The fox turned on his oven. “You would be good with carrots and onions,” he muttered.
“Who are carrots and onions?” the dog asked.
. . .
Soon he could hear [his lady] calling, “Baked Potato, Baked Potato.”
. . .
He jumped into her arms and she showered him with kisses. “My little Baked Potato,” she cooed, squeezing him tight. “I might have known you’d like walks in the rain. You’re just like me.”
from I’m a Baked Potato!
by Elise Primavera
illustrated by Juana Medina
Chronicle Kids, 2019
accessed on YouTube, 10/10/22
Whenever someone hurt my feelings with a thoughtless remark about my new curly hairdo, or my Bobby socks, or the way I did (or tried to do) gymnastics, my mom would remind me that “sticks and stones could break my bones, but names could never hurt me.” She thought she was helping me understand that kids could be mean, but I could be resilient. She was only half right. Kids could be very mean. But I was not that resilient.
Sticks and stones, like bricks and bombs really can break bones, and other body parts and even communities and even whole societies. And, it turns out, names can do just as much harm. Maybe even more.
As my daughter recently reminded me, the strongest muscle in anyone’s body is their tongue. It has the power to hurt and also has the power to heal. Words are that important.
How we name things is important, too. Derogatory nicknames are hurtful. Their original meanings, the stereotypes, are even ingrained into our language. Well-meaning people say them without a thought to their origin.
Take “grandfather clause.” It is a legal phrase that means a person or entity can keep old rules in place even when a new rule is made. For example, old power plants are grandfathered when they don’t have to meet new standards. A retail establishment is grandfathered when new zoning laws are put in place that don’t allow retail stores where the store stands.
The phrase comes from a particular set of 19th century laws that suppressed voting. Seven Southern states enacted statutes between 1895 and 1910 to specifically suppress the Black vote. These laws stated that men whose grandfathers had voted before the end of the Civil War and their descendants were exempt from taking literacy tests and paying poll taxes.
The Fifteenth Amendment “guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Since was passed in 1870, most Black men were effectively excluded. Their grandfathers were most likely enslaved. White men, regardless of their education or financial status, were allowed to vote without a literacy test or poll tax. Their grandfathers most likely were not enslaved. These statutes were not found unconstitutional until 1915.
Now just a drop of history. The Fourteenth Amendment (passed in 1869) defined citizenship. The first part of the Amendment, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside” resulted in confusion. Since most Native Americans were living under tribal laws and subject to those laws, the Amendment was interpreted to exclude them from citizenship and excluded them from the voting rights guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment, too. It was not until 1924 that Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, giving Native Americans citizenship and guaranteeing their voting rights.
American History is rife with conflict. Built on the idealism of plurality, diversity, and inclusion, we struggle to accept the application of its truth. We all learned the couplet that describes America’s founding: In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Columbus called what he found the New World. He named the people he found Indians. In fact, groups of people had been sharing and vying for the land for thousands of years.
Last year, 2021, President Biden made Indigenous Peoples Day a Federal Holiday. The second Monday of October each year, what some people still call Columbus Day, is becoming more celebrated for the importance of our shared history.
Indigenous Peoples Day began in 1977 at an international conference on discrimination sponsored by the United Nations. In 1990, at the same conference, Scott Stevens, director of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Program at Syracuse University, said “Indigenous Peoples Day is about resilience of what past cultures have endured as much as it is about honoring heritage.”
Gradually, we newcomers are beginning to realize that Indigenous People, while sharing their Native land, do not share one culture. Gradually, states and cities are recognizing the struggles and contributions made by Native people. Gradually we are accepting their differences and similarities.
In his 2021 address, President Biden said, “It is a measure of our greatness as a nation that we do not seek to bury [the] shameful episodes of our past –- that we face them honestly, we bring them to the light, and we do all we can to address them.”
While we acknowledge Columbus’s adventurous spirit, his tenacity, and his excitement, while we can be grateful for our luck at surviving in this new (for most of us) place, we need to temper our acknowledgement and gratitude with humility, respect, and honor for those who were here first.
-—be curious! (and speak kindness)