I wasn’t looking forward to yesterday. On the bus ride down, I even gave myself a lecture pep talk: You’ll be fine. Just breathe. Whatever you do, don’t cry.
Do not cry. Do not cry. Do. Not. Cry. It will be fine.
It wasn’t fine.
It wasn’t like I didn’t know what was in the Civil Rights museum. I knew exactly what I would see: the dogs and the water hoses, and the people who look just like me and my mama and my grandmama, marching to lay claim on the “all men were created equal” that we were promised, but never could obtain. So it wasn’t novelty that brought me to my knees, but the ragged and persistent familiarity of pain and struggle. It was seeing a movie for the fiftieth time and still crying when the Hero dies. It was coming back to church after an absence, but still knowing the order of the call and response. My lips moved automatically, never missing a word of Mahalia Jackson’s Precious Lord, Take My Hand as I walked through the exhibit. I stared at each picture, standing as close as possible at times, because all of those brown faces were so familiar– like looking in a mirror. It was a lot like coming home — only for a funeral. The bittersweet reunion of seeing your loved ones with grief and death lingering in the background.
It was a school field trip and I was the only African-American (though not the only black person) in the bunch -which is a lot like being the only black kid in class when the teacher starts talking about slavery and everyone turns around and stares at you. And so I did my best to escape. I must have skipped about a quarter of the museum just so I wouldn’t have to deal with the painful familiarity of the museum and the class at the same time.
There was no escaping the museum though. I tried my hardest not to cry. I did. I tried to pretend that I was as unscathed and unaffected as everyone else, but there was no blitheness when walking past the stained glass rendering of Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carol, and Denise, 4 little black girls whose lives had were cut short when their churched was bombed by racists. They weren’t just a moment in history, a short caption of black words typed on a white background…they were me. Their wide brown eyes and black girl hair mirroring all that I am. I was undone and remade at every exhibit. A museum that accurately renders your history is a mosaic, glass shards reflecting your image everywhere you look. It is at once overwhelming and supremely comforting. Watching the funeral of Dr. King and his auto-eulogy, I was wrecked, cast ashore with the question that always lives in my head:
How do you ignore a wound that never heals?
I don’t know how much time I spent in the bathroom when it was over trying to get myself back together, trying to avoid everyone else. Afterwards, at lunch I blamed my head cold for my quietness and my slowness. “I’m not feeling well,” I said because I didn’t have the words in Spanish to explain any of it.
We gathered after lunch for the wrap-up. Under the high noon sun, all 66 students and instructors convened in front of the museum. It only took three minutes before someone said “All lives matter.” He said it with a giggle and no irony, even though the museum behind him pointed out the obvious untruths in his statement. Other ignorance soon followed. It was like one of those bingo games of phrases that one might say after an unarmed black person is shot by the police: “Isolated events. It’s ‘culture’. It wasn’t just black people.” I imagine that it’s exactly like the arguments that Dr. King faced during the Civil Rights Movement. When someone suggested that there wasn’t racism in the military, I picked up my purse and walked away from it all.
Being black is like that. Going through a traumatic experience and then having everyone else explain it to you with all of their unfiltered bigotry and ignorance attached, telling you how you should feel about it, or making sure that you know that they don’t feel the same way. It’s being saddened and shocked by another filmed murder of a man or woman who looks like you and then being forced to sit and listen as sea-lawyer classmates and instructors justify that murder over and over and over again. It’s realizing that more consideration, and more dignity and respect was given to the three visits that the class made to Confederate War sites – to a group of people whose actions were treasonous and motivated by the desire to own other people – than to the entirety of African-American history. How those trips involved experts and translators who could help us make sense of what we were seeing and not biased and uninformed opinions from Americans with little knowledge of their own history.
People were actually upset that I walked away. They expected me to listen to their ignorance, to clap politely at the inanity of their statements — to pretend that racism ended the moment we walked out of the museum. But I will not — I cannot — sit quietly while injustice continues to run its course in America. I will not. I cannot be polite while murder continues to be justified. My Spanish skillset has completely deserted me at this point, but I will still speak up in every way that is available to me. As Dr. King said “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Civil Rights museums are hard for me to get through every single time that I visit, but they are important. Because our story deserves to be told with dignity and respect. It’s not just a matter of whose story gets told, but who does the telling and how. Our story deserves to be told with our voices and from our perspective and with all of the uncomfortable truth that it contains. Our history is not incidental or ancillary to American History – it is American History.