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← The real story of Rosa Parks -- and why we need to confront myths about black history

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Showing Revision 9 created 02/03/2020 by Erin Gregory.

  1. I am the proud father
    of two beautiful children,
  2. Elijah, 15, and Octavia, 12.
  3. When Elijah was in the fourth grade,

  4. he came to me,
  5. came home from school
    bubbling over with excitement
  6. about what he had learned that day
    about African-American history.
  7. Now, I'm an African-American
    and cultural studies professor,
  8. and so, as you can imagine,
  9. African-American culture
    is kind of serious around my home.
  10. So I was very proud that my son
    was excited about what he had learned
  11. that day in school.
  12. So I said, "What did you learn?"
  13. He said, "I learned about Rosa Parks."
  14. I said, "OK, what did you learn
    about Rosa Parks?"
  15. He said, "I learned that Rosa Parks
    was this frail, old black woman
  16. in the 1950s
  17. in Montgomery, Alabama.
  18. And she sat down on this bus,
  19. and she had tired feet,
  20. and when the bus driver told her
    to give up her seat to a white patron,
  21. she refused because she had tired feet.
  22. It had been a long day,
  23. and she was tired of oppression,
  24. and she didn't give up her seat.
  25. And she marched with Martin Luther King,
  26. and she believed in nonviolence."
  27. And I guess he must have looked at my face
  28. and saw that I was
    a little less than impressed
  29. by his
  30. ... um ...
  31. history lesson.
  32. And so he stopped, and he was like,
    "Dad, what's wrong? What did I get wrong?"
  33. I said, "Son, you didn't
    get anything wrong,
  34. but I think your teacher
    got a whole lot of things wrong."
  35. (Laughter)

  36. He said, "Well, what do you mean?"

  37. I said, "Rosa Parks was not tired.
  38. She was not old.
  39. And she certainly didn't have tired feet."
  40. He said, "What?"
  41. I said, "Yes!
  42. Rosa Parks was only 42 years old" --
  43. Yeah, you're shocked, right?
    Never heard that.
  44. "Rosa Parks was only 42 years old,
  45. she had only worked six hours that day,
    and she was a seamstress
  46. and her feet were just fine.
  47. (Laughter)

  48. The only thing that she was tired of

  49. was she was tired of inequality.
  50. She was tired of oppression."
  51. And my son said,
  52. "Well, why would my teacher
    tell me this thing?
  53. This is confusing for me."
  54. Because he loved his teacher,
    and she was a good teacher,
  55. a young-ish, 20-something white woman,
  56. really, really smart, pushed him,
    so I liked her as well.
  57. But he was confused.
    "Why would she tell me this?" he said.
  58. He said, "Dad, tell me more. Tell me more.
    Tell me more about Rosa Parks."
  59. And I said, "Son, I'll do you one better."
  60. He was like, "What?"
  61. I said, "I'm going to buy
    her autobiography,
  62. and I'm going to let you
    read it yourself."
  63. (Laughter)

  64. So as you can imagine,

  65. Elijah wasn't too excited about
    this new, lengthy homework assignment
  66. that his dad had just given him,
    but he took it in stride.
  67. And he came back after he had read it,
  68. and he was excited
    about what he had learned.
  69. He said, "Dad, not only was Rosa Parks
    not initially into nonviolence,
  70. but Rosa Parks's grandfather,
    who basically raised her
  71. and was light enough to pass as white,
  72. used to walk around town
    with his gun in his holster,
  73. and people knew if you messed with
    Mr. Parks's children or grandchildren,
  74. he would put a cap
    in your proverbial bottom."
  75. (Laughter)

  76. Right?

  77. He was not someone to mess with.
  78. And he said, "I also learned
    that Rosa Parks married a man in Raymond
  79. who was a lot like her grandfather."
  80. He would organize.
  81. He was a civil rights activist.
  82. He would organize events
  83. and sometimes the events would be
    at Rosa Parks's home.
  84. And one time Rosa Parks remarked
  85. that there were so many guns on the table,
  86. because they were prepared for somebody
    to come busting into the door
  87. that they were prepared
    for whatever was going to go down,
  88. that Rosa Parks said, "There were
    so many guns on the table
  89. that I forgot to even
    offer them coffee or food."
  90. This is who Rosa Parks was.

