Everything Old is New Again

I’ve been teaching my adult students about The Civil War. They learned about the Lincoln Memorial and saw a play about Cathay Williams. Cathay, was the first African American female Buffalo Soldier. Cathay was a freed slave who first worked as a cook and laundress for just pennies for the Union Army. After some time, to earn more money, she disguised herself as a man in the all African American unit the Native Americans called Buffalo Soldiers. They marched for 2 years throughout the South doing mostly clean up and guard duty and other jobs the white soldiers wouldn’t do. They never saw a battle. Williams became ill many times with cholera and smallpox. She was hospitalized but she was never discovered to be a woman. She finally revealed herself and got an honorable discharge from the army. She died young and her family never received the pension she worked for. We all learned so much from the actress who played every part in the 45 minute show.

Now we are studying the causes of the Civil War. We are beginning our study of slavery. The students are reading about the Middle Passage and its aftermath. Since I love history, I’ve been able to supplement the book that we are using with my own knowledge of the subject. What I tried to explain to them is that although the war ended in 1865 and slavery was abolished, that it really hasn’t been that long since Black Americans have had all the same rights as White Americans.

Using myself as an example, I said that many of the civil rights we gained occurred only one year before I was born.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, is considered one of the crowning legislative achievements of the civil rights movement.”

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 happened the year I was born. The students were really surprised to know that women couldn’t vote until 1920. More history lessons about that are forthcoming.

I brought current events into the discussion. I often do this so they can relate the past with the present.

They easily understood and agreed that all the recent happenings of the police being called by white people on black people, for no good reason were examples of white supremacy which began over 400 years ago.

In the last few weeks , we’ve seen black people, just living and also being seen as threatening .

We can’t move into a new apartment in a predominantly white area without neighbors calling the police.

We can’t go to The Waffle House for food without either being senselessly murdered by a racist or the cops are called for minor infringements (questioning or disagreeing with staff). Three officers assaulted a woman on the floor, exposing her breasts.

A young man was viciously grabbed by the throat and thrown to the ground by an officer twice his size while wearing his prom attire.

We can’t depart an AirBnB, packing luggage into our car to leave. The Mrs. Kravitz of the neighborhood waved and smiled at them through the window. The young women didn’t acknowledge her. So, of course, she called the police who detained them when they were on their way to do a show. That department is being sued by the young women.

We can’t even nap in a common room at Yale, where that’s allowed ,without another student calling the police.

We can’t barbecue in a designated area without someone calling the police.

One of my students asked me, Why do they treat us like this? I didn’t even speak for a few seconds because, I didn’t have a reasonable answer. I still don’t have a reasonable answer. However, I said white slave owners felt that we were less than human. We were property. We were not their equals. We were beneath them just because of our melanin. Today, some people still hold those mindsets.

We should not have to continue suffering the humiliation and pain that racism brings. Yet, somehow we still do. I feel there are people who would love to see us back in shackles without any rights.

We need to stay out of Waffle House. We need to frequent food and coffee establishments owned and operated by people of color. Let’s hit them in the wallet. Let them lose business and dollars. That’s what they understand. Black people boycotted buses in 1955. They walked and car pooled for over a year. The bus company went bankrupt. We have the ability for that to happen to all types of establishments. We have to be unified for this to happen. Our ancestors did it, why can’t we?

So, as my students and I drift deeper into the Civil War discussion I’m sure I won’t have all the answers. I’m hoping these current events will calm down. With #45 and his ilk in office and being supported by the Fox News loving fan base, it will be some time before we feel and experience the change.

Old behaviors are new again. But did they ever really leave?

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Selma

I went to the movies this week to see the film, Selma, directed by Golden Globe nominee, Ava DuVernay. I heard so much about the film which is about events leading up to and including the historical 1965, March from Selma, Alabama ,across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, led by Martin Luther King Jr.  This march was to demand equal voting rights for Negro citizens of Alabama . The result was The Voting Rights Act of 1965 .The film stars Golden Globe nominee, David Oyelowo as Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

New York was one of the cities that offered free admissions to 7th, 8th and 9th grade students from the opening day, January 9 until the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday on January 19th.  I shrewdly decided to take in a matinée  on January 22, so I could be with adults seriously taking in the subject matter, I had only seen in history books.The events of the film took place 50 years ago, the year I was born.

As my ride rolled up to the theater, I saw 4 school buses parked nearby, but figured the students had a trip, nearby. I got my phone scanned with my pre-purchased ticket, bought some nachos and took the elevator (these days I’m using a cane, due to chronic back pain) up to the theater. I found a good seat near the aisle so I could stretch out my legs, leaned back and the previews began.

