Sunday, January 18, 2015

You Have To Be Carefully Taught: Reflections on MLK Day.

I was almost seven months old the day Martin Luther King Jr. was killed.  My mother was living in Beaumont, TX with my elder brother and me.  As a young army wife, she was undoubtedly getting ready for her next move to Fort Benning, Ga.

Most of my young life, I wondered why my parents didn’t take part in the whole civil rights movement.  Why didn’t they march?  Why don’t they have stories about ‘being there’?  One of the most important movements in the history of our country, and they missed it.  What on earth were they doing?

My parents grew up in Texas.  Both Beaumont and Ft. Worth were very segregated.  They went to black schools.  In elementary school it was a neighborhood school.  Middle and high school wasn’t anywhere near their homes, and they had to get up early to take busses to those schools.  They passed many other schools that were much closer.  My mother always points out that in the service of segregation, the southern states were happy to bus black kids great distances to keep them separate, but when bussing was instituted to desegregate the schools, suddenly it was a terrible thing. 

My great grandmother raised my mother.  Topsy Lewis didn’t grow up with Jim Crow.  Jim Crow was something that came into vogue to make sure that black folks didn’t forget that they were black.  It burned my great grandmother no end to have to sit in the back of the bus, so she took it as little as possible.  In fact, she stayed in her neighborhood, a place called The Bottoms, rather than deal with the outside world.

My great grandmother taught my mother a number of lessons.  Here are a few of them.

-Your money is the same color as theirs.  If you can’t go in the front door and spend it, you don’t go in there at all. 

My mother never went to restaurants or movies unless she could go in, buy popcorn, and sit where she wanted.  Guess how long it was before she went to a movie?

-Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you aren’t good enough.  Anyone who would think that about you doesn’t know you.

My mother took this to mean ‘don’t let anyone talk down to you’.  I remember one occasion in my childhood where we’d gone into a store to buy something, and the clerk said something offensive or condescending, so mom flashed her gold American Express, gave the person a little smile, and left after making a comment about finding a ‘better’ place to shop.

-Nobody will ever give you anything, ever.  No matter what else happens to you in life, you are black, and they will never let you forget it.  They would kill you before they would acknowledge any part of this country belongs to you.

My mother took this to mean that you have to be one hundred fifty percent better at whatever you do than the best white person just to be considered worthy to be treated only slightly better than less than.

-Be careful.  Be wary.  Don’t put yourself in harm’s way.  Black people can’t get justice in this world.

My mother took this to mean that you stayed far from anything you knew was dangerous.  In my great grandmother’s world, there were quite a few things black folks in general, and black women in particular had to fear.

When the civil rights movement was happening in the 60's, it was not changing anything that was going on in east Texas.  My mother says they watched all that marching and yelling and struggle like a television show, because that’s how it was presented where she lived.  It wasn’t held up to be anything more than a few black folks getting above themselves, and see how much pain they are experiencing because of it? If they would just settle down, they’d stop getting hurt.

It made me think about the parts of the country that were against making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a holiday.  They argued that his work did not rise to the level of national importance.  To this day, there are still those who don't want his legacy taught in schools. 

If you look at the impact of Martin Luther King’s legacy on our country, it is obvious his life’s work changed the course of our nation, but if you watched the whole proceeding in certain parts of the country while it was going down, you would have grown up thinking it didn’t accomplish much of anything, and as an adult, you might actually be confused as to why this bizarre little hiccup in history is getting so much play.

My mother taught us variations on what she learned from my great grandmother.  How could she not? The world was a different place as we grew.  She raised us as an army officer’s wife, not a woman who took in washing to help make ends meet.  We always went to excellent schools, not segregated schools where our books were five years out of date, and the only time we got new materials was when the white schools updated their stuff, and shipped the old things across town to the black schools.  We lived on army bases, and basically left home first thing in the morning, spent the day riding, running, swimming, walking with kids from all over the world who looked different, spoke different languages, ate different foods, and had different ideas about how things worked.  

Military Bases Were A Tiny United Nations

As we head into 2015, our country has already seen a spate of racial violence. We are talking about race, and how we deal with it in society more than we have in a generation.  We are beginning to confront the unspoken fears, hatreds, beliefs, and anger that we have been unwilling to face because it is ugly, and it makes us look small and pitiful.

What will we teach our children?  What will be the lessons we give them because of the struggle that Martin Luther King Jr. took upon himself? 

Race relations in our country have never been better.  You can point to all the terror and darkness we see on the screen, and you can ask, ‘How can you say that?’ 

The answer is, once upon a time, we were carefully taught you weren’t allowed to talk about it, and if you did, you were only allowed to think about it one way.  That isn’t true anymore.

Once upon a time you couldn’t laugh at racists.  You couldn’t call them out.  You couldn’t even suggest they were doing something heinous and wrong.  If you spoke about race, you had to do it in the context of comparing races and saying which one was superior.  Any other kind of discussion about race made no sense.

These days we can’t shut up about race.  We talk about it all the time.  The difference is, talking about it qualitatively will get you in trouble. 

This has led to people trying to change the meaning of the word racist.

Now, if you talk about race at all or try to put it in context of a situation, there are those who will call you a racist or a race baiter.  There are also those who just want to pretend that race isn’t an issue at all, and if you say it is, you are promoting racism.

Photo credit

Then there are the people who keep announcing we live in a post racial world.  If only.

photo credit

My parents raised my siblings and me to be proud of who we are.  They raised us to speak our minds.  They raised us to stand up for what we believe. 

They forgot to raise us to be afraid of people who were different, or suspicious of different ideas.

They forgot to tell us there were places we could not go or things we could not do.

From my trip to Hong Kong

They even forgot to tell us that people would try to stop us because we were black....this caused some strange conversations when we hit our teenage years, encountered bouts of racism for the first time, and were utterly baffled about it, but that’s another story.

All of these ‘don’ts’ seem to have slipped their mind when they raised us.

My mother never marched in a civil rights demonstration.  My father never picketed, or crossed a bridge, or stood peacefully holding someone’s hand while authorities or regular citizens of a different color abused him, spat on him or called him names. 

Still, I think they did their part.  They taught their children.  They taught us very carefully.

Happy MLK Day!

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