I grew up in a nearly all-white New Jersey suburb but gained respect for African-Americans and their culture through the actions of my parents and a few teachers. In seventh grade social studies we not only read "Uncle Tom's Cabin" but also produced an 8mm movie based on the novel. My high school music classes focused on the study and performance of many African-American jazz masters, and my parents always had African-American friends with whom we socialized. An African-American woman even sang gospel songs at my bar mitzvah. I watched "Roots" with my family like millions of Americans. Majoring in jazz and playing in Latin bands enhanced my multicultural perspectives.
However, it was not until I took a required college course on racism and sexism that I appreciated the depth of the void in my education. Watching the remarkable PBS documentary "Eyes on the Prize" countless times introduced me to American heroes from my lifetime such as Medgar Evers, A. Philip Randolph, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Meredith, John Lewis and Robert Moses. Listening to Benny Goodman, Michael Shwerner and James Chaney, Malcolm X and the Little Rock Nine speaking in their own words left me feeling guilty about how little I knew about the real struggle for equality in this nation. I was furious about how school had denied me access to recent history and lied by omission and commission. I was taught as little about Dr. King as my children were about the Watergate scandal, the Camp David accords or Iran-Contra. Yet each of these topics influences our current events.
I've since read W.E.B. DuBois and Dr. King. I own a set of the "Eyes on the Prize" videos. I've traveled to the King Center, Central High School, Ole Miss, the Lorraine Motel, as well as South Africa's Soweto and Robben Island. This is all part of my continuing education and makes me a better educator. Serving on a recent panel discussion with Robert Moses about improving education in Harlem remains one of the highlights of my career.
An educator's obligation to be informed and speak truthfully with students is brought into focus in Herbert Kohl's stunning book, "She Would Not Be Moved: How We Tell the Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott" (New Press, 2007). Kohl exposes the usual story "Rosa's feet were tired and would not give up her seat and the world came together to end segregation" as a fable that robs all children of their history, diminishes the struggle of those who fought to make America live up to the ideals of its constitution, and continues to oppress minority children. Line by line he dissects the half-truths and distortions in this cartoon version of Rosa Parks' story and helps teachers find ways of sharing the historical truth about Mrs. Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the vicious destruction caused by segregation. Half of the book helps educators teach complex social issues.
Space does not allow me to retell the true story of how segregation long tormented the residents of Montgomery, or how Mrs. Parks was secretary of the NAACP and had been thrown off of segregated buses for twelve years, or how Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, a tenured English professor and organizer of the boycott, had been expelled from a bus six years earlier. The story of tired feet and the Kumbaya told to school children fails to mention the fact that African-Americans were dependent on the bus system yet endured hardship by boycotting it for 381 days. Or that "Negroes" were never allowed to sit at the front of the bus, only in the "colored" section several rows back, and even then they could be expelled if a white passenger simply requested their seat.
The civil rights struggle of the late 20th century is just one topic in the vast multicultural history of our nation and the world. Since February is Black History Month, we need to use this opportunity to learn more of our history and share it with colleagues. Perhaps begin by reading Dr. King's entire "Dream" speech, and not just the happy paragraph found in textbooks. Our students and country will be richer for it.