The eighth-grade curriculum I teach requires students to read and write about the American civil rights movement. Truth be told, our school district starts covering the movement from fourth grade onward. So, by the time students reach me, most are worn out by the topic.
But, abracadabra! I have a magic wand that reanimates their interest: I lived not only through, but to great extent, in the arena of the civil rights movement. Born 1954 in Birmingham, AL, I remember the events of the movement. I remember the desegregation (or “integration” as we then called it) of public schools, even of the classroom in which I sat.
Because I’m older than most teachers, because I grew up in a centrally significant site of the movement, the kids take me as a sort of interactive museum exhibit. They pepper me with questions, and the very hottest of those peppers is this one:
“Mr. Stephens, were you a racist?”
First asked several years ago by an African-American boy, it caught me totally off guard. Frankly, it panicked me. I tried to calm myself by noting that the student had at least put the question in the past tense. Next, I had to stifle the answer I wanted to give—“Of course not!”—because, I’m sorry to say, that’s a lie.
Before I tell you my answer, let’s take a timeout to define the word racist. Merriam-Webster says: one who holds a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
So, recalling that in 1963 I turned nine years old, I confessed to my students that I was indeed infected with racism.
Like almost all children of any era, I mimicked the views and opinions of the adults around me. My parents, the parents of playmates and classmates, my church’s minister and Sunday School teachers, all stood strongly opposed the mixing of white kids and black kids in school, and opposed to whites and blacks mingling in restaurants, movie theaters, parks, waiting rooms, swimming pools and most other places.
“The races aren’t supposed to mix!” was the grownup doctrine in my childhood. “God means to keep the races separate!” went the credo. And it was no great leap to infer this meant my race was superior. Why? Because we had all the better stuff, the better opportunities, and, I was told, “That’s how God wants it.” So, thus did I fit—as did nearly everyone around me—the definition of racist.
I would like to excuse myself with “I was just a kid, I didn’t know!” I would like to say, “It wasn’t long before I threw off all that racism!” But, again, that’s not true. The indoctrination of children—be it religious or racist or, in my case, both—isn’t easily and quickly removed like a coat or hat. It’s more of a stubborn stain on the skin. And it has taken me years to scrub it away, and I’m not at all certain it’s gone.
But — I can tell you when I first began (ever so slowly) to work on it, or, as my students might say, when I first “started to get woke”:
Sunday, September 15, 1963.
[To be continued tomorrow]