Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Tearing up the Race Card

A story: Once upon a time, I volunteered to go in and read aloud to one of the sixth grade classes at our elementary school. The idea behind this was that they rarely heard good writing, only TV and movie dialogue. I read an eclectic selection of stuff: Carrie Young's memoir of growing up on the North Dakota prairies, Karen, articles from my grandfather's 30th Anniversary Reader's Digest Reader, The Monkey's Paw, and poetry, including the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. That didn't go over very well, though they were enthralled with the story of Becket's martyrdom:
"They killed him in the church? Kewl!"
One year, I decided to read William Barrett's short novel, The Lilies of the Field, as a serial. As the weeks passed, I realized that the kids weren't enjoying this as much as I thought they might. Finally, during the Q&A we did after each session, one of the boys raised his hand and said "Mrs. B., I don't understand this book. Why would the people in the town think Homer Smith couldn't build the chapel for the nuns?"
And I realized that this was a book that had outlived its time. These twelve-years olds- who had grown up watching the Huxtables practice medicine and law on TV, and Morgan Freeman being President, thought an African-American general or a black jurist becoming a justice of the Supreme Court or black athletes making more money than God were an everyday affair. They couldn't fathom why anyone would think that Homer Smith couldn't do something, just because he was a Negro, as we said back then.
I was their age during the early 1960's, when civil rights- and I mean real civil rights, the dying for the right to vote, and work and live and go to school wherever you wanted to kind- were in the news everyday. When my parents were working hard to override their own upbringing by deep-dyed East Texans, who were a product of their times and not pass it on to us.
Thirty years later, a bunch of average suburban kids simply couldn't grasp that mentality.
Now, fourteen years later, we have an African-American president. I guess my students were ahead of the curve.

1 comment:

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Thanks Sal!
It's amazing how quickly people in our country have have changed. I'm thankful to my grandparents who didn't have a racist bone in their bodies and who passed that on to me.
I was fortunate not to be close to the few people in our family that were racist. Everyone pretty much ignored them when they made racist remarks, and they knew better than to do it around my grandparents. :^)