Just when I think I can't be any more shocked, horrified or (ultimately) inspired by history, I encounter something like PBS's American Experience production Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. Here is the trailer:
Racism has always been a sore spot for me. I'm a white girl from a small midwestern town, and have never experienced any such injustice myself; however, frequently over my lifetime I've heard ugly racial and ethnic slurs and commentary, and when possible have put the kibosh on it. I'd like to think that I hear many fewer comments like this these days, and when I do they are from elderly people I do not know. Age isn't an excuse, but I know that years of teaching is difficult to get over, and some older folks learned from the best. When I hear something derogatory from someone my own age or younger...now, that just blows my mind. Sometimes, I naively think that we've all evolved to a higher sensibility. Selfishly, I hate that by saying something like that in front of me, they are assuming that I am of the same mindset. Translation: They think I'm just as much of an ingnorant backwards prick as they are?
I have a box of old papers that I wrote in high school and college, and a good handful of them are about leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., books about racism and slavery, and about civil rights in general. Once, in my junior year English class, we were assigned to recite a poem, and I chose this one:
The Cold Within
Six humans trapped by happenstance
In dark and bitter cold
Each possessed a stick of wood--
Or so the story's told.
Their dying fire in need of logs,
The first one held hers back,
For, of the faces around the fire,
She noticed one was black.
The next one looked across the way
Saw one not of his church,
And could not bring himself to give
The fire his stick of birch.
The third one sat in tattered clothes
He gave his coat a hitch,
Why should his log be put to use
To warm the idle rich?
The rich man just sat back and thought
Of wealth he had in store,
And keeping all that he had earned
From the lazy, shiftless poor.
The black man's face bespoke revenge
As the fire passed from his sight,
For he saw in his stick of wood
A chance to spite the white.
The last man of this forlorn group
Did nought except for gain,
Giving only to those who gave
Was how he played the game,
Their sticks held tight in death's stilled hands
Was proof of human sin;
They did not die from the cold without--
They died from the cold within.
-- James Patrick Kinney
It's not something I would chose based on great writing, but the message meant a lot to me, and while reading it in front of my class I struggled to finish, because I was crying. At the time, I kind of felt like an idiot, because no one else cried. Looking back, though, I would hate to be a 16 year-old version of myself who would not be moved by this.
I saw some great community theater this past weekend--a production of Visiting Mr. Green. I'll botch this line, but to paraphrase one of the characters, "You should understand what it feels like to be mocked for something you couldn't possibly change," (and I'll add), "...something you shouldn't want to change, anyway."
I'm not sure how to wind this all up other than to say--we can do better, people.
Freedom Riders aired last night commemorating the 50th anniversary of the rides, and will encore several times on PBS stations. It's also available on pbs.org (for free and in its entirety) and on Netflix (so far DVD only).