Now that I am away on summer break, part of me misses the bustle of students climbing stairs or commandeering choice seats near the windows. For my tenth graders, we ended the year with a multi-arced exploration of the role of children in the Civil Rights Movement. As I did last year and the year before, we began with the significance of Emmett Till’s murder in 1955, travelled briefly to the failed 1962 Albany, Georgia desegregation attempt, moved South to Birmingham, Alabama and the unprecedented Children’s Crusade, and then ended with the tragic death of four little girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.
Along the way, while examining historic footage and reading original accounts of the events, we analyzed strategies, explored obstacles, and evaluated impact. I approached this unit both as an opportunity to suggest the power of young people to affect change, and as a chance to reflect on the meaning of life and sacrifice. Using formal, persuasive argument as the backdrop, students must decide whether Till’s death was “necessary,” whether King’s decision to employ children in Birmingham was “justified,” and whether or not parents can ever keep their offspring “safe” in an oppressive environment.
As we debated these lessons from the past, the present world invaded our space in unfamiliar ways. The death of Freddie Gray at the hands of police in nearby Baltimore, and the ensuing anger and frustration, drew many of our conversations away to parallel cases of unarmed blacks “accidentally” placed “in harm’s way.”
My students were aware of the death of Trayvon Martin, of course, and Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, and too many more. They had impressions of their own to share from family reunion stories or personal observations. Had the notorious racist Bull Connor simply morphed into a leaner, more sinister version who said all the correct things (or nothing at all), but then acted with equal disdain?
“Sometimes,” a male student in the rear said one day in May, “I wish I was white.”
“Why would you say that?” I asked.
“I just get tired of it sometimes. Too much work. You gotta be looking out for everybody, the police, George Zimmerman, somebody following you in the store…”
“Or down the street, “ a girl in the middle added. “We kill each other more than all those things combined.
“They keep saying ‘’black lives matter,’” the boy in the back continued, “but I don’t see it.”
I said nothing for a moment. I had to gather my thoughts and my emotions. “You matter,” I said. “And you…and you…and you…,” I repeated while pointing at boys and girls around the room. “We just have to work harder to make sure we let each other know how much we matter. We just have to remind ourselves we are special and blessed, and then we are–”
“Yes?” I then asked, finally calling on a persistent male near the front whose comments always seemed to oscillate between thought-provoking and charmingly annoying.
“Why should them kids in Birmingham have to go to jail just because the grown folks wouldn’t? Why I have to bow my head just ‘cause some cop is coming?”
“”Those kids….it’s “those” kids and ‘why do I have to bow.’ But let’s be honest now,” I said. “Isn’t it fair to say that the biggest threat to your life, if there is such a threat, is some clown from the neighborhood who doesn’t want to go to school, doesn’t want to work hard and do things the right way, but wants to take from you, or your brother, or your sister, or your folks? I mean is it fair to ask whites to value black lives if we don’t?”
“I still don’t think police should treat us like criminals,” the girl in the middle added. “They are supposed to be professionals.”
“I just wanna live my life and not bother nobody, and nobody bothers me,” the boy continued.
There was another brief silence after that exchange. I used the time to pose a slightly different question. “Isn’t life a struggle for everyone? Isn’t sacrifice the parent of grace? Mr. Samuel? What do you say? Haven’t heard your voice today.”
Sitting in the front near the wall, he paused momentarily, as was his custom. “I think…I think God made heaven and everything in it. I think God made me–and everybody. Sooner we see that, the better.”
“You know,” I finally said. “Biologically speaking, there is no such thing as race. There is no genetic marker for race. There are certain traits we receive from our parents and their parents, and the ones before that. But each determiner is separate. One for hair, one for nose, one for lips, pigmentation.
Sometime around the mid-fifteenth century, the idea of race was created in order to separate humans into groups. Hair and the amount of melanin in the skin became the dominate physical signs they used to lump individuals together and call it race. Most of it was fueled by an excuse to exert power over others, in the name of God no less.
It’s as simple and as complex as that. Now, there are social realities which shape us and the human experience. There is culture, shared remembrances, geographic adaptations, holidays, music, language, and all kinds of social practices and institutions.”
“All of us inherit things, “ I said. “We all have history and footsteps before ours, some steady and unwavering; some stumbling and unsure. But in our history, in everyone’s history, there are moments of strength, and wisdom, and kindness. There are lessons learned, forgotten, then remembered again. Life is a journey. You are a miracle. Don’t let anybody ever take that away.” Almost half the class applauded.
But I still wonder how much of our discussion they retained. So much has happened since that day. On June 12, the last day of school, the parents of NAACP leader and self-proclaimed “black” Rachel Dolezal outed her as “white.” For the next ten days, articles and opinion pieces explored the same question: why would a white woman ever want to be black? Her declaration ran counter to all our assumptions about privilege and beauty, but almost no one dared say that aloud. It was not Dolezal’s mere deception which startled, but rather contemplations about its origin. When and how had this woman become so lost?
Then, in the evening of June 18, Dylann Roof, ninth-grade dropout and white assassin the same age as most of our graduating seniors, decided to ignore the hour of fellowship he received in the Wednesday evening bible study at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to at least one witness, he declared a need to murder black strangers in order to prevent them from “taking over our country.” Later investigations revealed a deep affection for the Confederate flag and the white supremacy it asserts.
I wondered if my students, on vacation, saw the parallels to our studies. Just as Robert Chambliss, the convicted Birmingham bomber, believed in 1963 that death in the 16th Street Baptist Church would resegregate the city, so too did Roof harbor visions of race wars and a return to the utter subjugation of Americans of African descent. Both killers wrongly assumed that the racial progress we have achieved in this country is as easily dismantled as racial fears reignite.
That same week, here in DC, Malik Mercer expired just five days before his 16th birthday, the 65th homicide victim of local gun violence. Metro bus video suggests he was followed by three, young, black men who coveted his designer belt. A rising high school junior, Mr. Mercer is now dead. The young men who ended his life saw him not as a person of substance, or a comrade in struggle, but rather as a nameless obstacle in the way of material gain. To them, undereducated emblems of a persistent divide, his life equalled a belt and no more.
To be sure, violence and crime are down here and across the country. Teen pregnancies have also diminished significantly, and high school graduation rates are up. Clearly, young people have been listening, even as another eulogy threatens their resolve.
What becomes clear is that at a historic moment when the Supreme Court has affirmed an equal right (at least to marry) for all citizens, I still wonder when the time will come for my students when the phrase “black lives matter” becomes an unnecessary, redundant relic from the past. When will the time come when displaced fingers point not at race, ethnicity, gender, language, religion, or other convenient barriers, but rather at America’s taxation, compensation, communication, and fiscal policies, and the resultant income disparities they create? When will more people reach for a book and a ballot, instead of a weapon, to right the course?
When will the time come when no young soul will ever again have to question the comfort of skin, the body’s largest organ, the emblem of cultural wonders, and the barrier least understood?
–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)