“Which is your favorite: Abraham Lincoln or George Washington? I know my answer, but I’m not telling it until you tell me,” Eli began. The three of us were crammed on a peak-commute BART train hurtling towards his weekly therapist appointment.
“I’d have to say Abraham Lincoln,” I said.
“ME TOO!” screamed a victorious Evie as Eli’s face fell.
“I think we should all like George Washington the best because he was FIRST,” says sad Eli. “Besides, Evie only likes Abraham Lincoln the best because she thinks he has magic powers, even though Mrs. Pritchard already told her that’s not true.”
“He does,” Evie leaned over and soberly whispered to me.
I could not know the turn this conversation was going to take, although I probably should have anticipated it.
“Why is he your favorite mom?” Eli asked.
“You know, all presidents are flawed, and they are hard to compare, but I guess I’d say Lincoln because he helped end slavery and that’s the worst thing our country has ever done,” I said, trying to avoid the nuances of Lincoln and the Civil War.
“I still don’t really get what slavery was,” Eli says.
“It’s when people had to be farmers,” Evie Evie-splains.
“Not exactly,” I say. Deep breath, as everyone around me on BART turns to hear what I’m going to say next. “White Americans went to Africa and basically kidnapped people and put them in chains and put them on boats and brought them here and made them work for no money and wouldn’t allow them to have families or learn to read and have any choices over their own lives. They were treated like property, not human beings. It’s the worst thing our country has ever done. It’s one reason there’s still so much inequality today.”
Both kids pondered this. We’re now on the crammed Powell Street Station escalator, and Eli is deep in thought running his fingers along the honeycombed walls that I usually tell him not to touch.
Finally he turns to me and says something I could never anticipate a child would say after hearing a pretty grisley description of slavery: “I wish I were black.”
“Why do you say that?” I ask.
“Because it seems like white people do all the bad stuff,” he says sadly. “Sometimes it’s just so embarrassing to be white.”
“I hear you, honey.” I say.