Tag Archives: racism

If you’ve ever felt judged because of the color of your skin, stand up

“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.”

Friday culminated a week of first amendment lectures in my J1 class. The week introduced a new semester of students to the class (and to me). These kids have already touched my heart. Here’s one reason why:

We played the “If you’ve ever had brown hair,” etc. game in class Friday. You know,

If you’ve ever had brown hair, blue hair, purple hair, orange hair, brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes, been made fun of for your clothes…stand up.

We can’t play this right away. I’ve got to wait until late enough in the class that I’ve connected with the kids (five days this semester), but not so late that they know me too well. I’ve got to play along. I stepped forward for every one of the hair colors. That made them laugh and put them at ease.

On we went through about 15 or so “If you’ve evers” until we got to the zingers:

“If you’ve ever felt judged because of your gender, stand up.” And “if you’ve ever felt out of place because of the color of your skin, stand up.” And then, “if you’ve ever felt judged because of the color of your skin, stand up.” This is the most diverse J1 class I’ve ever had. Almost every kid in the room stood up. I think the kids were a little surprised I was going there with this lesson.

And then I said the words I started this blog with:

“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal,” and they said the words with me. I didn’t expect that, but it made for one of the most powerful moments in my teaching career. When we got to the whole 9-11, 2005 study showing 1 in 5 teens believed the first amendment gives too many freedoms, the kids in the class didn’t understand how that could possibly be.

Someone told me today shouldn’t be a holiday. I disagree. You see, I had a diverse classroom full of teenagers stand when I asked if they’d ever been judged because of the color of their skin. If the person who told me today shouldn’t be a holiday had seen the hurt in the eyes of the 14-17-yr-old children standing at the end of a game that isn’t a game at all, if they’d seen the simmering anger there in some of those eyes, they’d understand how very important this day is. Things might be better, but we’re not there yet.

Easier isn’t always right

This 110+ degree heat is driving me crazy. Crazy was used in the 186Os. Unlike the words genetics or cool (as in neat, not the weather). One if the neat things abut writing historical is looking up etymology. Not that I got everything right in Honor and Lies. The problem with Texas other than the heat, at least during Civil War times, was that before the war, former slaves were free, but once the war started, in several areas, free people of color were enslaved even if they had papers proving they were free. I chose to make the North Texas ranch areas slave free for the purpose of my novel. In reality, my research showed a different kind of Underground Railroad in Texas. One that utilized Native American tribes to get those seeking freedom to Mexico. I was shocked that people who had always been free, people who owned property and businesses found themselves enslaved suddenly when Texas joined the South. It didn’t happen everywhere in the state, but it wasn’t uncommon either. We didn’t learn much about slavery when I was in school. I think we do a better job now. In England our tour guide told us they spend a long time talking about the slave trade, and he said they are very honest about confronting tough truths. I know any time we talk about racism and prejudice in class, it can leave an uncomfortable awkwardness if the teacher doesn’t do the pre-discussion work and then facilitate. It’s often easier to skip the discussion altogether. Easier isn’t always right, though.

She was a racist, but she didn’t know it

 “Do you think he can read?”
She asked the question in all seriousness as she stood outside the door to my friend’s classroom.
The he in question was a star athlete.
She knew that.
She also knew what he looked like on the outside.
Black.
And in her mind, that meant uneducated.

This wasn’t the 1860s or even the 1960s.
It was the early 1990s and I’d started my teaching career in a district in the midst of political turmoil. I didn’t know it then, but within a handful of years we’d be facing a desegregation order courtesy of a federal judge.
It’s not that we were segregated, per se. Not Remember the Titans segregated, anyway. But my school was 90% white, and that was way off of the city’s demographics.
Welcome controlled choice. A process where students were able to choose the high school they attended, however, there were racial quotas.
The woman was visiting our school before choice went into effect, and her question was serious.
She didn’t understand why we were offended.

A handful of years later, I wrote Honor and Lies.

The woman stayed in my mind with every word I wrote.
As did some of the other conversations from my classroom.

“But, Miss, I’ve heard the stories. Lots of people were nice to their slaves. It wasn’t always a bad thing.”

Back then I was fearless in the classroom. I think I didn’t know any better. Instead of telling the kids how wrong they were, I’d ask questions and make them draw their own conclusions. I made them defend their statements. I made them debate with each other.

These kids were 16 and 17, and they were tackling huge, controversial issues, and I was encouraging them.

Often my kids explained the above sentiment this way:
“Slavery with a nice family was like being a teenager all the time. Your parents love you, and they take care of you. And you do your chores, and things work out okay.”

I don’t think my kids really believed this, but they wanted to make slavery okay. They didn’t want to face the ugliness of what slavery was. That slaves were owned. That freedom was impossible. Slaves could be, and often were, raped, sold or killed. They had no rights. They weren’t even considered whole people. It didn’t matter if owners were nice. They were owners.

By the end of class, the students realized this. They learned by reading Frederick Douglass and Mary Chesnut’s Civil War and other American Lit. stories from the time. And we talked about racism and hate and hate crime and stereotypes and tolerance and ignorance and stupidity. And when I told them about the lady asking if the student could read, they were as outraged as my friends and I were the day it happened.

Today, I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to teach English with such an in your face style. My classroom is filled with kids I know and kids who know me. Kids I spend YEARS with, not 180 days. Debating controversial subjects in the newsroom isn’t brave. It’s normal.

Honor and Lies wouldn’t have been possible without those early days. I wrote the novel when I was still that young teacher, still teaching English, angry that people in my community thought black meant you couldn’t read. Sissy and Savannah are products of that classroom. I hope you enjoy.

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