I am the proud father of two beautiful children, Elijah, 15, and Octavia, 12.
When Elijah was in the fourth grade, he came to me, came home from school bubbling over with excitement about what he had learned that day about African-American history. Now, I'm an African-American and cultural studies professor, and so, as you can imagine, African-American culture is kind of serious around my home. So I was very proud that my son was excited about what he had learned that day in school. So I said, "What did you learn?" He said, "I learned about Rosa Parks." I said, "OK, what did you learn about Rosa Parks?" He said, "I learned that Rosa Parks was this frail, old black woman in the 1950s in Montgomery, Alabama. And she sat down on this bus, and she had tired feet, and when the bus driver told her to give up her seat to a white patron, she refused because she had tired feet. It had been a long day, and she was tired of oppression, and she didn't give up her seat. And she marched with Martin Luther King, and she believed in nonviolence." And I guess he must have looked at my face and saw that I was a little less than impressed by his ... um ... history lesson. And so he stopped, and he was like, "Dad, what's wrong? What did I get wrong?" I said, "Son, you didn't get anything wrong, but I think your teacher got a whole lot of things wrong."
He said, "Well, what do you mean?" I said, "Rosa Parks was not tired. She was not old. And she certainly didn't have tired feet." He said, "What?" I said, "Yes! Rosa Parks was only 42 years old" — Yeah, you're shocked, right? Never heard that. "Rosa Parks was only 42 years old, she had only worked six hours that day, and she was a seamstress and her feet were just fine.
The only thing that she was tired of was she was tired of inequality. She was tired of oppression." And my son said, "Well, why would my teacher tell me this thing? This is confusing for me." Because he loved his teacher, and she was a good teacher, a young-ish, 20-something white woman, really, really smart, pushed him, so I liked her as well. But he was confused. "Why would she tell me this?" he said. He said, "Dad, tell me more. Tell me more. Tell me more about Rosa Parks." And I said, "Son, I'll do you one better." He was like, "What?" I said, "I'm going to buy her autobiography, and I'm going to let you read it yourself."
So as you can imagine, Elijah wasn't too excited about this new, lengthy homework assignment that his dad had just given him, but he took it in stride. And he came back after he had read it, and he was excited about what he had learned. He said, "Dad, not only was Rosa Parks not initially into nonviolence, but Rosa Parks's grandfather, who basically raised her and was light enough to pass as white, used to walk around town with his gun in his holster, and people knew if you messed with Mr. Parks's children or grandchildren, he would put a cap in your proverbial bottom."
Right? He was not someone to mess with. And he said, "I also learned that Rosa Parks married a man in Raymond who was a lot like her grandfather." He would organize. He was a civil rights activist. He would organize events and sometimes the events would be at Rosa Parks's home. And one time Rosa Parks remarked that there were so many guns on the table, because they were prepared for somebody to come busting into the door that they were prepared for whatever was going to go down, that Rosa Parks said, "There were so many guns on the table that I forgot to even offer them coffee or food."
This is who Rosa Parks was. And in fact, Rosa Parks, when she was sitting on that bus that day, waiting for those police officers to arrive and not knowing what was going to happen to her, she was not thinking about Martin Luther King, who she barely knew. She was not thinking about nonviolence or Gandhi. She was thinking about her grandfather, a gun-toting, take-no-mess grandfather. That's who Rosa Parks was thinking about. My son was mesmerized by Rosa Parks, and I was proud of him to see this excitement.
But then I still had a problem. Because I still had to go his school and address the issue with his teacher, because I didn't want her to continue to teach the kids obviously false history. So I'm agonizing over this, primarily because I understand, as an African-American man, that whenever you talk to whites about racism or anything that's racially sensitive, there's usually going to be a challenge. This is what white sociologist Robin DiAngelo calls "white fragility." She argues that, in fact, because whites have so little experience being challenged about their white privilege that whenever even the most minute challenge is brought before them, they usually cry, get angry or run.
And I have experienced them all. And so, when I was contemplating confronting his teacher, I wasn't happy about it, but I was like, this is a necessary evil of being a black parent trying to raise self-actualized black children.
So I called Elijah to me and said, "Elijah, I'm going to set up an appointment with your teacher and try and correct this and maybe your principal. What do you think?" And Elijah said, "Dad, I have a better idea." And I said, "Really? What's your idea?" He said, "We have a public speaking assignment, and why don't I use that public speaking assignment to talk about debunking the myths of Rosa Parks?" And I was like, "Well, that is a good idea."
So Elijah goes to school, he does his presentation, he comes back home, and I could see something positive happened. I said, "Well, what happened, son?" He said, "Well, later on in that day, the teacher pulled me aside, and she apologized to me for giving that misinformation." And then something else miraculous happened the next day. She actually taught a new lesson on Rosa Parks, filling in the gaps that she had left and correcting the mistakes that she made. And I was so, so proud of my son.
But then I thought about it. And I got angry. And I got real angry. Why? Why would I get angry? Because my nine-year-old son had to educate his teacher about his history, had to educate his teacher about his own humanity. He's nine years old. He should be thinking about basketball or soccer or the latest movie. He should not be thinking about having to take the responsibility of educating his teacher, his students, about himself, about his history. That was a burden that I carried. That was a burden that my parents carried and generations before them carried. And now I was seeing my son take on that burden, too.
You see, that's why Rosa Parks wrote her autobiography. Because during her lifetime, if you can imagine, you do this amazing thing, you're alive and you're talking about your civil rights activism, and a story emerges in which somebody is telling the world that you were old and you had tired feet and you just were an accidental activist, not that you had been activist by then for 20 years, not that the boycott had been planned for months, not that you were not even the first or the second or even the third woman to be arrested for doing that. You become an accidental activist, even in her own lifetime. So she wrote that autobiography to correct the record, because what she wanted to remind people of was that this is what it was like in the 1950s trying to be black in America and fight for your rights.
