Friday, January 24, 2014

Great articles on civil rights... and beards

Penn State University doctoral candidate Sean Trainor published a fascinating piece January 20 in The Atlantic titled "The Racially Fraught History of the American Beard."  Take a look here.

Historian Michael Kazin reflected January 20 upon the potential drawbacks to Hollywood's recent focus on interpreting the history of slavery.  Read it here.  I'm inclined to agree with Kazin's reasoning.  Telling the history of slavery is tremendously important, but we do run the risk of eliding the struggles African Americans have faced since emancipation if we cut off our history at 1865.  This is part of a larger struggle I face when viewing popular interpretations of civil rights history.  My 7-year-old brought home a "Weekly Reader" folio the other day about Martin Luther King, Jr.  While I realize historical interpretation for second grade readers is necessarily going to require some elimination of nuance, I was troubled by the main article's statement that because of King's work, people of all races now get along and live/work together.  Then = bad; King = the hinge upon which societal transformation swung; now = good.

Hmm.  Much as I wish this were the case, the story just isn't that simple.  The frustrating, difficult truth is that King was assassinated as a result of his work -- a work made even more dangerous when he started to challenge deeply ingrained "de facto" discrimination throughout the United States and not just the "de jure" segregation of the American South.  The frustrating, difficult truth is that the myriad problems of race continue to bedevil our society, despite the unarguable progress the brave activists of the 1950s and 1960s -- and before and after those decades -- have made.  We need to remember these truths.  We need to educate the next generation to realize how far we have come.  If we fail, however, to acknowledge the distance left to travel (and the many struggles and reverses along the way) we run a serious risk of encouraging a smug complacency that dismisses the real structural problems of American society as somebody else's personal problem -- or, in the case of those caught up in the midst of structural inequities, the enervating despair of hopelessness.

I want my child to celebrate the justice of emancipation.  I want her to value the brave, difficult work undertaken by King and others.  I want her to recognize the important distance American society has traveled.  Too, though, I want her to recognize that she needs to take up the baton; the race is far from over.

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