Lessons from Living Wax Museum Project

Grace and George Washington CarverMy daughter Grace is in third grade, and every year the third graders in her school work on biography projects that they present in the form of a speech from their subject. Grace choose George Washington Carver for her subject. I am not quite sure how or why she choose him, but I imagine he was on a list of suggestions. She also likes peanuts. Her second choice was skateboarder Tony Hawk.

The first concern about this project was how would she, an 8-year old white girl portray a grown black man. She and her mom discussed it and decided that she would wear an old suit of her brother’s, wear an old man’s wig and carry a jar of peanut butter, one of Carver’s most famous inventions. They decided that there really is no respectful way for a child to darken their skin and present a speech to members of the school community. Blackface just doesn’t cut it anymore, although in high school I was in a play that included a play-within-a-play, and I did appear in blackface. Sorry, no pictures available.

I was working with her on the speech this week and we encountered a word choice question that was in the same vein. Certain aspects of George Washington Carver’s story happened because he was black. Since Grace will be speaking as George Washington Carver in the living wax museum, I wondered aloud what word he would use to describe himself. Since he lived from the 1860s to 1940s, this son of former slaves would call himself Negro. Well, we knew that was not the right term to use in 2009 liberal Chapel Hill, even though it was historically accurate. We settled on African-American, as the term that would not offend anyone, since it is the current term most commonly used, especially in an elementary school setting.

Her choice of a notable African-American was a bit odd, but wound up causing important and thoughtful conversations of how one acts in today’s society, and as a member of a community

Jeffrey L Cohen

Jeffrey L Cohen