I was 22 before I really understood what had happened during the Civil Rights Movement. That was the year I learned that segregation had been widespread, that people had fought, marched, suffered, and even died merely for the right to be equal citizens in the eyes of the law. And it had all happened, not one hundred years ago, but in the decade before my birth.
The majority of my educational years were spent being homeschooled by my parents, who were well-intentioned, kind-hearted people, but who pretty much left out any aspects of Black History from my education.
I was raised to believe that people were equal, no matter what color they were, and I even had a few black friends growing up, but in my mind racism was something from the past, something that happened during the time of slavery, something that was obviously over and had been for a very long time, except in the cases of a few backwards folks who hung on to hate—but no one paid them any attention, anyway, right?
During the years when I wasn’t homeschooled, I attended various church-related schools where the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t a big topic of study. There weren’t any black children in my kindergarten, and I only remember one in my first grade class. I don’t remember learning about any famous Black Americans or any aspect of Black History at all in the early years of my life.
In fact, the entirety of my Black History education was practically encompassed in the stories of two Black Americans who were included in my third grade American History book after we had started homeschooling. The text was set up as a series of chapters, with each chapter outlining the life and accomplishments of an important American. There were two African-Americans included: Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. Both were born slaves, but luckily both had helpful white people in their lives who made sure they got great educations and went to college. (Paternalism, anyone?) Both became professors—one a scientist and inventor, one a school administrator. So rosy and happy were their stories (even though they came from difficult beginnings) that I naturally assumed all Black Americans lived similar lives to mine. After all, now that slavery was over, it was so much easier than it had been for these men, whose lives already seemed pretty good overall.
The whitewashing of struggle influenced me in ways I wouldn’t and couldn’t understand until decades later.
This was in the 1980’s. Interracial dating was prohibited in one of the colleges associated with a school that I attended. A law against interracial marriage, which went against the Supreme Court’s ruling, was still on the books in one of the states where I lived.
Basically, I lived in a rosy bubble of privilege, blissfully ignorant of what had really taken place in my country a mere 20 years previous. I was a happy little 8-year-old, learning about a few token Black people from my history book, with absolutely no conception of the trials that children had gone through in my very city to integrate their schools, or the governor that had blocked the door of the state university in defiance of a federal order of desegregation.
I remember maybe one or two conversations with my mother about how, as a student, she had watched protests on the evening news, and thought it was horrible how the people were treated. But those topics of conversation somehow felt small and far away, insignificant. I never knew how huge the fight for equal rights had been, never knew how common discrimination was (and still is) in our country, never knew that the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t end all the horrors that slavery had established.
Not only was my conception of slavery and the ease of its end unrealistic, but my understanding was also severely limited by the fact that most of my history education consisted of repeating topics from colonial and early American history over and over again, rather than moving forward to the history of the 20th century.
At my tiny school in 6th grade, I remember hearing Nelson Mandela’s name from my (black) South African teacher, who was thrilled that he had finally been released. I don’t remember much about it, except that my parents had shaken their heads a bit because they thought she was a “liberal.” I had no idea what apartheid was or why Mandela’s release was significant.
In 8th grade I attended a southern, Christian school. I recall hearing from my well-loved history teacher that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, but primarily about states’ rights. I was surprised, but I assumed my teacher must be right. We studied American history that year, but there was little, if any, mention of the struggle or contributions of Black Americans.
In high school, my family became part of a homeschool organization that believed backbeats were from the devil and rock music opened you up to satanic influence. I realize now that by forbidding the music of other cultures, this group ensured that white people would be more likely to view other races with fear and disdain. This in itself was a subtle, but significant form of racism.
Eventually, I learned that most of what I had learned from this homeschool organization was inaccurate, harmful, and even unbiblical. It took some time, but eventually I broke free from the ideology and attended a community college where, for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by a racially diverse group of people. This was where I learned about the fight for Civil Rights, the Birmingham church bombings, lynching, sit-ins, and Emmett Till.
We went on a field trip to the Civil Rights museum, watched documentaries, studied poetry about Civil Rights issues, and created our own. We saw statues of the dogs that had attacked protesters, visited the church where little girls died, and learned about the local high school honors students in our city who had walked out of school to participate in sit-ins.
I drank it all in, wondering to myself how I could have been so ignorant for so long…how did I never learn about this?
I remember sitting, wide-eyed, in my community college auditorium, watching a documentary about Civil Rights leaders, staring at the faces of men and women my grandparents’ ages (and even younger) as they told of the struggles they had faced just to vote, sit at a lunch counter, or obtain an education in an integrated school. It was the beginning of the erosion of my ignorance.
I soon developed an intense thirst for knowledge of the Civil Rights period of history. I read books, articles, fiction, nonfiction. I watched documentaries and talked with people. I wanted to learn everything I had missed. I wanted to understand. Another decade passed, and many patient friends and a helpful church with an integrated community of leaders helped to teach me even more about racial justice, white privilege, social justice, and the continuance of racism in our country and the world. I purchased recommended books and continued to learn and grow and immerse myself in environments that would help me grow towards a greater understanding of the challenges faced by people of color. Friends have reached out, patiently shared with me, talked about their own experiences and invited me into their lives.
Now, 30 years after my experience with that third grade history book, I am a third grade teacher myself. I sit in front of a classroom full of 8-year-olds with black and brown faces, and I read them a book about segregation. They know the history all-to-well, even though it seems like ancient history to them. Their faces are sad, resigned, concerned…but also aware, indignant, resolved. This will not happen again. Their determination confirms it. Even the occasional white students in my school are generally vigorous opponents of racism and inequality of any sort.
This generation of children is full of determination and activism at an age when I wasn’t even aware it was necessary.
They know names like Ruby Bridges, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks—and they aspire to be like them. They give me hope for our future.