Sunday, February 03, 2008

The History At Home | 3. My Dad, Superiority, Charity & Change

We received the XO from One Laptop Per Child in plenty of time for Christmas. That morning, I basked in an aqua lavender glow of goodwill. My thoughts turned toward some distant third world country.

I imagined some sweet brown child opening their laptop as if it were the beautiful first fruit of the harvest hidden under a leaf. I imagined them taking their first juicy bite of the keyboard. Then, the smooth mouse leading them to the internet. A slender dirty brown finger pushing a button and capturing their first digital picture. Making joyful music with the music program. My mind’s eye witnessed the way a little green and white rectangle brought nourishment to the intellectual and creative soul of a child in a developing country. I saw them proudly take it home to their parents and win the first battle in the revolution of education. (Case studies which fed me these rosy pictures here: Nigeria and Peru.)

Winston, saw none of those things. Considering how much time the big people in the house devote to these mysterious objects, he was simply thrilled! He had a “real computer.” It was all his. He must really be a big boy NOW!

He won’t be learning Spanish in chat rooms with children in Peru just yet. He’s not going to calculate impossible math problems. And he certainly won’t be reprogramming the back end to suit his desktop needs. But, even though the XO is designed for the literate child, I have to say I am impressed. He can and does use it - frequently - to paint; to take pictures, to make songs; to research the web; to type endless strings of nonsensical letters.

He is, after all, only four. He is just barely breaking the codes necessary to become literate. In the most developmentally appropriate ways, his toys and pretend games with peers are more interesting than phonics. Some days, I have to remind myself that this is okay.

Our home schooling journey is not about creating a genius wunderkind to showcase on the cover of Time Magazine. It is about giving one brown boy a chance to fully reconcile himself with his world in order to embrace and claim all of his innate talents.

This is why we bought the laptop. To share with another child the same opportunities we are providing to our son. To level the global playing field. To hopefully one day connect him to children who see the world a whole lot differently than he does. Sounds like a whole lot of oozing noblesse oblige, doesn’t it? Giving makes most people feel better about themselves. If nothing else, it allows us the thick sleep of Pontius Pilate.

And I felt a little silly about my Christmas morning fantasy. When we made the decision, we decided we were “okay” with not getting a choice about what part of the world to which it went. Who are we to assess who needs what and where based upon of our genetic make-up and political leanings? More recently, my husband and I noticed that One Laptop Per Child doesn't even tell you where “your” laptop went. We really like this idea. Why should we know? Should a hundred bucks give us the right to invade some child’s privacy? Why should doing the right thing also be linked to receiving thanks or a sense of ownership over some kid’s life?

Because it keeps people giving. People need to feel good about themselves. Getting an acknowledgement for our action maintains our sense superiority. Getting a picture of Abdul or Amina and a little thank you note reminds them that they are “less-than” we are. It clearly shows them that charity can be given and taken away. It keeps them separate from us. It maintains the psychological imbalance attached to the underlying problem which, in turn, keeps the charitable system alive.

This is why we gave technology and not money for food which will be waylaid by corrupt governments upon dispatch. Or some nebulous idea of “Aid” For Africa. And these same ideals contribute to why we are home schooling our son. So, that he may begin to understand that throughout history, people didn’t need media campaigns and glossy pictures to do the right thing.

This idea of charity makes me contemplate the Underground railroad and the people who ran it. Here, I see the ultimate form of giving. It was no small feat to go into the blackest of nights; place your liberty and property on the line so that some stranger - who you may feel is inferior but still human - can obtain the freedom due all human beings. In our home, all of us are being re-educated. Somehow, this means that we must consistently challenge our own ideas and actions. Ultimately, we must work towards becoming the human beings we were meant to be in a society which would prefer that we remained entrenched in antiquated notions. We are conductors on our own educational underground railroad.

Some might say that this is the most quixotic of parental quests in modern Africa-America. It does seem near impossible during these endless days of obiesence at the altar of the lowest common denominator; flagrant displays in the streets of ghetto worship; and getting what’s yours with the least amount of effort. Silly to swim against a national tide of Black children who should know better, yet, associate intelligence with Whiteness and in some misguided pathos assign it a negative value. (See what some other parents are doing about this problem.)

This notion that the least humane and sane of us is the “ideal Blackness” permeates our society. It returns like some unstoppable silvery spectre which no amount of exorcism can unhook its elastic plasma claws from our psyche. On an e-mail list of African-American unschoolers, I see the biannual post about somebody’s child who is being hazed, teased, or excluded from the neighbourhood reindeer games because he isn’t “Black enough.” And while many a better scholar, poet and artist than I have addressed lingers. And I can not explain it.

