“No one is free ‘til we’re all free.” What a powerful set of words for the season of national turmoil we are enduring.
I’ve been rather introspective lately, staying quiet and working on my own interior landscape as we continue to see our nation erupt. I’m also selective of what I post online, as I have been reading of instances of such vitriol that I am fearful of abusive responses. I want to listen, read, and learn, in order to help my small sphere of influence see more clearly, being both parent to very young children and teacher to tweens. When I turn on the news or radio, my heartbeat quickens and my ears feel like they’ve got cotton shoved in them. I want to cry, scream, and declare that the entirety of the world does not share the ugly sentiments of a few, but I cannot guarantee that to be true, even if it’s how I feel.
I’ve been meditating on times, as a teacher, where I chose to recognize the issue of racism, and combat hatred with love and acceptance.
I know that it is my duty to find ways to bring up the topic in an objective light, looking at both sides through a historic and literary lens that allows my students to develop greater empathy for all humankind. I feel as if I have only skimmed the surface of this ongoing “virus” of discrimination, due to the delicate nature of the topic, and the personal restraint we must maintain, so we do not end up being viewed as if standing upon on a soapbox. I still have much to learn and do, in order to help the newer generations squelch the fires of racial disparity.
I also admit to using the wrong phrase when I used to say that I did not see color, only the person and their potential. What I meant was that I saw into people’s hearts and wanted everyone to have an equal chance at learning, growing, and loving others; however, that statement, now that I have further educated myself on the phraseology, can have negative connotations. To some, that can be viewed as me diminishing their ethnicity, something I do not mean and would never do. Instead, I seek (and have always sought) to honor it.
I say this in order to demonstrate the value placed on words, and if the pen is mightier than the sword, I think words spoken hold equal weight to the pen, because, once said, they cannot be unsaid—they can only be atoned for, amended, and never spoken thereafter.
This came up most often when I taught The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I was always sleepless the night before I knew we would be addressing the issue of slavery, because I knew its implications would wound some who were often sitting in their chairs, with eyes down, waiting to see what message would come from a book that has been viewed as controversial. I have always admired Mark Twain for his way of putting society under the microscope and exposing their flaws, but in a relatable and anecdotal way. I think the character of the street-smart slave, Jim, has always been my favorite, because he just shelters Huck under his wing, out of his parental love for the boy (whose father is a complete opposite of nurturing and accepting), and risks his own life to travel with someone who, according to society, is superior to him. Jim knew that his life was in Huck’s hands, but he chose love over fear.
I have grown, since then, and worked harder to include the narratives of those whose voices have gone unheard in both my lessons, and now, with productions on the stage. Three school years ago, I was scouring play anthologies and single one-act play scripts for “the” story, one that I knew in my gut would have a powerful message of courage, hope, and perseverance in times of great peril, while also addressing the topic of discrimination. I happened upon the play, “Home On The Morning Train,” and never looked back. I actually cried at its conclusion, and that’s how I knew it was the right one. I think we could all do with a copy of this play as we work to understand the plight of minorities and seek change to find racial equality.
This frame narrative, paralleling 1839 Alabama to 1939 Germany, examines the stories of two young women, Brave Mary and Rifka, who seek to escape the oppression of two shameful systems that see no value in their ethnicity or religious background—one set is seen only as property, while the other is viewed as worthy of extermination. Their parallel journeys on the Underground Railroad, as well as the efforts of individuals who risk life and limb to harbor and bring them to safety, show us that not all people believed in such a horrendous system as slavery or the internment camp/holocaust method used by Hitler.
The characters of Adelaide and Olivia, two women who assist Brave Mary and her group, both view their assistance as a necessary part of breaking the chains of slavery. Adelaide, a white woman, forges documents for transport and lets the weary group stay in her attic. Olivia, a young black woman whose boat is used to cross the Ohio River to freedom, is asked by one of the youngest children if she is afraid for her own life, which, if caught, could be lost. She says, simply, that yes, she is a bit scared, but then she concludes that there is meaning to her risk, as “No one is free ‘til we are all free.” We all got chills when those words were spoken.
My student performers and I made that our show’s motto, and had deep discussions about the meaning behind that statement. There were tears, hand holding/hugs, and sentiments focused on honoring that story, bringing it to audiences who may not have known much about the issue. We actually had parents come up to us after we performed at competition and thank us for our bravery as storytellers, and the judge of our show commended us for taking on a story of such magnitude at the middle school level. Though we did not win, I saw my students carry themselves with great dignity afterwards, knowing that we had caused a small ripple of change with a story that is meant to celebrate diversity. Like a pebble in a pond, we hoped its waves could reach further into everyone’s hearts.
Our company (cast & crew) was composed of different ethnic backgrounds, and yet, we all saw each other as one common group, without judgment of one another’s skin. We were a family, a diverse tapestry of colors, just like a patchwork quilt, the thread that bound us together being love.
So, here’s where I want to bring that motto full circle, in order to help end the systematic injustices that are plaguing our nation (and have for the past four centuries), despite significant efforts over the years to reverse their effects.
We have before us a glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of civilization.-Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.-
I want to create a climate where we should all be free from…
*Any belief that we, as a society or individuals, hold power over others whose skin is different than ours, out of a misplaced sense of superiority. I do not believe that I am any more or less than another person.
*Hatred of others who are different than us. We are not born hating others. Instead, with that in mind, LOVE must be taught. Celebrating others’ cultures, beliefs, and ethnic diversity is key. Loving others through their troubles, reminding that they are not alone.
*The shame that comes from being poorly informed about the history of racism in our country, and world; instead, we need to better educate ourselves, our families, students, co-workers, and neighbors. We need to listen—that is a sign of true friendship. No speaking, unless it with kindness and compassion.
*The violence enacted against any person of color. This has to stop. I have been so proud of our city, Houston, and our community, in holding peaceful protests/demonstrations, coming together to say that we are here for those who are suffering. We see them. We love them.
We teach history so it does not repeat itself and we learn to act on those mistakes in an effort to make positive changes. It is time to write a new future, so that the next generations read and see..
Brotherhood and sisterhood.
Celebration of our differences and focus on our sameness.
Only love. No more hatred.
I’ll say it once more: no one is free ‘til we are all free.