  91. And in fact, Rosa Parks,
    when she was sitting on that bus that day,
  92. waiting for those
    police officers to arrive
  93. and not knowing what was going
    to happen to her,
  94. she was not thinking about
    Martin Luther King,
  95. who she barely knew.
  96. She was not thinking about
    nonviolence or Gandhi.
  97. She was thinking about her grandfather,
  98. a gun-toting, take-no-mess grandfather.
  99. That's who Rosa Parks was thinking about.
  100. My son was mesmerized by Rosa Parks,
  101. and I was proud of him
    to see this excitement.
  102. But then I still had a problem.

  103. Because I still had to go his school
  104. and address the issue with his teacher,
  105. because I didn't want her
    to continue to teach the kids
  106. obviously false history.
  107. So I'm agonizing over this,
  108. primarily because I understand,
    as an African-American man,
  109. that whenever you talk
    to whites about racism
  110. or anything that's racially sensitive,
  111. there's usually going to be a challenge.
  112. This is what white sociologist
    Robin DiAngelo calls "white fragility."
  113. She argues that, in fact,
  114. because whites have
    so little experience being challenged
  115. about their white privilege
  116. that whenever even the most
    minute challenge is brought before them,
  117. they usually cry,
  118. get angry
  119. or run.
  120. (Laughter)

  121. And I have experienced them all.

  122. And so, when I was contemplating
    confronting his teacher,
  123. I wasn't happy about it,
  124. but I was like, this is a necessary evil
  125. of being a black parent trying to raise
    self-actualized black children.
  126. So I called Elijah to me and said,

  127. "Elijah, I'm going to set up
    an appointment with your teacher
  128. and try and correct this
  129. and maybe your principal.
  130. What do you think?"
  131. And Elijah said,
  132. "Dad, I have a better idea."
  133. And I said, "Really? What's your idea?"
  134. He said, "We have
    a public speaking assignment,
  135. and why don't I use
    that public speaking assignment
  136. to talk about debunking
    the myths of Rosa Parks?"
  137. And I was like,
  138. "Well, that is a good idea."
  139. So Elijah goes to school,

  140. he does his presentation,
  141. he comes back home,
  142. and I could see something
    positive happened.
  143. I said, "Well, what happened, son?"
  144. He said, "Well, later on in that day,
  145. the teacher pulled me aside,
  146. and she apologized to me
    for giving that misinformation."
  147. And then something else
    miraculous happened the next day.
  148. She actually taught
    a new lesson on Rosa Parks,
  149. filling in the gaps that she had left
    and correcting the mistakes that she made.
  150. And I was so, so proud of my son.
  151. But then I thought about it.

  152. And I got angry.
  153. And I got real angry.
  154. Why? Why would I get angry?
  155. Because my nine-year-old son
    had to educate his teacher
  156. about his history,
  157. had to educate his teacher
    about his own humanity.
  158. He's nine years old.
  159. He should be thinking about
    basketball or soccer
  160. or the latest movie.
  161. He should not be thinking about
    having to take the responsibility
  162. of educating his teacher,
  163. his students,
  164. about himself, about his history.
  165. That was a burden that I carried.
  166. That was a burden that my parents carried
  167. and generations before them carried.
  168. And now I was seeing my son
    take on that burden, too.
  169. You see, that's why Rosa Parks
    wrote her autobiography.