My father can explain it. In short, he presents a solid theory that around 1452, the international notion of white superiority became the critical foundation on top of which our world spins. It began with an issuance of a papal bull in 1452, the Dum Diversas, in which Pope Nicholas V basically stated:

"We grant you [Kings of Spain and Portugal] by these present documents, with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property [...] and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery.(1)”

Not to be misunderstood, Pope Nicholas the V issued the Romanus Pontifex in 1454. This declared war on all non-Christians and extended the right to the Portuguese to claim on behalf of their sovereigns anything upon which they laid eyes. This included the right to seize the lands of, conquer, kill and/or convert any non-Christian, anywhere.

After arguments between Portugal and Spain, in 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull known as the inter catera which allowed the Spaniards the same authority to seize the lands of, conquer, kill and/or convert. This right was extended only to non-Christian lands and a Line Of Demarcation was drawn to prevent squabbling between the two nations.

These concepts eventually found themselves at the centre of international public law under the title of the Discovery Doctrine. The Discovery Doctrine, in essence grants to Europeans (nations) the right to own and subject all that they can conquer or seize. It has been used historically to deny indigenous people independent sovereignty or rights. More about this here: Five Hundred Years Of Injustice and The Discovery Doctrine, the tribes and the truth.
Who else can you think of who believes the Discovery Doctrine is still valid?

It is upon these principals of white superiority that the world has revolved for over 500 years. To dismantle this ideology is an almost impossible challenge. People need to feel good about themselves. And for some people, this means the ability to feel superior. The people who benefit from white privilege and superiority, when confronted logically by by this fallacy are forced to reorient themselves to an untenable and unforgiving world. The concept that they may -in fact - be truly equal to another is infuriating. It erodes the psychological cornerstone upon which their souls, minds and physical holdings are precariously placed. For these people, to share power is to have none at all. And as of 1452, it has largely been Europeans who have enjoyed the benefits.

There have always been haves and have-nots. There has always been slavery. But, superiority based upon colour is a relatively recent idea. “The ancient world was devoid of racism. At the time of Piye’s historic conquest, the fact that his skin was dark was irrelevant. Artwork from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome shows a clear awareness of racial features and skin tone, but there is little evidence that darker skin was seen as a sign of inferiority. Only after the European powers colonized Africa in the 19th century did Western scholars pay attention to the colour of the Nubians’ skin, to uncharitable effect.”(2)

But, these histories are no longer taught in our schools. This history goes ignored and forgotten - on purpose. It does not advance the objective of white superiority. It does not allow those who own to continue to give graciously what tiny tidbits of sustenance to those who do not own. They give. They allow a few to advance - just so far as to keep hope alive. They monitor that it doesn’t go too far.

And still, change is afoot. After the Civil Rights movement, it went too far. It got out of hand. The colour line is breaking down. We are returning to something more alike the ancient world from which civilisation began. Ultimately, people have financial assets to protect.

Colour becomes less important when someone has skills. Everyone loves a winner. When those skills make a direct contribution to your bottom line, something has to give. African-Americans who have crashed through the gates to become exceptions to the rule of inferiority make that idea less sustainable. Once we could point to the one, two or one hundred exceptions, it began to slowly dissolve. Slowly, like 500 hundred years of water dripping on a boulder.

And if this is the case, what is wrong with these children who equate blackness with wrongness? The foundations of white supremacy which have been our 500 year bedrock are screaming and cracking. Someone has to prevent it from crumbling. That minority which benefits from both the past and the labours of all of these newly skilled contributors is being forced to share a little bit more of their power.

We have a different agenda. And many, many of us will not be co-opted. So, they do not want to give anymore. It no longer feels good. They must swing the pendulum back the other way, and they will do it with our children’s minds. After all, once we all started to get to know each other as children, that is when this idea of equality and opportunity got out of hand.

But, I have hope that, we, beneficiaries of the Civil Rights legacy are beginning to understand true charity. The charity of doing right for right sake. Regardless of what you do: homeschool, regular school, give or don't it consciously, knowledgably and in the spirit of making the right choices for the lives which surround you. And this, I think, will make change.

Finally, take your children in your arms. Remind them of the joy of doing right, rather than the returns to be gained from it. (For often there are no rewards for right action.)

Yes we can!

(1) Hayes, Diana. 1998. "Reflections on Slavery." in Curran, Charles E. Change in Official Catholic Moral Teaching as posted on:

(2) Draper, Robert. 2008. “Black Pharoahs.” in National Geographic Magazine, February issue located at: National Geographic Magazine

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