These images aren't new to me but for some reason, with the release of Selma, these images have taken on a new life. Maybe it's the juxtaposition of the release of Selma so close to the chaos of Ferguson. Maybe it's just that for the first time these images are really personal because I've had to do some real thinking about how the movie previews for Selma are going to impact someone close to me since my kids are old enough to see the images and have some heavy questions about that period of American history.
That's one of the parts of being brown that you cannot escape. Your story, even though it may be many generations removed from today, is born out of a sad, unjust history. With that in mind, my kids were pre taught the basics of slavery and the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement prior to kindergarten because I did not want them hearing even tidbits about that for the first time, while sitting in a room surrounded by their peers.
I think these pictures also provide valuable context into some of what has happened regarding the justice system, the police, and the black community. 1963 seems like a long time ago. But 1963 really isn't that long ago. Especially when you or your parents or grandparents were personal witnesses to the events of the Jim Crow south. I do not think for a minute that it justifies any of what has happened (especially violence and destruction) nor do I think it negates the dynamic progress that has occurred within the last 50 years. But I do think it should give use pause as we think about why others may view situations differently than we do.
But back to these images and my own reaction. It is one thing to know in your head that the words and actions of our past are intensely painful. It's another to watch pieces of that play out on the faces of your own children. Until you have had to sit and explain it to your own brown babies, it's just not quite the same.
Because how do you explain that at some point in time people thought it was okay to use them as slaves without them hearing a message of "I am brown and someone says I am less than human."
Because how do you explain, that at some point in time people thought they should be kept separate from white people without them hearing the message "I am brown and I am so different."
Because how do explain that at some point in time people routinely used violence to perpetuate a system of inequality and hatred without them hearing the message "I am brown and people resisted change so they could keep being mean to me."
It's about eyes that darken a bit in shame and eyes that flash over the injustice. It's about our shame as a nation becoming their own personal shame. Perhaps that's the biggest thing I want my kids to know. This is not their shame. This-this complicated, ugly history-it's our history not just theirs. We may not have lived it and while we certainly can't live in the past, it is a jagged, broken part of who we are and were as a nation. It is not theirs alone to bear.
It's also about hope. Go back and look at that first image I linked. It's taken in Little Rock, when the Little Rock Seven integrated the public high school. Look at the row of angry white women just behind the black teen. See the one in the middle? She actually wasn't a woman at the time. She was a classmate of the black teen. At the time, she taunted and yelled and fought hard to avoid integration. Years later, Oprah reunited the Little Rock Seven on one of her shows. Oprah also found three of their white classmates and brought them to her show as well. All were adults in their 40's. The show featured both the white girl and the black girl from the original image. I can only imagine the words used on that day on the Little Rock Street. I don't have to image the words said on the Oprah stage because I heard them for myself. On Oprah's stage, these all grown up women met yet again, and the white woman offered an tear filled apology. She was clear that she was raised by parents who supported racism but that the cycle of overt, in your face racism ended with her and her children.
So maybe that's the other lesson of all of this: that there is always room for reconciliation and hope. Our nation is certainly not perfect. I dread the day when my son has to deal with the n word as used by so many high school boys who think they are too cool and he feels like perhaps he has to go along to get along. I already know the pain of my kids being told they can't play because they are brown. Even if not said out of outright racism, even if just said by kids as a way to be mean with no real understanding of the racial aspect of it, it has left its mark on my child's brain. But even knowing that, there's hope and forgiveness and that is the legacy of Selma.