  170. Because during her lifetime,
  171. if you can imagine,
  172. you do this amazing thing,
  173. you're alive and you're talking
    about your civil rights activism,
  174. and a story emerges
  175. in which somebody is telling the world
  176. that you were old and you had tired feet
  177. and you just were an accidental activist,
  178. not that you had been activist
    by then for 20 years,
  179. not that the boycott
    had been planned for months,
  180. not that you were not even the first
    or the second or even the third woman
  181. to be arrested for doing that.
  182. You become an accidental activist,
    even in her own lifetime.
  183. So she wrote that autobiography
    to correct the record,
  184. because what she wanted
    to remind people of
  185. was that this
  186. is what it was like
  187. in the 1950s
  188. trying to be black in America
  189. and fight for your rights.
  190. During the year, a little over a year,
    that the boycott lasted,

  191. there were over four church bombings.
  192. Martin Luther King's house
    was bombed twice.
  193. Other civil rights leaders' houses
    were bombed in Birmingham.
  194. Rosa Parks's husband
    slept at night with a shotgun,
  195. because they would get
    constant death threats.
  196. In fact, Rosa Parks's mother
    lived with them,
  197. and sometimes she would stay
    on the phone for hours
  198. so that nobody would call in
    with death threats,
  199. because it was constant and persistent.
  200. In fact, there was so much tension,
  201. there was so much pressure,
    there was so much terrorism,
  202. that Rosa Parks and her husband,
    they lost their jobs,
  203. and they became unemployable
  204. and eventually had to leave
    and move out of the South.
  205. This is a civil rights reality
  206. that Rosa Parks wanted to make sure
    that people understood.
  207. So you say, "Well, David,
    what does that have to do with me?

  208. I'm a well-meaning person.
  209. I didn't own slaves.
  210. I'm not trying to whitewash history.
  211. I'm a good guy. I'm a good person."
  212. Let me tell you
    what it has to do with you,
  213. and I'll tell it to you
    by telling you a story
  214. about a professor of mine,
    a white professor,
  215. when I was in graduate school,
    who was a brilliant, brilliant individual.
  216. We'll call him "Fred."
  217. And Fred was writing this history
    of the civil rights movement,
  218. but he was writing specifically
    about a moment
  219. that happened to him in North Carolina
  220. when this white man shot this black man
    in cold blood in a wide-open space
  221. and was never convicted.
  222. And so it was this great book,
  223. and he called together
    a couple of his professor friends
  224. and he called me to read a draft of it
    before the final submission.
  225. And I was flattered that he called me;
  226. I was only a graduate student then.
  227. I was kind of feeling myself a little bit.
    I was like, "OK, yeah."
  228. I'm sitting around amongst intellectuals,
  229. and I read the draft of the book.
  230. And there was a moment in the book
  231. that struck me as being
    deeply problematic,
  232. and so I said,
  233. "Fred," as we were sitting around
    talking about this draft,
  234. I said, "Fred, I've got a real problem
    with this moment that you talk
  235. about your maid in your book."
  236. And I could see Fred get a little
    "tight," as we say.
  237. He said, "What do you mean?
    That's a great story.
  238. It happened just like I said."
  239. I said, "Mmm ... can I give you
    another scenario?"
  240. Now, what's the story?

  241. It was 1968.
  242. Martin Luther King
    had just been assassinated.
  243. His maid, "domestic" --
    we'll call her "Mabel,"
  244. was in the kitchen.
  245. Little Fred is eight years old.
  246. Little Fred comes into the kitchen,
  247. and Mabel, who he has only seen
    as smiling and helpful and happy,
  248. is bent over the sink,
  249. and she's crying,
  250. and she's sobbing
  251. inconsolably.
  252. And little Fred comes over to her
    and says, "Mabel, what is wrong?"
  253. Mabel turns, and she says,
  254. "They killed him! They killed our leader.
    They killed Martin Luther King.
  255. He's dead! They are monsters."
  256. And little Fred says,
  257. "It'll be OK, Mabel.
    It'll be OK. It'll be OK."
  258. And she looked at him, and she says,
    "No, it's not going to be OK.
  259. Did you not hear what I just said?
  260. They killed Martin Luther King."
  261. And Fred,
  262. son of a preacher,
  263. looks up at Mabel, and he says,
  264. "But Mabel, didn't Jesus
    die on the cross for our sins?
  265. Wasn't that a good outcome?
  266. Maybe this will be a good outcome.
  267. Maybe the death of Martin Luther King
    will lead to a good outcome."
  268. And as Fred tells the story,

