New book 'To Be Free' helps kids speak out against racismWith race issues once again dominating the local headlines, the time seems perfect for educators to wholeheartedly embrace Thomas Peacock and Marlene Wisuri’s new book, "To Be Free."
With race issues once again dominating the local headlines, the time seems perfect for educators to wholeheartedly embrace Thomas Peacock and Marlene Wisuri’s new book. “To Be Free: Understanding and Eliminating Racism” asks us to imagine a world free of the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual effects that racism inflicts upon its abusers and its victims.
“‘To Be Free’ was written to educate young people and others about the concept of races and how it came in to being historically,” said Wisuri, a local author and photographer who has been researching and supplying the visual material for Peacock’s books since “Ojibwe: Waasa Inaabidaa” and “The Good Path” were published in 2002. “It has discussions about what constitutes racism and how different types of racism have played out in the past, along with descriptions of white privilege and current racial issues.
“Since so many children at this time are of mixed racial heritage, there is information about how we form our personal racial identity.”
Wisuri went on to say that “To Be Free,” her fourth collaboration with Peacock, provides suggestions and resources for learning more about and combating racism in our own lives and in our own communities.
“I think parents, schools and society as a whole all have responsibilities to teach about racism and its effect on our daily lives,” she added.
Peacock, a former Northlander who now works at Troy University in Tampa, said the book’s target audience is primarily middle schoolers.
“It was written at a seventh grade reading level; but, when I work with Marlene, of course, we’re able to add photos and illustrations that can bring that down a couple of grade levels,” he told the Budgeteer in a phone interview earlier this week. “There’s something about adding pictures and text that kids are able to almost read pictures. “
The Cloquet-raised author and educator, who is a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said he first experienced racism around the second grade.
“I was walking home with a friend of mine; we made it to his yard and he said I couldn’t go any further because his dad didn’t like ‘Injuns,’” Peacock recalled matter-of-factly. “That was the very first time. … And of course this little boy didn’t harbor any of that, but his dad was still one of those old-time thinkers, I guess.”
Fast-forward to May 2010 and race is still as hot a topic as ever in the Northland. Peacock, who was back in town last week doing some work at UMD, is well aware of that school’s recent Facebook incident (in which two students had a seen-by-many racist conversation on Facebook about a black student in the same computer lab).
“It’s not surprising,” he said bluntly. “There’s still a lot of ignorance out there, and it comes out, again, in ways like that. They didn’t think that what they put in there would go out and become public — which is kind of odd in a social network. They said what was on their minds and happened to get caught.”
Wisuri also commented on the UMD incident.
“There certainly are disturbing trends such as the hate talk that can be found on social networking sites,” the author and photographer said. “I am encouraged by the action taken by students at UMD and UWS and by people all over the country to organize anti-racism events in response to recent legislation and incidents that are racist.
“There is still much work to be done, and I hope the publication of ‘To Be Free’ will contribute to the dialogue and learning about how the negative effects of racism can be eliminated.”
Peacock acknowledged that one of the first steps toward eliminating racism is simply speaking up against it — though there’s nothing simple about it. On that, one of the main goals of “To Be Free” is prepping today’s youth on how to get over that initial hump of awkwardness which comes with calling someone out on racist attitudes.
Peacock said it’s more than just “Minnesota Nice” that keeps people silent in the face of racism, especially when it’s coming from someone you love or respect.
“So many times we don’t say anything because we don’t want to create that sort of awkward silence,” he said. One example he gave were those so-called “harmless” ethnic jokes (à la Ole & Lena), where the older generations have been telling them for years and don’t see anything wrong with them. “… But we see something wrong with them — and to speak up creates a very awkward situation.
“Sometimes these are people who are older than we are and we respect them, and we don’t agree with what they’re saying.”
Peacock, who visited a number of middle schools in preparation for writing “To Be Free,” said a lot of time the responses youngsters will get will be along the lines of “Oh, it was just a joke — it was harmless.”
“But we know that it isn’t harmless,” he was quick to correct.
On the other hand, he pointed out, a lot of times racism in this modern world isn’t so blatant or straightforward.
“Racism has taken more complex forms now, and that comes out in odd kinds of ways,” he said while discussing Arizona’s controversial efforts to identify illegal aliens. “That would be a great example of it, of course, but another example would be the kind of harassment that people of Middle Eastern origins suffered since 9/11.
“A whole group of people was targeted over the actions of a few.”
True, some of the most jarring imagery in “To Be Free” stems from our nation’s many years of segregation — or, locally, the mob hanging of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie — but one could argue we still have a long way to go regarding race relations.
“We don’t put signs on bathroom doors anymore saying ‘Blacks Only’ or ‘Whites Only’ or keep people out of universities … but we’ve made it more sophisticated,” Peacock said. “It pops out in odd ways like [what’s going on in Arizona].”
Despite our nation’s current race climate, Peacock remains an optimist.
“I’m sort of a ‘big picture’ thinker, and I think in terms of the human species,” he said, acknowledging how far our country has come in the last 40 years. “I want young people to think like that. I want them to look at another human being and see that other human being. We’re so unique as a species. We’re from this earth. We’re from this planet. We’re made up of the same things. Our differences are very superficial in terms of our color and the kinds of hair we have and other physical features.
“… We need to figure out a way to move beyond this race thing. When you really think about it, it’s so foolish.”
NEWS TO USE
Learn more about Thomas Peacock and Marlene Wisuri’s “To Be Free: Understanding and Eliminating Racism” at www.aftonpress.com. The site also has a free curriculum guide about the book for educators.
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