When we sanitize history, it lets us off the hook. Stephanie J. Gates
As I sat in the theater glued to my seat watching Selma, I was visually reminded of the strength and tenacity of Black people. The words of Amelia Boynton resonated with me when she reassured a reluctant Coretta Scott-King that she was ready to meet with Malcolm X in her husband’s absence because the blood of her ancestors flowing through her body has prepared her for this day. It is a quiet yet powerful scene that reminds me of the greatness of Black people.
Years ago, watching the mistreatment of Black people in films bothered me. I’d be so angry after watching the gross injustice and indignities African Americans were subjected to because of racist policy and practices in America. But I stopped focusing on what was done to us, and started focusing on what we did in response. I am in awe of the likes of Amelia Boynton, Jimmie Lee Jackson and other unsung heroes of the civil rights movement. And that is one of the reasons I love Selma. It is not a water-down, sugar-coated white-washing of history. It is a docudrama based on actual events. And while some may level charges of inaccuracy, I argue that even historical facts are subject to interpretation. Ava DuVernay made the civil rights movement come alive for me just as it did when I was a child.
As a teenager, every year during Black History Month, I would sit mesmerized in front of the TV watching the Eyes on the Prize documentary series. I wish that I had been born sooner so that I could have been a participant. Though I love African-American history, I have a special place in my heart for the civil rights movement because it seemed like a magical period in American history. Those documentaries brought the movement into my living room. Those documentaries changed my life. I wanted to learn more, and do more. When I became a teacher, the series along with other films became staples in my classroom. When one of my students would ask why we were learning Black history and it wasn’t February, I would simply remind them that they were Black 365 days out of the year and 366 during Leap Year.
Even though there were no lunch counters or buses to integrate when I was growing up, I understood the very realness of racism. When my family moved from the segregated Westside to the integrated Southside, we faced challenges of around issues of race. There were White kids on the block and though we all played together outside, we did not visit each other's homes nor did my niece and I venture beyond the via dock at 111th and Cottage. Pullman was a White working class neighborhood and we were not welcomed there. And though we lived in an integrated neighborhood, our schools were still segregated.
My segregated existence and love for civil rights collided in college. It was my first integrated experience, and two things stand out: one of my professors said that MLK was a womanizer, and White people, especially men) thought they knew everything. Whenever I said anything thing that was different from their way of thinking, they simply talked over me until I stopped talking. Learning of King’s infidelities made room for his humanity, and I found my voice again as I learned about our history. My class on the civil rights movement was an eye-opening experience. My fantasy idea of the civil rights movement was far removed from the truth. It was not this joyous Kumbaya movement where everyone got along. There were tensions, disputes, jockeying for power and plenty of politicking going around. And once I got over the initial shock that my heroes were human, it made my history that much richer.
So as I watched Selma I was reminded of the realness of the people who participated in protests and demonstrations. As I watched Selma I was reminded of what is going on in America today. As I watched Selma, I saw ordinary, everyday people doing extraordinary things. I saw myself in them. When we sanitize history, we strip our heroes of their humanity. We turn them into God-like beings that let us mere mortals off the hook. We don't think that we can live up to the legacy that was left us. But not only do we have to live up to it, we owe it to those who paved the way for us. If they could do it, we can, too. We can learn from Selma how to continue and hopefully, finish the work the civil rights workers started. We should feel the that the blood that pumped through them then, pumping through us now.