Friday, January 25, 2013

Does Race Have a Place in Education?

Post-Inauguaration Reflection

"Why didn't they like the blacks?" a child asked me on Martin Luther King's birthday.

On Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, I was the substitute teacher for an elementary school music class. Our topic of discussion, of course, was the civil rights movement and the freedom fighters.

To give them credit, the kids knew the lazy purpose for the Civil Rights Movement  and why we celebrate Martin Luther King Day as a nation. But, they did not know why those changes had to be made. In a country where the president can be black (now), it seems like race no longer matters. And I wish it didn't matter, but that doesn't mean we can forget the past. If we forget, we will never progress.

I told them if MLK never gave his I Have A Dream speech and the Civil Rights Movement never happened, then they wouldn't be able to go to school with each other. Not just Blacks, but Coloreds weren't allowed to go to school with the whites. (I made sure the children understood that all minorities were counted as Colored.)

The children sort of froze and the whispers faded. They looked around the table at each other.

As a substitute, I was in an odd position. I didn't want to overstep county curriculum--an invisible boundary I had not been taught. At the same time, I had the children's rapt attention. Their curious and confused faces studied their friends as if seeing race for the first time.

Then one Latino boy at the third table raised his hand and asked, "Why did they not like the blacks?"

So I started over. I explained in gentle terms about slavery and how people did not believe that people who were different could still be people. I told them about the different schools, voting, the water fountains, the million man march, and the arrests. (I left out the hoses, dogs, and beatings.)

"They went to jail?" The children exclaimed. They started to argue at their tables. How could someone go to jail for sitting in a restaurant?

I told them that going to jail didn't stop the Freedom Fighters either. They kept fighting for their rights but in peaceful ways even though everyone else "wasn't so nice."

Finally, I said, "I wouldn't be here. My mom is white and my dad is black. There was a time when you couldn't marry someone because of how they looked."

After the initial shock wore off, a girl with tangled curls raised her hand. "My mom is white and my dad's black too."

Another kid: "My cousin has a white daddy and black mommy."

"Me too," said a third.

"You all are lucky," I said. "You can have all kinds of friends. You can marry who you want and it's because these people didn't give up on what they believed was right."

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