February 22, 2004
LIFE; Pg. 1F
By JENNIFER SANDERSON
Reuben Rodriguez made it to fourth grade before strangers pointed out a basic truth he’d not yet realized about himself.
“My first memory of knowing I was different is a negative one,” Rodriguez, 16, said earlier this month during a classroom discussion about race at Washington High School.
“I was in the ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese, having a blast, and there were these other boys there,” Rodriguez told classmates. “They started throwing balls at my head, calling me ‘nigger’. … My mom comforted me while I cried in my pizza, and then later, when I went home and cried. She just told me, ‘It’s what’s inside that counts.’ My family’s white. I was raised white. I’m Norwegian. I’m all mixed up.”
Rodriguez, one of three students of color in the room, narrated matter-of-factly. The boys whose names he never learned didn’t change the way he saw himself, or his place in his family. But they did alert him that others might see him differently.
This February, while the nation celebrates Black History Month, Americans again look back with mixed feelings. Proud of the progress made, we’re also deeply conflicted about the crimes of the past. Each February, though, is a chance to approach the future with curiosity and a critical eye. May 17 will mark the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that “separate but equal” wasn’t. Within the next dozen years, the country’s courts would hand down rulings outlawing segregation in parks, libraries, hotels and restaurants, on buses and, ironically, in the halls of justice themselves.
Overall, the mood is more personal this Black History Month, according to leaders at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in Washington, D.C. The independent nonprofit group sets themes for the annual celebration.
“It’s a more emotional issue” this month, according to interim executive director Sylvia Cyrus-Albritton. “That decision affected people on a much different level than some of the other themes for Black History Month. … It just challenged the moral fabric of this country.”
Today, sociologists study whether lessons taught early in intolerant households can be undone, and how mixed-race music and movie stars can embody a new standard of beauty while multicultural families such as Rodriguez’s must face slurs. The human reflex is to put away uncomfortable topics, hoping they’ll be easier to deal with down the road. So it’s unclear whether youths who say race doesn’t matter are blissfully colorblind or naive in their refusal to acknowledge differences.
“Little kids growing up don’t know what color they are,” Becky Kelley told her Advanced Placement U.S. history class, of which Rodriguez is a part. Also chairwoman of Washington’s social studies department, Kelley says “differences are to be celebrated but not at the exclusion of other people.”
One of her white students will experience the sensitive issue from a new viewpoint in the fall. After the bell rang, a young woman who remained quiet during the discussion told a friend that “it will be weird being in the minority” when she goes to college. The student body at the New York school she’s chosen is 55 percent black, 20 percent Latino and 7 percent white.
Locally, community leaders are preparing an advertising campaign to aggressively counter racism and prevent hate crimes. The effort is a response to two nights of fighting that broke out among white and black teens last October – squirmishes many high schoolers think were overhyped by media, parents, officials and members of the task force formed to address the issue.
“Everybody blew it way out of proportion,” said Luke Sharpe, a 17-year-old Washington senior in Kelley’s class. “But it does give us the opportunity to learn about other peoples’ backgrounds, and I don’t know much about that.”
Classmate Tim Zhu, a 16-year-old junior, found it interesting only because “it brought some racist people out of the woodwork.”
The silence that followed Rodriguez’s story, however, revealed as much as did his classmates’ words. Kelley emphasizes that despite their various cultures, every one of her students is American – or soon will be.
Senior David Ngor, 19, came to the United States from Sudan and soon will become a naturalized citizen. He is a young black man in America, but the black history taught here doesn’t match his own. While he’s acutely aware of racial differences, he’s still trying to reconcile a recent past in which persecution followed religion, not skin color.
“When I came here, I was always eager to get in the discussion, and I found I always had an opinion that seemed very different from anyone else’s,” Ngor said. “What I was thinking was according to where I came from, and people here had very different ideas.”
Authors such as Brooke Kroeger and James McBride are cross-referencing their own memories with accepted history to explore topics such as “passing” – the racial deception that many light-skinned blacks practiced to gain rights and privileges in an oppressive dominant culture following the collapse of the Jim Crow laws.
