the entire story of IQ even for Euro-Americans.  I think their ability to predict general brightness for children of color is even worse.  Many African Americans have different ways of processing information that are often neglected in discussions about IQ, I think for fear that we may be considered too different. 

Do not be afraid.  If you understand the limitations of the tests you have more power in what the educational planning will be for your child.  You do have a right to refuse testing by the Board of Education and get private testing done.  Private testing is usually more thorough and thoughtful (and MORE expensive, but worth saving for).  Then you can make a decision about whether or not you would like to share the results with the school. 

Oh, oh !! I almost forgot.  No test of IQ should be considered alone, without other information about the child.  So, I am saying it is not commonly accepted to label a child as Mentally “Deficient” with these tests alone.  Information about how the child is functioning in her everyday life is essential.  Adaptive behaviors and degree of normal developmental f are essential considerations in any determination of this kind. 

In summary, the proof that we are measuring actual IQ and that it is genetic is very weak.  The predictive properties of these instruments are weak for everyone.

Conceptually, these tests are limited and based on Euro-American values at their core and may be missing rich areas of processing and intelligence in other groups. 

#2.  Have a Meeting with the School to Establish the Reasons for the Testing and to Discuss Any concerns you may have.

I want to mention here that it seems to be standard in my part of the world to test preschool age children for entry into certain preschools.  This is really baffling since most of the research supports that “IQ” is not “fixed” until age 6. 

#3.  Know That Just Because Child Scores Lower than Desired Does Not mean she Cannot succeed with the Right support.

You will be supplied with a report after an assessment which should outline your child’s strengths and weaknesses.  Very few children score poorly in every area of the test.  Bolster the child’s self-esteem by reminding them about things they do well.  This will help them use strengths to address weaker areas.

If your child scores lower than average, try to bolster their learning experience by exposing them to other modalities of learning. Varying modes of learning through visuals like field trips, and even music can do wonders if you want your child to compete in this society.  I learned my multiplication tables through song and sometimes I still have to sing the songs to remember some numbers, but it worked!  

There is a great article on drumming and how it improves IQ (more evidence that” IQ” is not “fixed”): http://ppstix.wordpress.com/2010/09/26/the-benefits-of-being-a-drummer/.  Drumming, that our ancestors brought with them from Africa is still woven into our existence every time you listen to jazz, hip hop or turn on that R and B station.  The kind of genius that floats around in that music AND in the appreciation of that music I would say is an element of our IQ that is avoided along with many others.

It is not out of the question that your child will need extensive help that is beyond your capacity as a parent to give.  You may have tried everything possible.  But all other methods of support can be explored before deciding to bring in professionals.

There was an entire body of work at the early part of the last century devoted to the fact that people of color, including Blacks, were of low intelligence because they scored lower on Euro-American tests of intelligence.  Lewis Terman, who was an enormous figure in IQ (Intelligence Quotient) testing in an influential book The Measurement of Intelligence, states:  a low level of intelligence was “very, very common among Spanish-Indian and Mexican families in the Southwest and also among Negroes.  Their dullness seems to be racial…” (Terman, 1916).  The tests themselves were developed with European values about how to measure intelligence at their core.  Creativity was100%  absent from the formulation.  The data were often collected on middle class whites which contrasted them with impoverished people of color. 

Another popular book related to this subject, The Study of American Intelligence (1923) by Carl Brigham when reviewing data on IQ tests administered to Army personnel concluded that they proved the superiority of the “Nordic” type over the “Alpine, mediterranean and Negro groups”.  Brigham later recanted these claims in the Psychological Review (1930) journal, but many people remained unaware of his recantation.

The perspective that people of color were of lower intelligence so infiltrated American thinking that we are still contending with ths today, as it has been argued again and again that programs such as Head Start are a waste of tax money because they do not improve performance. The argument is basically many people of color will never learn at the same rate as Caucasians so stop trying to help them. We continue to use tests derived from Terman’s original battery as a measure of intelligence even though it is biased.

So, what is intelligence?  Within the field of psychology there is no consensus about this. (Yet we continue to label these tests as tests of IQ.)  I often describe intelligence as the capacity to A) think and to B) use that capacity to function the best way you are able in your life.  Current IQ measures do address the first part (A) but are very limited even with that.  They do not address the second part (B) at all. 

During an intelligence test, you may be asked to complete puzzle-like tasks and demonstrate that your memory is good and that you can concentrate.  However, IQ tests continue to fall short now in terms of a heavy focus on material that you have already learned.   That is a biased approach to intelligence in and of itself as some children simply do not have the same resources or value the same things as some counterparts.  I will argue that the child with the different resources may still have a very rich experience, just not one in line with mainstrean values.  This does not in any way make them less intelligent than those counterparts.

I have noticed that these tests (there are several kinds)  are evolving into more neuropsychological instruments, which tap into brain function, but they have not evolved enough if  are “fund of information” and “vocabulary” which are no doubt influenced by environment, as part of the quotient, which they continue to be.

What IQ Tests Do and Don’t Do

IQ tests are useful in that they provide some prediction about how a child will perform in a mainstream Euro-American environment, because the values of the test are consistent with mainstream values.

They give some information about memory and concentration, as I mentioned above which may be useful for understanding how a child thinks or what areas are strengths and which are weaknesses in the context of Euro-American functioning. 

They by no means reflect “Intelligence” for all people in all contexts. 

Much of the historical data can be found in:  Thomas, M. D. Sillen, S. (1991).  Racism and Psychiatry.  Carol Publishing Group Edition.

Brigham, C. C. (1923).  A study of American intelligence. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

***Coming Soon:  What to do if the School Tells you your kid needs to be tested for IQ.