On September 23rd, 2016, I met the little girl most identified with the fall of public school segregation. If you grew up after the seventies, you learned the story of Ruby Bridges. The evening was an emotional one for me. We’re an interracial family, so the topics of integration, racism, and progress are never too distant. Unfortunately, recent news stories keep the topics uncomfortably prevalent. However, this evening served as a reminder of where we are in race relations in America through her unique perspective.
Since, we tend to measure our progress in terms of milestones and distances, the first thing that hit me was Ruby’s proximity to my mother’s age. The little girl in the Norman Rockwell painting is only 62. Several years younger than my mother and only twenty years my elder. That’s how far we’ve come, and so quickly. Yet, we often forget that her story, our story, is a relatively recent one. So how could we honestly consider that something so insidiously pervasive as racism, as dead. This when in the wake of our long beleaguered fight for equality, Ruby’s story just happened. Consider this, a Federal judge only this year ordered the desegregation of Bolivar County in Mississippi 2016. And mere days ago, at the National African American Museum in DC, the daughter of a former slave attended its opening.
Ruby, the now 62 year-old mother of four, recounted her first day at the Frantz School in Louisiana. She was six when she entered. Surrounded by four US Marshalls that were assigned to her protection, she walked past screaming White parents that upon her entrance emptied the entire school of their children. Amara, my five year old who is roughly the same age as little Ruby, was hero struck by her bravery. “She was a little girl like me,” she murmured. You see Ruby isn’t just a historical figure for us, she’s an example for many parents vested in racial equality. She’s the brave little girl that did. My entire journey into diversity is modeled on the footsteps of the child who spent months looking for the invisible White friends that she knew existed in a school too big for just her.
“I just thought I did well on the test,'”referring to the selection process for the children who were considered to break tradition. Ruby didn’t know the racial aspect of what she was doing. She just thought she was a smart little girl that got accepted to fly through school and head speedily to college. Innocently. Her mother didn’t prepare her with such burdensome talk of race and breaking boundaries or what she might face walking into that school, so the little girl didn’t know. Not until she finally got to meet one of the only remaining White children, whose parents allowed them to attend the school in secret. There were six. We don’t nearly hear about the parents of those children, who often woke to burning crosses or the threats from their neighbors and friends. The principal wanted nothing to do with an integrated school, let alone an integrated class. He couldn’t legally stop the six from attending, so instead he hid the children away from Ruby. It wasn’t until significant pressure from her teacher, that Ruby was then allowed to see the other children. It wasn’t until one of those children told her, that his mother said he couldn’t play with “the nigger.” In an instant, exposing Ruby to the reality the gravity of the situation, exposed.
My grandmother once told me that the word “nigger” didn’t tell you much about the Black person it referred to, but it told you volumes about its user. In this case, their parents. Children aren’t born racists, they’re taught it. Ruby also talked about her hatred for Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches. My daughter’s not a fan either, so when she talked about stashing her lunch for months in the back of the room, I looked over to make sure my little one wasn’t harboring any ideas. Then Ruby continued by explaining that the reason for her packed lunch was because someone swore they’d poison the little girl. Eventually, Ruby was able to sit with her four assigned US Marshals for her first school meal.
She talked about the impact of her teacher, Mrs. Henry, who had to fly in from Boston, because none of the local teachers would take the job. “She made learning fun,” resulting in Ruby’s desire to keep going back.
Ruby never missed a day that year. Not one. That’s the impact of the right, kind, and understanding teacher, even in the face of adversity. “I learned something new everyday,” she continued.
My daughter loves school, so her excitement was almost radiating at that point. Little Black girls don’t often see positive role models in the media, if they see themselves represented at all. When she said, “Dad, she has my hair,” I knew she connected.
The second year was the most interesting. Many of the teachers and students returned, so no need for Mrs. Henry. It was as if the previous year hadn’t happened. Racism was still alive and well, but brushed aside. It was never really dealt with, it just festered. The laws changed, but what of the attitudes, resentment, and hate? It merely evolved. This was now 1961 and Whites saw diminishing power in the forms of the equalization of laws. The resentment was real and unaddressed, just as it stands today.
Ruby then addressed the lingering topic of racism, which was visibly disheartening to the speaker who stated, “we should be further along.”
I agree, we should, but our progress is stunted by illusion. I’m reminded that the appearance of freedom to a slave may be the mere removal of his shackles, while he still remains under the eye and servitude of his master. This appearance, thus causes the illusion of freedom and irrational hysteria, leaving his true place veiled by sixpence and growing complacencies. He will extol this accomplishment as monumental progress, forgetting his place on his master’s land. All while ignorantly celebrating his freedom. Never plotting his exit.
We have the tasks of addressing the vestigial chains of said plantation, its systems of inequalities that still remain, automating the production of incidental racists that are blinded to their own inherent prejudices. We can’t move forward until we stop denying their existences, then consciously working to reform or replace them. We know that failure to do so, will result in unfortunate but predictable consequences.
The Color of Evil
“What did you think would happen? You can’t keep treating people this way...”
This was in regards to the riots in Charlotte, where her fifty-six years of insight, was distilled into a few words. Then, with a reminder of the ever increasingly complicated world in which we live, she reminded us of the colorblind jihadists that would behead any one of us. Regardless of race. They see Americans.
When she put it that way, racism really did seem quite silly. However, if that constant fear were closer to people’s daily lives, maybe we wouldn’t still be arguing years after 9/11 about whose lives matter, or continue reading pages from too many Department of Justice reports citing racist and predatory practices. We wouldn’t be fighting to wear our hair a certain way or still denouncing the casually racist overtones used by politicians, and perhaps we wouldn’t still be asking for the cessation of the State sanctioned game of Russian roulette Blacks face when dealing with law enforcement.
I held back my tears as she further talked of the colorlessness of Evil.
“Just because someone looks like you, doesn’t mean you can trust them.”
The statement seemed obvious and unnecessary, until she talked about the person that stood over her son’s lifeless body with gun powder residue on his hands.
“He looked like me.”
In that moment, she laid the capstone on Black American experience then and now, showing the intertwined legacies of our ancestry and modern realized truths. She’d dealt with overt systematic racism, fought for acceptance to see it being granted tenuously. Then discussed the truth of wars started outside our control, where our only labels were of patriots. Only to return to the ever shifting specter of racism’s growing sibling, apathy, casually accepting its blind embrace. She subsequently closed with remarks regarding realities of our existence. That after years of a relegated segregated confinement, arms proliferation in the neighborhoods borne of legalized ghettos, and personal tragedy, their is still resilience in the Black family to overcome it.
And this is where we are today. Locked in that oscillating denial of the first week of that second year. We are often met with the clenched teeth and smiles that hold the doors open for that little girl, while we inch forward from behind the students that would ignore our advancements of friendships as our presence begs them flee. This, all within a lifetime of those that would poison us all today or be silent in its presence.
Even as I sat there listening to Ruby tell her story fifty six years later, I felt troubling unease as the predominantly White audience laughed a little too dismissively hard at some of her stories while I fought back tears. No, there is no happy ever after ahead of us today. Not without strengthening our children to endure America’s middle passage from the hull of that stench- filled ship to the door of that hate filled classroom. All within the context of American denial. We can not move forward today, until we deal with the hatred of those parents, the hate that the raised, and the descendants that still refuse to play with that little girl.