In order to go forward, you must look back

When I first started my current job, I spent most of my first year learning the lay of the land. That included finding out how things were done in the past, what things worked well, what things should be changed, etc. I couldn’t move forward without knowing where we’d been as a department. This concept also applies to life.

There are symbols and events in our nation’s collective history that should never be forgotten. People often have varying opinions about how much we should focus on history vs. moving forward. However, I believe that if you don’t know what has happened in our collective past, you will most likely say or do something that can be seen as offensive – possibly even grotesquely offensive. I, unfortunately, witnessed a grotesque offense tonight.

I attended a sporting event at a predominantly Caucasian institution. A large number of students, in an effort to support the home team, dressed up in all white. Had it just been white tops and white bottoms, it wouldn’t have been an issue. However, some students wore long white sheets as well as head coverings with eyeholes. Someone later explained to me that they were supposed to be “white ninjas,” but all I could see were remnants of an ugly part of American history.

I did not grow up during the Civil Rights era, but I was born to parents who did. Many African-American students who grew up during the same time I did were exposed to images from the Civil Rights movement during history lessons in schools – if we attended predominantly African-American schools. So, though I didn’t grow up in the midst of the fight, the images of the fight are forever burned in my memory.  I have been on the receiving end of racial slurs and intimidating stares – so much so that I’ve feared for my safety. I remember the story of Mamie Till Mobley, a teacher at my elementary school and the mother of Emmett Till. I remember watching “Eyes on the Prize” videos,  images of Ku Klux Klan members, listening to Billie Holiday sing about “Strange Fruit” while seeing lifeless bodies of innocent African-Americans hanging from ropes.

Tonight, as I watched a Caucasian male walk past me covered from head to toe in a white sheet with his head and face covered, my mind immediately went back to visions of burning crosses and the word “nigger” flying like bullets. I don’t think that the students meant any harm, but what’s more disheartening is that none of them considered that their actions could be seen as hateful and/or offensive. This suggests that there is a disconnect. These students are oblivious of the past, and this is going to hinder them from progressing to the future – at least one of any substance.

We must make a commitment as individuals to be proactive in educating ourselves about the past. We should not sit around and wait for someone else to spoon feed our collective history to us. February is Black History Month. Why not use it as an opportunity to start “home schooling” yourself? There are too many resources to list, but I’ll start you off with a good one. Click here to visit the PBS website for the “Eyes on the Prize” video series. The website provides audio and video clips from people on both sides of the struggle.

What do you think about this issue? (Please be respectful in your responses.)