What I know and what I don’t know defines me, and reveals everything about me. What each of us knows and does not know is the very definition of ignorance and betrays the limitations of knowledge. What we don’t know about ourselves is the breadth of either knowledge or ignorance, until it hits us squarely between the eyes. What we do know is the injustice we face. What redeems us is the effort we take to understand the injustice burdened upon others. This is the importance of Black history month.
It also helps to define the great gulf whites have about the black experience in this nation. Even that simple and well meaning phrase betrays ignorance, as there are Hispanic blacks, Caribbean blacks, African and Middle Eastern blacks newly arrived, people of mixed race and those whose lineage can be traced back to slavery and/or the founding of the nation. It is the image in your mind from that first sentence that begins to define the progress or lack of progress in coming to recognize the complex spectrum of humanity caricaturized in the all too simple phrase “black experience,” or “black community.”
As a child in an all white semi-rural community in the 1960s and 70s, the word “Nigger” was ubiquitous for blacks in that community. I grew up with it spoken regularly by adults. I used it, curiously not to describe blacks, whom I only knew from television, but to chide or deride other whites. I began school amid the tumult of the late 60s and the Vietnam War. Until the 4th grade I did not have a history class. It was all encompassed in “Social Studies.”
That year my first history teacher, Mr. Levine, whom parents called a hippy, for his long hair and bell-bottomed suits, a departure from the dull, straight-legged conservatism folks nowadays see on the Mad Men series. This in a town that chased out a black family one year, or whose police chased off black men fishing at the Des Plaines river just outside of town. He was the first teacher to ever talk about the Civil Rights movement. But even then it was hardly more than a suggestion.
A basic understanding of the Civil Rights movement is no understanding at all. ignorance is the enemy of all civil rights. Whereas in many things, the devil is in the details, here the blessing is in the details. Knowing a little about the struggle for Civil Rights by blacks, women and minorities in this country is like knowing nothing at all. The journey is perhaps more important than the destination.
Mr. Levine, with some daring at the time, told us about Rosa Parks. I was in my twenties before I learned that it was far more than simply the case of a quiet woman refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. I left school believe I knew enough. I’d circled the multiple choice question on tests about how the civil rights movement began that December Day in 1955 with Mrs. Parks. I’d heard of Emmet Till, killed in August of that year for talking to a white woman, but not much beyond that.
I never learned, was never told, and never sought to find out anything more about Parks or Till. I was courteous and respectful to blacks I met. I felt guilty when uttering the “N” word, even under my breath, even had a black girlfriend for a while. I was no racist, I told myself. That’s arguable, depending on my level of vulnerability and sensitivity on a given day, but I was ignorant. If I am honest, even a little, particularly in light of the definition above, I have to admit that much.
It took years after I’d left school to learn that Mrs. Parks was no quiet victim of unexpected racism, a meek exhausted stor clerk simply wanting to take the weight off as some Neanderthal bullied her. She had been active and aggressive in the struggle for civil rights. It took too large a portion of my life to learn a girlfriend of Parks had been abused and assaulted for sitting in the white part of a bus, and that another had been thrown from a bus and died.
She’d sat in so-called “white” seats before, and some bus drivers refused to stop for her because she was a “trouble maker.” the Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, in part, found his rise to media prominence due to the Parks case, and that she preferred the politics and position of Malcolm X.
Now, working to help the homeless, report on violence and support victims of illegal foreclosure in some of the most troubled and neglected neighborhoods in the city, the ones you read about in the news, I am shocked. I am shocked not only of my ignorance of a comprehensive American history(I stopped myself from saying black history,)but of the current history. In that history we have a system, built upon the wreckage of slavery and still smouldering with racism, built on neglect and dysfunction that then makes the black community responsible for that neglect and dysfunction.
Each year during black history month comes a sudden avalanche of black history programs, books and stories, which are strangely absent the rest of the year. And I am drawn to them to assail that vast gulf of ignorance I bear. And each year I am shocked at the weight of that ignorance, and what I think I know and what I don’t know.