I had decided last year to fight the Cheeto flea and his chaos by working on racial injuctice — the lack of Black faces during the women’s march more than a year ago and the idea that white women have left Black women to fend for themselves still haunts me. But last year turned out busier than I thought, and I needed to educate myself before I try to help. Ain’t nobody want a white woman to show up with her guilt and then have to help her figure out her racial junk. That’s on me to learn about my own biases and what I do consciously or unconsciously that keeps systemic racism alive.
Interestingly, a mere 6 hours after writing the above, I got a mini lesson. I was at a Museum of Fine Arts event and got called out for having white privilege. As in, a Black woman came up to me, put her arm around me and said, “Congratulations on your white privilege.” Being a bonefide member of the snowflake, lefty liberal club, I was confused and stunned. My transgression was walking between her and her friends while they were trying to take a photo in front of a bank of elevator doors decorated with art from one of the exhibits. I had kind of noticed before that people were doing that. But it was a loud event with a lot of people, and Mike and I were just making our way to a set of stairs by the shortest route available. So, sure, I would describe it as being clueless, rude, and not paying attention to my surroundings. I would have walked in front of a bunch a white people, no doubt, because I am pretty clueless. I am, after all, the woman who did not notice when her college roommates short-sheeted her bed. The comment upset me, so I turned around to her group, said I was sorry and did a bow with namaste hands. Maybe that offended them too, I don’t know. Mike dragged me off and wisely said that I don’t know what her experience was that lead her to that comment. I remember one diversity training I took that explained how all the small micro aggressions that people of color encounter on their way to work can add up so that when they do get to work, one small thing could set them off. We’ve all been there, but as white people we don’t have to go there every day like people of color do. So maybe I was the 4th, 10th, or 20th that day. It did show me that I need to be prepared for that kind of response as I get deeper into this. Buckle up buttercup, lower the defenses, keep your piehole shut, and listen.
So with that auspicious start, I present to you what I hope to be a series of reports and observations as I go through an organic DIY project. I’m trusting I will find the resources and teachers I need, and I already had my first lesson, so I must be on my way.
February being Black History Month helped bring a few things to my attention, except that I got annoyed by the whole, “let’s only pay attention to this once a year” thing. I watched and recommend a documentary on PBS called “Tell Them We Are Rising.” You can stream it on the website until March 21. It chronicles the history of what are known as HBCUs — historically Black colleges and universities — from their formation shortly after the Civil War ended through today. My only previous experience with HBCUs was Spike Lee’s movie from 1988, “School Daze.” It’s a good movie that presents a full range of Black personalities and the disagreements Blacks can have among themselves about their destiny — I recall that at the time it received some criticism from the Black community that it showed too much internal “dirty laundry.” But I agree with Spike Lee that’s exactly what we need to see. Black people just being people, fer cryin’ out loud in their own safe space, which many of the students interviewed in the documentary commented on as reason why HBCUs are still essential.
I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow review of the documentary, but I wanted to share a couple of things that struck me. The first colleges started as industrial arts type schools to teach the newly freed slaves skills. Remember before this, teaching slaves, especially things like reading, was not just illegal, but was also somewhat lethal. By the late 1800s there were more than 80 schools founded by the American Missionary Association, the African Methodist Episcopal church, and the federal government. Of course, the white landowners didn’t especially appreciate that, so between 1866 and 1872, they ran off countless teachers, set schools on fire, and killed more than 20,000 students and teachers. For having the audacity to learn and teach.
Fast forward to WWI, and the Black soldiers who went to Europe and fought were thinking they could come home and reap the benefits of the freedom they had just fought for. Not quite. They were often beaten by white mobs, including white veterans, at the train stations coming home from the war. The summer of 1919 was called the red summer because 28 cities burned in a series of what the documentary calls “small-scale race wars.” The difference between this time and the school killings previously is that these Blacks had been to war and learned how to fight back. Part of that fighting back is taking more control over their education. At the time, the HBCUs were primarily run by white men. So this is a period where Blacks try to get control of their schools.
The schools prevailed and the graduates and students of HBCUs help take control of their destiny, not to mention create a middle class. The 50s and 60s bring us the first lunch counter protests, thought of and executed by Black college students at HBCUs. And then guess what happened? Pissed off/scared white people commit acts of violence against the protesters, etc., etc. Are you seeing the pattern?
This one step up, two steps back thing, feels very much like what we’re in now, don’t you think? We had the audacity to have a Black president for 8 years and now, we’ve got the similar violent reaction against it. Cold comfort, but the documentary reminded me there are ways to address this, fight it, and keep moving the ball forward.
Another highlight for me was learning that Howard University specifically started a law school in 1869 to train black lawyers to legally challenge the system of segregation and discrimination. And guess what they ended up achieving? Among the students was Thurgood Marshall, and the first vice dean of the law school was Charles Houston, who was a graduate of Harvard Law School and the first Black person on the Harvard Review; they and others created the legal precedents that eventually led to Brown v. the Board of Education: On May 17, 1954, the US Supreme Court struck down racially segregated schools as unconstitutional in a landmark ruling. That is some kind of kick ass long-range planning.
There’s plenty more interesting information about these still important schools.
Watch Tell Them We Are Rising on PBS, available until March 21. You can order the DVD here, rent it to stream on Amazon here, or find it at your local library.