If you’ve ever taught the Civil Rights Movement or even had a conversation about it, there’s a book you should read. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson reminded me of one of my favorite classroom moments talking about the Movement. It also made me re-think what I taught while I was there.
First, that classroom moment… It was Black History month and two of my students asked to interview me about the Civil Rights Movement for the morning’s video announcement program. This was not an easy question for me.
I was not a subscriber to these (sometimes) empty gestures at recognizing the experience of particular groups. I guess it’s risky to admit that. I was sensitive to how these efforts might trivialize real struggles and gut-wrenching experiences. When you walk through the halls of an average school during one of these months, you’ll see faux postage stamps, book jackets and movie posters of the same names and faces. Either the list of famous people for Black History month is short or it’s easier to administer when you provide the same list to all the classes. Consider that students, teachers and administrators do this same dance every year and you can’t help but wonder what we’re teaching students about Black History.*
Did you see Justin Bieber’s opening monologue on Saturday Night Live? In a Valentine’s Day / Black History Month mash-up he sings about Maya Angelou inventing the peanut. Or maybe it was Denzel Washington… That’s how silly some of these Black History Month “events” felt to me.
But, in the end, these students were excited to talk about the Civil Rights Movement and to share that conversation with their school community. I had to agree to this very special Black History Month interview.
Prepped with an empty classroom at the end of the day and a little red light on the school video camera, we started the interview. Within minutes the students asked me what it was like to march in the streets with Martin Luther King. I took my first breath of life four years after he was murdered so I was speechless. They stopped the camera.
A short exchange revealed this wasn’t about my being crazy old in their estimate. My teaching had made the Civil Rights Movement real enough, substantive enough and provocative enough that they assumed I knew it. That I REALLY knew it. We then returned to the interview with a little better footing for a conversation about why I thought the Civil Rights Movement was still so important.
And, now, back to the book that answers that question so brilliantly while documenting the lives of people who lived through a complete transformation of the American people. In her book, The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson offers a beautiful statement about the African American experience of the mid-20th Century, how it re-shaped the country and continues to influence us today. She chronicles the lives of three individuals, from the harsh details of the lives they decided to leave in the South to their final reflections on the lives they were able to make for themselves in the North.
Wilkerson selected three stories, those of Ida Mae Gladney, George Swanson Starling and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, to represent the more than six million African Americans who migrated from the South between 1920 and 1970. Six million people! She expertly demonstrates how this migration changed the South as much as it did the Northern cities where whole communities of southern blacks relocated.
The author’s beautiful language helps the reader see the dissonance these Americans experienced and to understand it didn’t end with their arrival in the North.
Many people who left the South never exactly sat their children down to tell them these things. Tell them what happened and why they left and how they and all this blood kin came to be in this northern city or western suburb or why they speak like melted butter and their children speak like footsteps on pavement, prim and proper or clipped and fast, like the New World itself.”
This is the story of the American Dream turned backwards or inside out. And it’s a story that’s absolutely necessary to know and understand before we can claim to understand the mythology of the American Dream that is casually told and retold a hundred times over. Repetition can engender attachment and affection but it can also hollow out an idea that was once meaningful.
The phrase “white flight” has become so familiar that it hardly conveys anything thought provoking, but Wilkerson makes it a proper horror story. A story Ida Mae’s family likes to re-tell about the vanishing house will shock you. I was so angry I had to stop reading. It took 30 years but Ida Mae’s family had finally saved enough to buy a three-story brownstone in a nice neighborhood where her children could comfortably raise their families. They were proud. It looked like the American Dream, the dream she and her husband had for themselves and their children when they left sharecropping, had finally arrived. The day after they moved in, however, a house across the street disappeared. THE WHOLE HOUSE! As the white families left, the whole character of the neighborhood changed while a lifelong accomplishment for an entire family was eroded away.
Wilkerson’s novel itself is as inspiring as the stories she tells about Ida Mae Gladney, George Swanson Starling and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster. She brings this “other” version of the American Experience out of the shadows to be seen:
By their actions, they did not dream the American Dream, they willed it into being by a definition of their own choosing. They did not ask to be accepted but declared themselves the Americans that perhaps few others recognized but that they had always been deep within their hearts.
This quote doesn’t just tell you about the book. It reveals the perseverance present in the three stories and the ambition of the author to make real those long fights of everyday life. So real that you begin to wonder if you could have done it. So real that you wonder if it’s folly to ever discuss the American Dream as something that could stand on its own.
So real that you start to wonder if you’ve ever done justice to that experience when re-telling it in the classroom.
*I am very thankful for school administrators who listened (every year) to my lecture about living history together and teaching it that way. The laugh isn’t lost on me that I’m posting this in Black History Month.