During the year, a little over a year, that the boycott lasted, there were over four church bombings. Martin Luther King's house was bombed twice. Other civil rights leaders' houses were bombed in Birmingham. Rosa Parks's husband slept at night with a shotgun, because they would get constant death threats. In fact, Rosa Parks's mother lived with them, and sometimes she would stay on the phone for hours so that nobody would call in with death threats, because it was constant and persistent. In fact, there was so much tension, there was so much pressure, there was so much terrorism, that Rosa Parks and her husband, they lost their jobs, and they became unemployable and eventually had to leave and move out of the South. This is a civil rights reality that Rosa Parks wanted to make sure that people understood.
So you say, "Well, David, what does that have to do with me? I'm a well-meaning person. I didn't own slaves. I'm not trying to whitewash history. I'm a good guy. I'm a good person." Let me tell you what it has to do with you, and I'll tell it to you by telling you a story about a professor of mine, a white professor, when I was in graduate school, who was a brilliant, brilliant individual. We'll call him "Fred." And Fred was writing this history of the civil rights movement, but he was writing specifically about a moment that happened to him in North Carolina when this white man shot this black man in cold blood in a wide-open space and was never convicted. And so it was this great book, and he called together a couple of his professor friends and he called me to read a draft of it before the final submission. And I was flattered that he called me; I was only a graduate student then. I was kind of feeling myself a little bit. I was like, "OK, yeah." I'm sitting around amongst intellectuals, and I read the draft of the book. And there was a moment in the book that struck me as being deeply problematic, and so I said, "Fred," as we were sitting around talking about this draft, I said, "Fred, I've got a real problem with this moment that you talk about your maid in your book." And I could see Fred get a little "tight," as we say. He said, "What do you mean? That's a great story. It happened just like I said." I said, "Mmm ... can I give you another scenario?"
Now, what's the story? It was 1968. Martin Luther King had just been assassinated. His maid, "domestic" — we'll call her "Mabel," was in the kitchen. Little Fred is eight years old. Little Fred comes into the kitchen, and Mabel, who he has only seen as smiling and helpful and happy, is bent over the sink, and she's crying, and she's sobbing inconsolably. And little Fred comes over to her and says, "Mabel, what is wrong?" Mabel turns, and she says, "They killed him! They killed our leader. They killed Martin Luther King. He's dead! They are monsters." And little Fred says, "It'll be OK, Mabel. It'll be OK. It'll be OK." And she looked at him, and she says, "No, it's not going to be OK. Did you not hear what I just said? They killed Martin Luther King." And Fred, son of a preacher, looks up at Mabel, and he says, "But Mabel, didn't Jesus die on the cross for our sins? Wasn't that a good outcome? Maybe this will be a good outcome. Maybe the death of Martin Luther King will lead to a good outcome."
And as Fred tells the story, he says that Mabel put her hand over her mouth, she reached down and she gave little Fred a hug, and then she reached into the icebox, and took out a couple Pepsis, gave him some Pepsis and sent him on his way to play with his siblings. And he said, "This was proof that even in the most harrowing times of race struggle that two people could come together across racial lines and find human commonality along the lines of love and affection." And I said, "Fred, that is some BS."
Fred was like, "But I don't understand, David. That's the story." I said, "Fred, let me ask you a question." I said, "You were in North Carolina in 1968. If Mabel would've went to her community — you were eight years old — what do you think the eight-year-old African-American children were calling her? Do you think they called her by her first name?" No, they called her "Miss Mabel," or they called her "Miss Johnson," or they called her "Auntie Johnson." They would have never dared call her by her first name, because that would have been the height of disrespect. And yet, you were calling her by her first name every single day that she worked, and you never thought about it."
I said, "Let me ask you another question: Was Mabel married? Did she have children? What church did she go to? What was her favorite dessert?" Fred could not answer any of those questions. I said, "Fred, this story is not about Mabel. This story is about you." I said, "This story made you feel good, but this story is not about Mabel. The reality is, what probably happened was, Mabel was crying, which was not something she customarily did, so she was letting her guard down. And you came into the kitchen, and you caught her at a weak moment where she was letting her guard down. And see, because you thought of yourself as just like one of her children, you didn't recognize that you were in fact the child of her employer. And she'd found herself yelling at you. And then she caught herself, realizing that, 'If I'm yelling at him and he goes back and he tells his dad or he tells mom, I could lose my job.' And so she tempered herself, and she ended up — even though she needed consoling — she ended up consoling you and sending you on your way, perhaps so she could finish mourning in peace."
And Fred was stunned. And he realized that he had actually misread that moment. And see, this is what they did to Rosa Parks. Because it's a lot easier to digest an old grandmother with tired feet who doesn't stand up because she wants to fight for inequality, but because her feet and her back are tired, and she's worked all day. See, old grandmothers are not scary. But young, radical black women who don't take any stuff from anybody are very scary, who stand up to power and are willing to die for that — those are not the kind of people that make us comfortable.
So you say, "What do you want me to do, David? I don't know what to do." Well, what I would say to you is, there was a time in which, if you were Jewish, you were not white, if you were Italian, you were not white, if you were Irish, you were not white in this country. It took a while before the Irish, the Jews and the Italians became white. Right? There was a time in which you were "othered," when you were the people on the outside. Toni Morrison said, "If, in order for you to be tall, I have to be on my knees, you have a serious problem." She says, "White America has a serious, serious problem."
To be honest, I don't know if race relations will improve in America. But I know that if they will improve, we have to take these challenges on head on. The future of my children depends on it. The future of my children's children depends on it. And, whether you know it or not, the future of your children and your children's children depends on it, too.