Out of Touch

Since before Christmas, I haven’t heard any news. Usually, all I hear is a snippet of Morning Edition before I get out of bed–or the full hour that my alarm clock runs when I work from home. Our local affiliate doesn’t start All Things Considered until 4:00pm, when I am usually wrapping up to bike home, so I don’t get evening news, either. But I haven’t even caught that much lately, with the not having to get up for work and the doing things that don’t have me near my radio at 4:00 pm.

Free the Wilmington 10

Free the Wilmington 10

Basically, aside from Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me (which is on at a new time and I miss now), I haven’t had much news in the last few weeks and I missed the pardoning of the Wilmington 10, at NPR, at CNN: “Forty years after they were convicted by a jury of firebombing a grocery store in Wilmington, North Carolina, civil rights activists who became known as the Wilmington 10 were pardoned Monday by the state’s outgoing governor.” Transcripts of the case available from the Justice Department; background at Wikipedia.

I was again reminded how little opportunity I had to learn anything substantive about the Civil Rights movement in the United States. I suppose part of the reason is that much of it wasn’t “history” yet when I was in grade school; it was still just stuff that happened shortly before I was born. I know part of the reason was my own failure to seek out relevant courses or books or documentaries. My interest in understanding the world around me was definitely narrow in my 20’s.

Photo of mu University's administration building, by Matthew Rutledge, from Wikimedia Commons

Photo of my University’s administration building, by Matthew Rutledge, from Wikimedia Commons

Certainly, part of it was residual institutionalized racism but part of it was likely residual segregation. It’s not that my high school or college or neighborhoods did not allow students or residents of color; it’s that there weren’t any. I recall only three African-Americans in my freshman class in college, which was about 1% of the class. I don’t recall a single African-American professor. These figures may be wrong–I’m working from memory–but the general impression remains. The Civil Rights history of this country seems, in my experience, as marginalized as the people who made it happen. Except LBJ. Who really did not “make it happen” as much as “recognized the political expediency and moral imperative of facilitating it.” So without black students around, visibly reminding us that their history is our history, without African-American teachers motivated by the personal effects of changes in their lifetime to teach about those changes, you get a narrow education. Not that non-black students and teachers have no interest in the topic, just that they have no visceral connection to it and other things seem more immediate.

My wonderful philosophy professor (the only woman to teach a class in my major, and she was only a visiting professor; thanks, te! for everything!) brought bell hooks to my attention, as well as some concepts of critical race theory, but that was it. And I lacked the education in history to put it in context.

The reasons there weren’t more black students at school are, of course, complicated, and born of institutionalized and socialized racism of the past. All moments leading up to this one, as it were. Even if the current environment had been welcoming to students of color, and even had there been no specific barriers to a particular student of color, the aggregate of institutional barriers and the histories of social relationships along racial lines combined to make all of my schools majority white.

Is that why I did not learn as much about the Civil Rights movement, its leaders, its injustices, its successes as I should have? Or is it that I was interested in other things?

Around this time in 2011, I heard a radio story by American Radio Works on speechmaking by African-Americans during the height of the Civil Rights Era. I ended up reading Halberstam’s The Children and then moving on to other things. (Isabel Wilkerson’s Warmth of Other Suns is next on my list) I suppose that’s a cause of many ills in the world–or at least a reason that so little changes quickly–people get distracted or interested in something else. There’s no malice, nor harm, in devoting your learning to only one topic, unless you quantify that effort by its exclusion of other topics.

So maybe, as much as anything else, the world never changes not because people don’t care, and not even because people don’t try, but because we get distracted, and because we don’t all focus on the same change and because each of us has only so much effort to give.

That’s the utility in teaching, I think. (Actually, I think this is a pinterest distillation of Buddhism) You start to learn all the background, and contributing circumstance, and the vastness of things you neither know nor understand. Then you realized that although many things are the way that they are for a reason, it is not necessarily a good reason and not necessarily inevitable and clearly not immutable. So you become mindful of why and how you are the way you are, and you get better at it.

Hopefully, the world benefits from you, that way.


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