My daughter’s third grade class is reading a book with the N-word in it. I am mostly happy about this. She is old enough to learn and think about right vs. wrong and how complicated these things get when humans interact. I am only mostly, and not completely, happy about this book and subject because I know how teachers of small people usually deal with America’s history of racism and Martin Luther King Jr. and the way they, or really we, teach this subject is incomplete and is in large part why our current state of negative race relations is so hard to eradicate.
My children were taught in school that back in MLK’s time black and white people weren’t allowed to be together. We were forced to be separate and MLK didn’t think that was right. So he organized a speech and a march and got the laws changed. That is the gist of it. Now today, we have a day of service where in King’s name we do kind things for the community.
I like that general message but it isn’t really how it happened and our children need to know a more accurate truth. They need to know because “those days” weren’t so long ago that all of those people are gone. And by “those people” I don’t just mean activists and freedom riders like John Lewis, I mean “those people” like the man who hit John Lewis in the face with a club.
You see, Jim Crow wasn’t really just “how things were”. No, people made it that way intentionally. They made it that way to preserve political power, to gain wealth, and to maintain an hierarchy with white people on top. And when people tried to pry some freedom and rights out of this intentionally created system, those in power reacted with violence. And those people in power were very much white.
In discussing the dangers faced by black people, who weren’t just fighting for a seat on a bus, but for the basic rights to be an American, she asked me if this struggle was dangerous for white people too. She assumed there would be white people helping because that is her experience. I told her about Jonathan Daniels and how he was shot in broad daylight by a deputy for trying to help black people vote. I explained to her that this deputy went to trial and was acquitted. She doesn’t know the word acquitted so I explained this means he didn’t get in trouble. She was appalled.
But she has learned these stories and she is okay. She has learned the truth that just like bullies are real people on the playground, that historical bullies aren’t really just “how things were”. There were bullies who made it that way and heroes that forced the bullies to change and if we want things to be good, if we want to get to the place MLK dreamed of, we have to face reality.
She is almost nine. Nine-year-olds are smart enough to know that bullies can change. She is smart enough and old enough to know that white people, not some ambiguous “they”, are the ones who created this whole back of the bus thing. She is smart enough to know that this truth doesn’t mean all white people are bad. She is smart enough to know the truth… unless we teach her to be otherwise.
I fear that we as a whole are not smart enough to get this lesson. At least our schools, the news, our policy, and the whole state of Arizona don’t think any of us are old enough to learn the truth. There can be no perpetrators in America’s racist past, only loving heros. As if teaching this fallacy in some way better prepares us for today’s challenges.
It does not. So today, I will not argue that John Lewis is a perfect man or perfect politician, but I will remember that a cop hit John Lewis in the face with a club because he wanted to be an American.