One of the members of our church choir is a dedicated peace activist who has been arrested more than once for her protest work; from time to time she reports on the status of charges against her. When my daughter first understood that this woman had been put in jail because of her beliefs, she was intrigued. This led to a discussion about democracy and civil disobedience, and to the stories of the Civil Rights Movement. The stories about Rosa Parks and Dr. King have become part of American mythology, and I was proud to tell her some of those stories.
I quickly found myself in rather deep water, however, since explaining the background of the struggle required discussing racism and its destructive manifestation in our history of African slavery. Imagine the squirming I suffered inside as I (a white woman) explained to my newly-adopted Ethiopian daughter how white people went to Africa to steal black people and bring them here against their will, their heritage stripped from them. The growing look of baffled alarm on my daughter’s face finally resolved itself into a gut punch of a question. “Am I your slave?”
How else could it look to her, after all? She had had no choice in the matter of her adoption and emigration to the U.S. When I regained my composure I tried to point out the many differences, all the while knowing in the back of my mind that, in truth, children are as powerless to control their fates as the captured Africans were.
All I could offer was the promise that I would never force her to do anything against her will or raise a hand against her, that I would protect her from harm, and that I would show up on time. From that moment my job was clarified for me: I had to parent through moral authority alone, by earning her love, respect and trust through my own actions. Anything else would be tyranny. If parents must be dictators at times, they must at least be benevolent dictators.
Besides, the cat is out of the bag as far as resistance to unjust civil authority is concerned! I’ve shared with her the courage stories of civil disobedience, and encouraged her to think of resistance to tyranny and injustice as a good and important thing, a hero’s quest if ever there was one. I have, in effect, put myself on notice.
If I ever have to post bail for her for an act of conscience, I will be proud to stand up in church and make that announcement. I think that will tell me I did my job well.