Not all heroes are famous
BY JUNE STRAIGHT World Scene Writer
Monday, February 18, 2013
2/18/13 at 6:49 AM
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"Once upon a time, a long time ago, white people hated black people. Then that Luther guy had a dream and made it so they could like each other. If it wasn't for him I wouldn't even be able to go to school with my friends because they would hate me for being black. Now the world's a better place and we have a black president. The end."
Not exactly history book material, but this is how my daughter, Collette, summarized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy last month for MLK day.
Her first-grader's brain took a turbulent time in history and turned it into a fairy tale with a hero, villains and a happy ending.
It was hard to hear. I wanted to step in and say wait, that's not exactly how things happened. Things were a little more complicated than that. But I stopped when I realized I couldn't verbalize those complications. Maybe, for now, I thought, her story was the best approach.
Now, more than a month later and a couple of weeks into Black History Month, I am faced with another opportunity to lay the foundation for the talks we'll have later about our heritage.
I started with Rosa Parks, a woman who the history books credit with jump-starting the civil rights movement.
"Do you remember what your teacher told you about Rosa Parks?" I ask.
Of course she remembers, she reminds me with an eye roll, before spouting off facts about a woman who stood up for her rights.
"Did you know that before Ms. Parks refused to give up her seat, there were lots of other people who did little things like that to stand up for their rights?"
Less attitude, less bravado, no eye roll. "Will you tell me a story about it?"
And just like that we started having our own black history lessons. From mother to daughter, I told her the stories that my mother told me - the stories my grandmother told me. Not the stories of the handful of brown heroes you read about in the history books, but the stories of our family.
My grandma once told me that before Rosa Parks even thought about sitting in the front of the bus, she and her sisters would sit in the front of the trolley, back when the seats were little blocks of wood on pegs. They would start at the front of the car and as the white passengers boarded, rather than moving all the way to the back of the car, they would pick up their seats and move them one peg back, so they'd be seated right behind the white passengers, quietly defying the rules.
I think Collette would like that story. In a few years, maybe she'll be ready to hear the less defiant tale of how my mother and her sister were held at gunpoint for being black on "white" land while riding their bikes to visit one of their friends, who happened to be white. Or how my mother was the first in her family to attend integrated schools from kindergarten through graduation.
I don't know why, but there's something about passing stories on orally from generation to generation that makes it feel more real, and more important.
Even if you aren't black, all voices are important reflections of our nation's history. In college, I had a white professor who told about how upon moving to Mississippi at the age of 5, he cried and cried his first trip to the ice cream stand when he saw the "whites only" sign. When his mama told him that's just the way things were in the South, he sniffled and asked, "Does that mean I'll never get chocolate ice cream again?"
Collette laughs when I tell her that story and I think she's comforted by the fact that the notion of segregation was as ridiculous to little white kids in the 1960s as it is to her and her friends in 2013.
Oral history is a powerful medium and a big part of our heritage as black Americans, and Americans in general.
If you don't already, take the time to share a tale with your little one about why black history is important to you.
June Straight 918-581-8331
Rosa Parks, shown here being fingerprinted in Montgomery, Ala., in 1956, is a central figure in the civil rights movement. Many families also have their own personal heroes. AP FILE