The textbooks from my childhood years basically ended with a few token pages towards the end that no one ever really talked about, Gorbechev and the Star Wars program, something about Reaganomics. But the chapter before? The one covering the sixties? We had a unit on that. That was about Martin Luther King.
When you’re a white kid and you learn about the civil rights movement in a small town, and you’ve never met a black person in real life, here is what you learn: Slavery was wrong. Segregated drinking fountains were wrong. Jim Crow laws were wrong. Separate but Equal laws were wrong. Martin Luther King had a dream, and now black people and white people have the same equal protections under the law. We listened to Michael Jackson’s Black or White and nodded; yes, yes. We get it. Thinkin’ about my baby, it don’t matter if you’re black or white.
Teaching history is a tricky thing, because it is imperative to connect the past with the present, to find a way to make what is long buried and distant feel relevant, shape our understanding of the now. And that’s challenging, that’s higher-level thinking than a lot of kids are capable of reaching or some teachers are capable of communicating.
It’s higher-level thinking beyond some adults as well. But I digress.
And so I learned about Rosa Parks and lunch counter sit-ins in the same way that I learned about Paul Revere, Abraham Lincoln, Greek mythology, the three ships of Columbus, what a blacksmith was. History. Facts, to be written on an index card, memorized for a quiz: Harriet Tubman escaped slavery. Andrew Jackson: seventh president, Trail of Tears. In fourteen-hundred-ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
I was in the second grade when crowds engulfed the city of Los Angeles, the biggest riots since the 1960’s, killing fifty-three people. We had learned about Martin Luther King by then. But no one really talked about Rodney King. My best friend knew who he was, sort of: we giggled in the way that children giggle when she told me a story about her grandmother with Alzheimer’s, who conflated “Rodney King” with “Ronald McDonald” while watching the evening news and couldn’t understand why anyone would be so upset about anything involving the clown who invented the McNugget.
When we learned about Separate but Equal, we learned that Separate almost never really meant Equal. We learned that white schools were funded better than black schools – white children got desks and qualified teachers, and black children sat in crowded, filthy classrooms reading hand-me-down books, if they were lucky enough to have books at all. We learned that many of the players in the Negro Leagues were stronger, quicker, better at the game than their white counterparts, and yet paid a fraction of what the white players made.
We took a field trip to see the exhibit of Norman Rockwell’s famous painting, “The Problem We All Live With.” Norman Rockwell, whose name I knew from the framed magazine covers hanging in my basement, inherited from my grandmother: bow-tie wearing doctors inspecting apple-cheeked youths in beanie caps, girls in plaid skirts twirling pigtails with ribbons; dogs and apple pies and milkshakes at diner counters; America.
Except this painting hung by itself, daring to occupy an entire wall, daring you to look closer.
We looked at the girl in the white dress, and we took in the violence of the tomato splatter, the ugliness of the word scrawled on the wall, the shirt cuffs and shined shoes of the men surrounding her. And I, a little white girl, imagined what it might be like to be that little black girl. It’s what the painting asks of you: empathy is the price of admission.
We looked at the black and white photos ensconced in plexiglass frames nearby, photos meant to convey a sense of the time, the framework for understanding the painting. And I looked at them then, and I saw black and white, wire-rimmed glasses, tailored suits and starched dresses: ancient history. How ugly those people were. How embarrassed they would feel now, if they only knew how stupid they looked today.
And I think about how the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, a fact I once scrawled on an index card to memorize for a test. We read it aloud in class, pronouncing the strange words tentatively, able to read but not really comprehend:
“The Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”
And we would look at photos in our history books, snapped one hundred years later in 1963, when the fire hoses were turned on peaceful protestors, police dogs attacking children in the streets. We looked at those images, us little white kids, and thought, How horrible. How horrible it used to be, unaware that during the very week we looked at those images, Los Angeles was in flames, four white police officers walked free, and fifty-three people died in the streets.
There’s a popular image circulating the internet today, as Baltimore burns. It contrasts well-dressed protestors in 1963, peacefully marching through city streets, with Baltimore looters atop a burning car.
We’ve heard media pundits plea for reason, cry out for peaceful protest in the “tradition of Martin Luther King.” And we forget, because this wasn’t something we wrote on an index card, it’s maybe something we never learned at all, that the man remembered for his peace, for his gentleness, was also angry, was also furious at a system that rendered him both separate and unequal. Who might be remembered for speaking about his Dream, for his Mountaintop, for urging nonviolence above all, but who also said:
“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
And I look at these images from a mere fifty years ago, and I don’t see history. I see right now.
And I think about how the chapters of those history books were so neatly compartmentalized: the Civil War, chapter six, turn the page to take a different quiz for Reconstruction, a separate exam for Industrialization, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, the New Deal. I wonder which image that’s currently circulating on Twitter will wind up in the history books, if the protests surrounding #BlackLivesMatter will be taught at the same time as Occupy Wall Street, as the struggle for gay marriage equality, if they’ll all be reduced to the footnote at the bottom of the page or whether they’ll have their own unit, students memorizing names like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, answers to a quiz to be studied and forgotten.
I think about the ways we were taught that the battles had been fought and won, that those who stood up to corruption and inequality had already had their nights spent in prison, their flesh torn by dogs and rocks and by fire hoses, had suffered and had overcome. I think about those images of “separate but equal” schoolhouses, and I think about the school in which I learned all of these things, comfortable in my own desk with my own brown-bag lunch, twirling my blond pigtails. I compare that image with the schools in my Philadelphia neighborhood now, many of which have been forced to close their doors in a place where graduation is statistically rare, where teachers are forced to buy their own supplies, where poverty is extreme and hunger is common.
This is separate. This is not equal.
And the battles have been fought and yet the battles continue to need to be fought. Being a human doesn’t come with an owner’s manual, and the logic puzzle of how to create a fair and just society in the world – that’s bigger and more complicated than any human brain can solve, too filled with random chance to ever truly get right, and yet humans fight because it’s part of our attempt to solve it anyway, an ingrained if unfortunate part of our history and our human nature. That we’re all this howling mass of flesh and bone and emotion: born into this world to kick and to claw, to love and to fuck and to cry and to struggle.
I am not asking you, my fellow white people, to set a car on fire, and I am not asking you to go marching into the streets. But I am asking you to attempt to understand why someone else might do those things. I am asking you to consider that the history we learned is not dead and buried, it is alive and we are the ones living it. I am asking you to consider that racism has not ended because of our black president. I am asking you to consider that racism is real, and not contained within in the pages of our fifth-grade history textbooks.
I am asking you to think before you take to the internet, before you condemn without imagining, before you pass judgement without thought. I am asking you to study your history, by which I mean: learn about the problems that sparked the protests, rather than focus on the results. I am asking you to consider that decades of poverty and discrimination and disenfranchisement in our country are the very real descendants of the institution of slavery, of separate but equal laws, of Jim Crow and voter disenfranchisement and housing discrimination. I am asking you to consider this idea with empathy.
I am asking you to consider how you’d like to be remembered, when we are all dead and buried, our bones graying into further ash, when children look back at our own images, so foreign and ancient to their eyes, and marvel at how it used to be, and wonder at its strangeness, at how much the world has changed.