Our complex history on issues of race, our local response


 I recently wondered aloud if white parents in the southwest area of this city would be willing to send their sons and daughters to the north side to help keep some schools open just as black kids have been bussed to the south side of the city to fill schools. The woman sitting across from me told me it would never happen. No way.

And so it goes. This conversation took place just after the Washburn incident where a black doll was hung from a noose above an entryway in the school. It took place just before I spoke on MPR and before I traveled to Northfield to meet with students, a few of whom had been at Washburn as interns when the story of the doll came out. All week, I had conversations with friends and relatives about this incident. I came away feeling the anger that comes when you have work for a cause– be it folding envelopes, delivering meals, calling for candidates or in my case, speaking to teachers, writing books, presenting at conferences– and suddenly the work seems futile.

In this case my anger was a first reaction, an immediate fury at the lack of awareness of young high school students who thought it was somehow clever or funny or daring to string up a dark figure, similar to the way the way black men and women in this country were strung up for decades merely because of the color of their skin. Images from this history were replicated in that doll’s appearance.

The Tuskegee Institute has recorded three thousand four hundred and forty- six blacks were lynched between 1882 and 1968. Since then countless hate crimes against blacks have echoed the years of lynching. In 2010, law enforcement agencies reported that  three thousand, seven hundred and twenty five single-bias hate crime offenses were racially motivated.  Of these offenses 69.8 percent were motivated by anti-black bias.

Last year, a few months after Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida, I was in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Just weeks before I arrived, a white man had shot and killed three black people in one section of the city simply because of their race. Jesse Jackson had been in Tulsa right after the shootings and would be staying on for weeks to work to heal the community there. He made a surprise visit to the conference of the National Writers Project where I had given a keynote and spoke to us for an hour about the importance of education as a key factor in changing the conditions that drive such crimes of bias.

I remember Jackson from his early civil rights days. His powerful voice and his participation in the Civil Rights Movement, along side Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy, inspired many of us. Last April he appeared strong yet weary.  Maybe his weariness was from the never ending struggle for racial equity, maybe it was because his son’s career was unraveling in Chicago, maybe it was that he was getting on in age, a little over seventy. I wonder if it was all of those, if the constant work for social justice, if simply living as a black man in the United States and, too, if being present in communities experiencing trauma, was taking its toll. I don’t know. Yet something in his face and voice looked and sounded like grief.

So I thought of him this past week because after my anger at the incident of the hanging doll abated I was left with grief.

This grief comes from that experience I have mentioned in past writing: loss. It can be the loss of someone, or something, some ability or belief that is dear to us. In this case it is a loss of hope that racial hatred will no longer claim lives and that this would happen in my lifetime. And with this comes the loss of confidence in our citizens to give up their obsession with guns, which, combined with racial hatred, is lethal for people of color; as it is lethal when combined with mental illness, to our children, to our congresswomen, to our prosecutors and judges.  I am left with grief for all the work I will leave undone after I pass.

That is why the image at Washburn; that figure hanging above the stairway, shown over and over on the news and in the Strib affected me deeply.  Did they know what they were doing? I believe that they did; in some casual way they were aware of racism. Did they know the history–, the black men hanging from telephone polls in Louisiana, the story of Emmett Till, the lynching of three black men in Duluth Minnesota in 1929?  Had they read about Malcolm X whose father was killed by white supremacists when Malcolm was young and whose uncle was lynched? Did they know that the husband of Myrlie Evers, the woman who read the prayer at President Obama’s inauguration, was shot down in front of his wife and children in Mississippi, where he was doing work in civil rights in 1963? Did they know that Evers had served in WWII and was buried with full military honors in Arlington Cemetery? Had they read novels, stories, memoirs about life in the south and the north as well; the random lynching that occurred there, all the more hideous because of its randomness?

As I write this, there is an effort in our state legislature to limit what we can teach in the classroom to “American Exceptionalism” –a sanitized history devoid of  true complexity–instead of the full multi perspective history of race and oppression that makes up a crucial part of our nation’s story. Some responded to Washburn by saying that we are bound by text books and that those text books are written according to a Texas formula as this state purchases so many books and publishers publish what Texas wants. These books have a content that is limited in perspective and limited in inclusion. Yet to cite this situation as a reason for students’ lack of historical truth is an excuse, and a poor one.

For decades the best teachers have created their own units of instruction, compilations, projects, and collaborative lessons that bring the rich and troublesome events and questions of history to their classrooms. They may even use those Texas driven textbooks as illustrations of the problem with a one-sided, single perspective, and as examples of biased presentations of a historical period.

So grief and loss and anger all accompany me these days. Years of work and books and classroom teaching in colleges and public school classrooms later, I am brought back to images and stories of those who went before me, who gave their lives and their hard work to respond to W.E.B. DuBois ‘ statement in The Souls of Black Folk : “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” .   Well here we are in the twenty- first century.

Another description by DuBois  written in that same book in 1903 is unfortunately also relevant today. In describing being black in America he said: “One ever feels his twoness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. “

I want to end this on a hopeful note. Maybe next time I can find that. For now I wish that when I suggest change in the way we do things, here in our city, in our neighborhoods, I will no longer be told, “That will never happen.”  Perhaps the next person I speak to will say, “How could we do that, how can we interrupt business as usual? “ That would help.