My daughter is a college student, but for all of her childhood, this time began our season of corrections. Her exposure to Black history — our history — is something she has had access to all year around through us. January began the season when she would hear about it through school.
I remember the first time she came home and explained to me how she had learned that Martin Luther King was a man who fought for peace. It was the first time I had to correct what she had been learning in school. The goal was not peace. I explained to her that MLK was a man who fought for the liberation of his people. The method he often chose was peaceful demonstration, but that is not the only method available.
I understand the need to teach in age-appropriate ways. However, simplicity should not replace accuracy, nor should this description of MLK’s sacrifice be the dominant narrative. Peace for peace’s sake does not yield change. It maintains the status quo.
The tactics used by the Civil Rights Movement were sophisticated and intentional. Civil rights leaders understood that, at the time, the U.S. valued its reputation in the world. Pictures and video of African Americans, particularly women, being beaten, hosed, and sat upon by dogs, at the hands of the police, damaged the nation’s image as a shining beacon on the hill.
White Americans did not want to see this ugly side of our nation. It was inconsistent with the other stories that make up the standing narrative of American goodness and exceptionalism. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 codified some of the rights that African Americans had fought so hard to gain, but they did not ensure them, and so the fight continues to make the U.S. honor its agreements in practice.
Once again, peaceful demonstrations are a tactic, but peace is still not the goal. The goal is still our liberation. The sight of the abuse of Black bodies has been enough to shake the foundation of some, but too many would still be content to look the other way in search of peace and calm without change.
Some believe that it is the act of bringing up racial transgressions and not the transgressions themselves that cause the nation’s disharmony. It is clear that these folks really don’t care what the recipients of those transgressions think or feel. We’ve always known the country was broken. And now too many political leaders no longer care about the nation’s reputation in the world. So other tactics will definitely be necessary to further progress, and avoidance will not be one of them.
Peace is a balm requested to sooth the conscience and return to “normal.” This peace sought is an illusion. “Normal” is no longer acceptable. The U.S. is finally being pushed to confront old narratives that were never really true. We will have to develop a new persona based in reality, inclusive of all of our stories.
Black History Month should bring with it the recognition that it is part of U.S. history — the good, the bad, and the ugly. We will have to develop accurate ways of teaching this history to our children that inspire them to do better rather than settle for fairy tales.
I look forward to a time when parents of children of color will not have to help our children unlearn these fairy tales. I’m beginning to see glimpses of it — more inclusive curriculum and opportunities for deeper critical thinking.
Unfortunately, I’m also seeing pushback from some white parents who would prefer to leave things as they are. They want proof that removing racist practices will not remove their children’s advantages, knowing full well that proof doesn’t exist. Our efforts to find an equitable and fair way to be a diverse community, like our national efforts, do not follow an existing roadmap.
We have yet to perfect this experiment that is America. We must be willing to do what is right without the expectation of perfection, but with a desire to continuously learn and improve. I was born in 1964 and I am still waiting for those promises to be realized 57 years later.
This time of growth and learning has the potential to bring even greater advantages for all if folks are open to it. A closed fist cannot receive gifts. I hope that we can seize these opportunities rather than be caught up in a wave that is sure to come.
We can’t and we won’t go back to the perverse “normal.” It was destroyed at the Capitol on Jan. 6. We have no choice but to set a new course in search of a more perfect union that embraces the liberation of white people from the fairy tales of the past and delivers on the promise that could be America.