Monday, April 16, 2012

Giving History Color

Near the beginning of The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon, narrator Sam Childs reflects on a series of marchs led by Martin Luther King, Jr., in Chicago during the summer of 1966. Though this is a work of fiction, it was rather surreal reading about this event as I had heard the story once before—from a very different perspective.

When I was in middle school, my teacher gave us an assignment to ask our parents what life was like when they were in 8th grade. My mom talked about her fear for her older brothers who were in the military at the onset of the Vietnam War and that she loved a relatively new music group called The Mamas and The Papas. My father spoke of how his father was under investigation for being a communist supporter because of his ties to Chicago union groups and his excitement for all the new developments in the U.S. space program. Dad watched Star Trek and Mom liked Dark Shadows. And then we started talking about the civil rights movement.

The summer before 8th grade, my dad remembers his parents taking him to go "window shopping" in downtown Warrenville, an affluent suburb of Chicago. What my father didn't know was they were actually going to watch a march against public housing segregation. "I watched as King walked down the street," my father told me, "and then I watched as my parents turned their backs as if they weren't interested in what was going on." As a 12 year old, my father watched his parents pretend like black people didn't matter, that the challenges the black community faced didn't affect them and their white friends. Looking me right in the eyes, his blue eyes bright and serious, my father told me, "In that moment, I knew my parents were wrong."

Martin Luther King, Jr., leads march down State Street in Chicago during summer of 1966.
(Chicago Defender Archives)

Up until that point, I had always believe segregation was a "Southern issue" and that bigotry was a thing of the past. But in that moment, I knew my father was teaching me one of the greatest lessons I could ever learn: All people are equal.

This conversation happened 15 years ago about an event that had happened 30 years before that, but I will never forget what my father said. It very much affected my views on racial divides. It affected the way I built relationships. It affected the way I viewed media. It affected my beliefs on women's issues, gay rights and religious freedoms. It affected the kind of newspaper stories I wrote in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and it affected the work I do on healthcare reform. In fact, it still affects all of these things.

How grateful I am for parents who taught me to look past the one-dimensional labels we give people. I'm grateful that I had the chance to grow up in a divers community and that I still live in a diverse community. I'm grateful for my many wonderful teachers who taught me that history isn't colorblind—that the histories of Africa and Asia and America are just as important as the history of Europe. And I'm especially grateful for books that reenforce these same lessons for children of a new generation.

Here are some contemporary YA novels that address race issues in America:
Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Mexican WhiteBoy by Matt de la Peña

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