  269. he says that Mabel
    put her hand over her mouth,
  270. she reached down
    and she gave little Fred a hug,
  271. and then she reached into the icebox,
  272. and took out a couple Pepsis,
  273. gave him some Pepsis
  274. and sent him on his way
    to play with his siblings.
  275. And he said,
  276. "This was proof that even in the most
    harrowing times of race struggle
  277. that two people could come together
    across racial lines
  278. and find human commonality
  279. along the lines of love and affection."
  280. And I said, "Fred, that is some BS."
  281. (Laughter)

  282. (Applause)

  283. Fred was like,

  284. "But I don't understand, David.
    That's the story."
  285. I said, "Fred, let me ask you a question."
  286. I said, "You were
    in North Carolina in 1968.
  287. If Mabel would've went to her community --
    you were eight years old --
  288. what do you think the eight-year-old
    African-American children
  289. were calling her?
  290. Do you think they called her
    by her first name?"
  291. No, they called her "Miss Mabel,"
  292. or they called her "Miss Johnson,"
    or they called her "Auntie Johnson."
  293. They would have never dared
    call her by her first name,
  294. because that would have been
    the height of disrespect.
  295. And yet, you were calling
    her by her first name
  296. every single day that she worked,
  297. and you never thought about it."
  298. I said, "Let me ask you another question:
    Was Mabel married?

  299. Did she have children?
  300. What church did she go to?
  301. What was her favorite dessert?"
  302. Fred could not answer
    any of those questions.
  303. I said, "Fred, this story
    is not about Mabel.
  304. This story is about you."
  305. I said, "This story made you feel good,
  306. but this story is not about Mabel.
  307. The reality is,
  308. what probably happened was,
    Mabel was crying,
  309. which was not something
    she customarily did,
  310. so she was letting her guard down.
  311. And you came into the kitchen,
  312. and you caught her at a weak moment
    where she was letting her guard down.
  313. And see, because you thought of yourself
    as just like one of her children,
  314. you didn't recognize that you
    were in fact the child of her employer.
  315. And she'd found herself yelling at you.
  316. And then she caught herself,
  317. realizing that, 'If I'm yelling at him
  318. and he goes back and he tells
    his dad or he tells mom,
  319. I could lose my job.'
  320. And so she tempered herself,
    and she ended up --
  321. even though she needed consoling --
    she ended up consoling you
  322. and sending you on your way,
  323. perhaps so she could finish
    mourning in peace."
  324. And Fred was stunned.

  325. And he realized that he had actually
    misread that moment.
  326. And see, this is what
    they did to Rosa Parks.
  327. Because it's a lot easier to digest
    an old grandmother with tired feet
  328. who doesn't stand up because
    she wants to fight for inequality,
  329. but because her feet
    and her back are tired,
  330. and she's worked all day.
  331. See, old grandmothers are not scary.
  332. But young, radical black women
  333. who don't take any stuff from anybody
  334. are very scary,
  335. who stand up to power
  336. and are willing to die for that --
  337. those are not the kind of people
  338. that make us comfortable.
  339. So you say,

  340. "What do you want me to do, David?
  341. I don't know what to do."
  342. Well, what I would say to you is,
  343. there was a time in which,
  344. if you were Jewish, you were not white,
  345. if you were Italian, you were not white,
  346. if you were Irish, you were not white
  347. in this country.
  348. It took a while before the Irish,
    the Jews and the Italians became white.
  349. Right?
  350. There was a time in which
    you were "othered,"
  351. when you were the people on the outside.
  352. Toni Morrison said,
  353. "If, in order for you to be tall,
    I have to be on my knees,
  354. you have a serious problem."
  355. She says, "White America
    has a serious, serious problem."
  356. To be honest, I don't know
    if race relations will improve in America.

  357. But I know that if they will improve,
  358. we have to take
    these challenges on head on.
  359. The future of my children depends on it.
  360. The future of my children's
    children depends on it.
  361. And, whether you know it or not,
  362. the future of your children
    and your children's children
  363. depends on it, too.
  364. Thank you.

  365. (Applause)