Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Facing History with Courage and Hope

When I first started teaching high school students in Connecticut, back in 2003, I remember discussing the realities of racism in America with my students, and the horrific--and lasting--legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow era. My students were shocked to learn that the KKK was still active in 2003, and I recall many of them saying that they had thought racism was long gone.


Today, I doubt any high school student in America would dare to believe that there is no such thing as the KKK. Because of the repulsive acts of cowardice among white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, students today are realizing a harrowing truth: racism was never defeated nor dead--it was merely in hiding.

I grew up in the town of Windsor, CT--a town just north of Hartford, where there is still a beautiful diversity of people. In all of my public school years, I had friends of many races, and I recall listening to the speeches of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. on my Sony Walkman as I did my paper route. The speeches riveted me--their clarion calls for justice and equality, their evocation of America's ugly past towards African-Americans, and their hope for a more just future.

Listening to those speeches, though, and going to school every day where my classes always seemed to be 50% white and 50% black, I thought America had come a long way.

But when my best friend in high school, an African-American, and I created a dream to hike the Appalachian Trail together, I was somewhat shocked when he confided in me that he wasn't sure it was the smartest idea anymore. "Why not?" I recall asking--noting that we had trained with great discipline already. "Because there have been some racist attacks on the Trail lately," he said.

He was worried for his safety. As a young black man, he had to deal with a reality that I never did.

In more recent years, in my teaching in the 7th grade classroom, I saw a glaring ignorance. On the walls of my classroom were such notable figures as Martin Luther King, Jr., Langston Hughes, and Toni Morrison. Students could only recognize King, and even then, many of them inquired, "Didn't he end slavery?"

However, I think my own initial ignorance, and that displayed by so many students, is evidence of America's hiding of its past. So many want to pretend that racism is over and done with--dealt with by passing a few laws and some slip-shod apology for slavery.

It is not.

So, my 7th grade students read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. In conjunction with these books, my students explored the racist voting literacy test Louisiana gave in the 1960's after the Voting Rights Act was passed. We read and discussed Ta-Nehisi Coates' "The Case for Reparations" and we watched footage from Eyes on the Prize.

Just last week, my wife and I welcomed out third child into the world: Joshua William Reynolds. We have both long believed in raising our sons to be kind, compassionate, gentle, and loving. Ever since we watched Jackson Katz's powerful documentary about the horror of male bravado and cowardice that masquerades as courage, Tough Guise, we have tried to create a family that aims for honesty, emotional-openness, and facing our hopes and our fears.

We grow as a family when we talk openly and vulnerably. We grow as a society when we reveal our wrongs, not when we hide and disguise them, pretending that they were not really all that bad. We heal when we make amends, not when we make false moral equivalencies.

The high schoolers and the 7th graders I taught evidenced something beautiful as they learned more fully about America's past: action. They wanted to know what they could do, how they could help change our country for the better. They didn't become America-haters, as so many seem to fear. Instead, my students became America-changers. They wanted to try to work to fulfill America's promises to all people--to the many, not just the few.

I am a highly imperfect man: imperfect as a father, as a teacher, and as a writer. But I long to try my hardest to live compassionately, to love deeply, and to stand witness to injustice and do whatever small part I can to try and stop it.

The middle school kid who heard powerful words on his Sony Walkman is now a Daddy. I want to make those words real to my sons. I want to help them see that courage is about making amends for wrongs, about facing history honestly and trying hard to do whatever we can to create a more just society.