Everything has me weepy today on the observation of MLK, Jr.'s birthday, feeling sentimental as an African American historian and a product of the rural South.
Everything. Like, in the midst of re-reading Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow (I'm teaching it (again) this Spring), I have (previously) run across Cara's review of the book and, just today, this interview with the author and other scholars bearing the grim subtitle "How a Racist Criminal Justice System Rolled Back the Gains of the Civil Rights Era." This article also centers the book and the school-to-prison-pipeline that acts in some of the same systematic ways as the old system of Jim Crow. As I read them, I am disheartened, overwhelmed, teary-eyed. And I thought, "My God, so far to go!"
Everything. Like the fact that I have never watched The Great Debaters but today caught the last ten minutes of it with my boys. I was struck by the young man at the end who spoke of our duty to resist unjust laws, of the fear and shame with which African Americans lived, of a world in which you could stumble upon a lynch mob and do nothing but hide, hoping to save your own life. As I watched, I felt awe-struck, angry, teary-eyed. And I thought, "My God, how far we've come."
Far enough that I, the granddaughter of domestics and sharecroppers, will get up tomorrow and go to my job as an assistant professor at a public university after making sure my kids are safely off to school, once upon a time little more than a dream for most teenaged black boys whose lives were dictated by agricultural needs.
You know, I've never known for sure if the words to that old song are "My Soul Looks Back in Wonder" or "My Soul Looks Back and Wonders." I don't worry about it much, because either is fitting when I look back over the course of the history of people of African descent in this country. So far we've come. Every once in a while, I do take a moment, reflect, feel gratitude, feel strengthened, realize the resilience that comes from past victories and defeats. This is one of those days.
And then I remember, So far we have to go. And I get back to business.
I'm more in awe than ever that the man could speak so inspirationally while he knew in every particular how viciously bad life was for so many people.
He came to Memphis feeling compelled to support the strike and march for unionization of the garbage workers after Ecole Cole and Robert Walker lost their lives in the known defective wiener truck they were assigned that day. They'd finished the day's work in a pouring rain carrying garbage on their shoulders to the truck and were headed to the dump when the faulty mechanism somehow switched on, snagged them and could not be stopped. The papers were dominated the next day by the birth announcement of Lisa Marie Pressley and barely noted the gruesome passing of the two men. Earlina Walker was left a widow with no means, pregnant and wanting only to go back to rural Mississippi for her husband's funeral.
I was thirty-three years old that February 1, 1968, so clueless I didn't understand why they were striking. My journey has been one of learning how much I do not know and how much I never knew about the lives of people who lived so nearby all my life but in a world I did not even see. I had to learn that I especially did not see my own privilege and for the rest of my life I've been trying to see. What I see now is a world that grinds up people ever younger, feeding a military-industrial juggernaut. I live in a city with the highest murder rate in the nation and in a state that incarcerates a higher percentage of its citizens than any other place in the history of the world. And that those people being murdered and those people being incarcerated are overwhelmingly black people. The overwhelming proof of our racist society is that, even with babies being shot in their cribs as collateral damage and children killed on the street by other children and the overwhelmingly skewed sentencing apparent in our courts still decimating the population, grinding up men, women and children today, we still don't pay attention.
It's my pitiful and inadequate resolution this year to tell the truth about this to every white person I know who feels they are free not to notice the grinding of the system.
the telling takes courage when so many don't want to hear; some are so violently, hatefully resistant to hearing.
Good luck and strength to me and you as we try!
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