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135 5 THE SILENCES IN A CIVIL RIGHTS NARRATIVE BILL T. JONES: Do you want your children to know pain? ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: Yes, but I want to reserve the right to throw myself in front of the car. BILL T. JONES: Can you throw yourself in front of history? —Elizabeth Alexander and Bill T. Jones, DeVane Lectures, Yale University JAMES BALDWIN: Black people need witnesses; in this hostile world which thinks, um, everything is white. INTERVIEWER: Are you still in despair about the world? BALDWIN: I never have been in despair about the world, I’m enraged by the world. INTERVIEWER: Enraged, alright. BALDWIN: I don’t think I’m in despair. I can’t afford despair. I can’t tell my nephew, my niece; you can’t, you can’t tell the children there’s no hope. —Film interview with James Baldwin, James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket What do we tell our children? What stories do we pass along so that they know their history? It is unavoidable that they will learn the past that belongs to the nation, typically a mythic narrative of exceptionalism and universal citizenship. They will absorb the narratives in their school assemblies , through advertisements, and via the media. That past that belongs to an aggrieved people—in James Baldwin’s case and dare I say my own—is a 136 / The Silences in a Civil Rights Narrative different narrative. While the African American past is no less exceptional than the mythic American narrative of belonging, it is crafted in an often cruel juxtaposition to that same notion of belonging. Stories of denial need to be passed along, to be sure, but it is important to ask when and how our children need to learn that the American narrative may not belong to them. During the height of Jim Crow, black parents had to prepare their children for a life of denial. Ray Sprigle, the journalist who crossed the color line in the late 1940s in an effort to understand the black experience, saw for himself that a child’s literal survival depended on this kind of education. But Sprigle also saw the way that black parents wrestled with the timing of that lesson. “When do you begin teaching your child how he is to live as a Negro?” Sprigle wondered. “When do you begin teaching him the difference between black and white—not as colors but as races? When do you begin teaching him how to live under the iron rule of a master race that regards him as an inferior breed? When do you begin teaching him that, for him, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are scraps of paper? Those are the questions that every Negro mother and father has to answer.”1 Wondering when and even what to tell the children resonates differently in the early twenty-first century than it did during the age of legally sanctioned racial segregation, when the systemic cultural practice of racial demarcation (what is often referred to as “racial etiquette”) flourished. Structured and informal systems of racial difference certainly still exist, but as a second generation of post–Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts children grow up, as they see in the most simplistic symbolic way that at least a black man actually can be the president of the country, it would seem that parents have a choice they lacked before. However, because race still has the potential to strip away at any given moment all the accumulated material and political privilege that even well-placed blacks might enjoy, children need to be prepared for a narrative in which they cannot see themselves, their past, or their future. Sprigle’s question from 1949, then, resonates just as loudly today: When do you tell the children? Clearly my father believed that he was addressing this dilemma when he told me a handful of times about “the way things were” and that I always had to be careful about how I carried myself in life. But as I would come to learn, there were significant gaps in my father’s stories and lessons about how to navigate this country’s racial landscape. For the longest time I presumed that my father simply didn’t like thinking about his own past. What I eventually understood is that my father saw his past in transactional terms: He didn’t want to engage his history because he felt he could not afford to. The Silences in a...


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