  In the middle of the previews. suddenly the lights came on and the busloads of students started pouring into the room. Damn!  I thought I had escaped them.
Ms. Karen loves the kids, I was a children’s librarian for many years, but these kids looked like 5th or 6th graders. I knew this historical journey would have many bumps along the way for me, with kids in attendance. It was bumpy every time their tiny bladders, hungry tummies or thirsty throats made them get up. They kept bumping me and my seat, every time they got up. They got up in little packs of 4 or 5.
  They laughed at the southern accents of the Selma citizens in the film. The kids next to me immediately recognized Oprah Winfrey as she appeared on-screen and I heard all around me, It’s Oprah! They expressed shock when Dr. King, lit a cigarette and the kids behind me said, He smoked!!??? They expressed horror during the Bloody Sunday scene on the Edmund Pettus bridge when the marchers were tear gassed and beaten. Then, their laughter stopped and there was silence all through the theater except  for the subtle sounds of crying from some of my fellow adult viewers and myself.

Dr. King is seen not just as a cultural and historical icon here, but as an ordinary man who was shouldering heavy responsibilities. He is seen as a husband and father.  He was a man who took out the trash. He is shown as a man who was not always faithful to his wife, Coretta. He is seen as a preacher who relied on the word of God to lead him. He was making decisions that affected the masses, who followed his words. He’s seen as a regular man who cracked jokes with his friends. David Oyelowo was magnificent as Dr. King, truly capturing his essence throughout the film.
 He met many times with President Lyndon Johnson who wasn’t quite ready to sign a Voting Rights  bill into law after already signing, The Civil Rights Act of 1964, that outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, required equal access to public places and employment, and enforced desegregation of schools and the right to vote.

Ava DuVernay doesn’t take the easy road to show this story. She shows the brutality that these citizens faced from the law enforcement that showed them ignorance at every turn. The hate and anger towards the men and women alike was palpable. There were moments when I sat there crying ,feeling the blows and thinking how man can be so inhuman towards one another.  The scenes after Dr. King’s call for the clergy to come to Selma and help them march made me proud and later gave me a moment where I almost couldn’t stop crying.

 I cried thinking about these brave young men and women who helped to provide the opportunities I have been afforded. They were in their late teens and twenties. Dr. King was in his thirties and died at 39.  Could I have had their courage? I cried thinking many of these heroes have gone unknown and unacknowledged. Ralph Abernathy, Rep. John Lewis, and Andrew Young are names we are familiar with. But, now, Amelia Boynton Robinson, James Bevel, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Diane Nash and Hosea Williams will be known by even more people. I cried because we have come so far and yet things seem to be reversing themselves.

 The students around me got vocal whenever Governor George Wallace appeared on screen (I can’t blame them) and I had to even hush them like a librarian during a few scenes when guns and batons were used.  I’m still a great husher and they quieted right down. They were saying, “That’s wrong and why did they do that!?” “Guns are wrong!” “There was no need for violence.” I know those kids left the film with a different outlook on this part of history.  It seemed more real to them. They remained seated, singing along to the Golden Globe winning and Oscar nominated song, Glory by John Legend and Common, when the lights came back on.

 Selma has been nominated in the Best Picture category for the Academy Awards and the song Glory has been nominated in the music category. Alas, the two driving forces of David Oyelowo and Director Ava DuVernay were not nominated. That’s how things go in Hollywood.
 David will always be remembered for this career changing role.  Ava doesn’t need the Oscar to justify her work. It was outstanding and will live on past this awards season in Hollywood. Years from now, when people want to see, feel and understand what went on during The Civil Rights Movement, Selma is where they will turn.  I thank Ava and David,  the producers, including Oprah Winfrey and executive producer, Brad Pitt for bring this film to the big screen.  My mind was opened, my eyes were cleansed. Give yourself and any young people in your life a history lesson. Go see the film Selma!

 selma-montgomery-march

 This guidance from SGI-USA President Daisaku Ikeda is fitting after seeing Selma. The book, Buddhism Day by Day- Wisdom for Modern Life,  for the date January 24 says, Buddhism teaches equality and absolute respect  for the dignity of life. Educating people to be citizens of the world begins with cultivating respect, compassion and empathy for others. I am certain that friendship and limitless trust in people can empower us to overcome socially disruptive discrimination and hatred. Open-minded exchanges on the popular level will be increasingly important in the years to come. When people engage in mind to mind dialogue, they are grateful to see ethnic and cultural differences not as obstacles but as expressions of society enriching diversity that engenders respect and a desire for further exploration.