It’s difficult for me to talk about race, mostly because when I do I realize how little I know. As a white kid growing up in the suburbs my parents never had to have The Talk with me. I didn’t even know about The Talk, which many African American families call a matter of life and death, until a few years ago.
On some, but not all, Nashville buses there’s a memorial plaque to Rosa Parks, and when I see it I remember my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Turner, who taught us the story of Rosa Parks. This is the version we were given: Parks had a long, hard day at work and was sitting in a seat close to the front on a bus. A white passenger asked her to move to the back and she was so tired she couldn’t get up so she was arrested. Her case ultimately led to a boycott of the city buses and, after a court decision, city buses were no longer segregated.
That is more or less how it happened, but when the teacher told us that I wanted to ask, isn’t there more to it than that? I thought, and still think, Parks was very brave for refusing to give up her seat, but I couldn’t believe she did it just because she was tired on that particular day. I believed she was tired of having been asked to give up her seat repeatedly, and I wanted to know if she’d committed a deliberate act of civil disobedience which, I thought, and still think, would be even braver.
Since then I’ve learned that the story of Rosa Parks we were taught, while true, was also more complicated. She was a secretary for the NAACP at the time of her arrest and had attended a social justice training school. Her refusal to give up her seat was a decision she made in the moment but, in a sense, she’d been preparing for it for a long time.
But I didn’t ask, and I’m still not sure why. One of the things that made Mrs. Turner a great teacher is that she loved it when we asked questions. If she didn’t know the answer she’d tell us to go get a book and we’d read it together because she believed learning should be interactive. Mrs. Turner was also black and grew up in a segregated area. She told us how once, when she was very hungry and out with her father, she didn’t understand why they couldn’t stop at a particular restaurant, and why, when they went to another restaurant, they couldn’t go inside but had to sit out back. She wasn’t shy about sharing her experiences. I wish I hadn’t been shy about asking questions, not just about Rosa Parks but about Mrs. Turner. Had she always wanted to be a teacher? Did she ever imagine, growing up, that someday she’d be teaching kids of all races?
What Rosa Parks did, and Mrs. Turner sharing her own experiences, have one thing in common: they created an opportunity for conversation, and I’m responsible for being willing to take part.