Sadly, Deja Vu: Charleston

In the spring of 1972, I was teaching Freshman English three nights a week at Essex County College in Newark, New Jersey. This was five years after the race riots that destroyed much of inner city Newark and led to a number of deaths. Essex College was situated in downtown Newark, and even after five years, a specially issued college ID was required to be in the building. My husband wasn’t allowed past the reception area.

 

In response to Newark’s racial tensions, the textbook for that particular class had a unit on the Black experience in America. Because it was night school, the 25 or so students were adults and mostly Black, with one young white man, an older white woman and a young Puerto Rican woman.  It was a delightfully involved group, and in the course of the semester we had many vigorous class discussions. Some of these were on racial issues, with the young white man often taking on the rest of the class to argue against Civil Rights legislation.

 

For the unit on the Black experience, I let the students do the teaching. I was a white southerner, after all. Their short reports, unfortunately, did little more than cover the reading on the subject. At least until the final report, when an older Black woman  added her own thoughts, written out as a speech and beautifully delivered. Here are excerpts from that speech:

 

We discovered and learned to appreciate that our Blackness is “Beauty” and we love that Beauty so we must love ourselves. If we hate then we are calling ourselves a lie…. Hate is not the panacea to this problem of racism, for hating simply impedes our progress, blinds our clear thinking and lowers our dignity. We have come too far and have lost too much time already. Let’s not back up and get hung upon hate. Rather let us unite and prove that we are somebody.

 

This we know and have known through the years, but we must keep driving with self-pride and self-determination until we convince “white America” of this fact. We must together create a brand new cultural ethos among all of the oppressed Black Americans so that we will no longer be dependent on the White oppressor, but can project our own ingenuities, which give us identity, purpose and direction. We are on the threshold of a new order, a new community. We have been awakened as to who we really are and what we can and must do. So together, let’s do it!!

 

When she finished, the young white man spoke first, saying this was the best thing he’d ever heard. The discussion that followed was unlike anything I have ever witnessed in a classroom—“witnessed” because I only listened and felt privileged to be allowed to listen. The hurts and anger of a people tumbled out as they asked each other how not to hate white people. One woman spoke of her white boss, a fine man and good to work for, yet when Martin Luther King was assassinated, she found it difficult to speak to him and felt herself hating him. Another student asked: Why are white people so mean?

 

Certainly America has come a long way in relations between the two races since that day in Newark. Yet still I wonder: were I teaching a class of primarily Black students this week, 43 years later, would my students be having this same discussion?