Kroeger, a journalism professor at New York University, contends that people of all backgrounds still pass: black for white, gay for straight, poor for rich. Sometimes, a person reaches for the life she or he wants. But in a newer trend, she offers, observers do the labeling, often misidentifying someone and granting an unasked passing. Modern media extols the beauty of racial ambiguity, the hiply blended look of Alicia Keys, Norah Jones, Benjamin Bratt and Jennifer Lopez. But in practice, identity is more difficult to find. Americans report that even the U.S. census’ 126 racial and ethnic combinations fall short of describing who they really are.
Cyrus-Albritton’s organization hopes to give a sense of belonging to those with African and African-American heritage. The D.C.-based group has its roots in Chicago, where Carter G. Woodson founded the association with five members. Born in 1875 to parents who had been slaves, high school teacher Woodson was disappointed to discover schools didn’t include the history of black Americans.
Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915. A little more than a decade later, he established Negro History Week to include the birthdays of Frederick Douglass, an early African-American abolitionist, and Abraham Lincoln, the president who signed the proclamation making slavery illegal in the United States. The association that grew from Woodson’s circle held its first monthlong celebration in 1976.
At Memorial Middle School in Sioux Falls, teachers have worked Black History Month into lesson plans or shared little-known facts when students themselves chose prominent African-Americans for a bio-poster project.
Against the red walls of the school’s Angus Hanson Learning Center, tagboard profiles hang of Martin Luther King Jr. and other notables. Athletes and entertainers were the most popular, with at least two Michael Jacksons and three Michael Jordans in the mix.
Here, sixth-graders can recite the basics of the Emancipation Proclamation and outline the importance of the Little Rock Nine, the first black students to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.
“I’d just ignore them (the jeering students),” 12-year-old Alex Kumz said, trying to imagine what those nine felt like. “I’d keep walking and be cool.” He twists his right wrist, letting his fingers glide in a smooth rippling motion, like a surfer talking about riding a wave.
“But it would be so hard if they were yelling at you,” countered 12-year-old Cassie TenCate. “I wouldn’t like to go through that.”
They switched quickly from black Americans in history to those with more influence over their daily lives. Kumz talked about “my friend Tyler, who had this awesome (Allen) Iverson jersey.”
TenCate, too, talked up a friend. “I just thought, ‘Wow, she’s into the same things I am,’ and how she was really fun and had cool lip gloss,” she said.
To Dana Kidd, 11, Black History Month is synonymous with Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. Classmate Jessica Johnson, also 11, added Abraham Lincoln’s name to the list.
So did Kelley, who got a chuckle from her Washington students when she told them, “White guys get credit, too.”
The bulk of it, as it turns out.
“We’ve been studying black history since 1926, but there’s very little to study because no one wrote about it,” said Kelley, whose class has worked its way up through the Reconstruction period after the Civil War.
“Not all whites in the South were anti-black,” she said. “Not all blacks were anti-white. They’d lived together for generations. There was a lot of understanding but also a lot of misconceptions and hatred.”
Both ends of the emotional spectrum are evident in the film “Glory,” which Kelley uses as a teaching tool. Denzel Washington earned his first Oscar for his portrayal of a private in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, one of the first black Union regiments. Among the recruits were Lewis N. Douglass and Charles Douglass, sons of Frederick Douglass.
Led by Robert Gould Shaw, a 26-year-old white colonel, the 54th led the attack on Fort Wagner, in South Carolina. The regiment suffered heavy casualties – Confederate soldiers buried Shaw in a mass grave along with his men – but its uncommon valor made it a household name in the North and helped spur black recruitment.
“It was a defeat for them but not for other black Americans,” said Washington senior Sarah Walker, 17. “Maybe that’s the only way they could get the respect they deserved then. You can’t really accept people without knowing the extremes they’re capable of.”
Ngor, who experienced discrimination firsthand in his native Sudan, argues for an equality without conditions of proof.
“It’s not right to accept someone because they do something good,” he said. “We all should be considered as human beings first.”
The Associated Press and Knight-Ridder contributed to this report. Reach reporter Jennifer Sanderson at 575-3629.
Video, event summaries from recent talks in Reports from the Road.
2021 Events: “The Branded Journalist: Nellie Bly Changes the Game.” [VIDEO of TALK] Ephemera Society of America, Jan. 14, 2020, 3pm. Nellie Bly: Pioneer of Investigative Journalism.” American Woman Writers National Museum, March 10, 2021, at noon. Empire State Center for the Book, March 18, 2021, 7pm.