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John Lewis must have completed his ‘good trouble’ in civilly-disobedient actions on Earth, because the ancestors felt it necessary to call him back to the heavenly home whence he came.
Reading Time 5 min 32 sec
By Nehemiah D. Frank, founder and editor in chief
We lost a monumental giant in 2020.
But countless numbers of people missed or skimmed over the most important lessons John Lewis left behind. Back in the late 1990s, as a high school student, I saw this happen when my ninth-grade history teacher showed us a documentary about Bloody Sunday.
In the film, John Lewis’s determined and resilient spirit radiated through the screen. Showing wisdom at an early age, he was slow-to-speak and slow-to-anger. Ignorance was his only enemy.
But I also saw the dogs, the tear gas deployed, and a brigade of White male police officers — some on horseback — attacking peaceful citizens with batons who felt it necessary to march from Selma to Montgomery for equal voting rights.
I remember sitting in history class, mad as hell, thinking: Had I been alive back then, I would have handled things differently. I swore up and down that my anger was a righteous one. Many Americans shared my belief that he had a right to be angry about how he and his community were attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
What I didn’t understand then–and what many Americans don’t understand to this day–was his natural capacity to offer amnesty to his adversaries. That was the thing that made John Lewis a man whose mere presence demanded reverence. At the time, I did not understand the power of his unwavering ability to show forgiveness and compassion, even to those who showed wickedness.
It wasn’t that class that taught me to see it.
When the documentary film ended, a student flicked the light switch upward, blinding some of the students who had fallen asleep during the documentary. Some of them yawned, slowly pulling their bodies skyward from their desks while stretching their arms towards the ceiling tiles and then rubbing their eyes.
The teacher walked to the VCR and ejected the videotape.
No discussion took place after the film. No writing assignment was due later, asking for our reflections. No one asked if the other only Black student in the classroom and I were OK. We never even discussed the plain fact that the reason for all that bloodshed was due to racial hostility toward Blacks, for having the audacity and ambition to seek the vote—what a missed opportunity.
The only sound within the four corners of that room was the sound of the school bell ringing in our ears to end the class. Our teacher never explained the strategy behind John Lewis’s non-violent approach. That caused the lesson’s essence to be lost to a sea of noisy footsteps walking out the door.
That day, I never learned my White peers’ thoughts or feelings about what happened on that bridge. Neither they nor the teacher sought our Black opinions. In fact, my teacher never informed us that the young college student who had received a beating in Selma, who had actually helped organize the march, transformed his physical and emotional pain into progress by becoming a U.S. Congressman.
That day, I only felt that White people were the victors, and Black people, the victims. The other Black student and I were entirely ignored, which was later underscored at lunch. White students sat with their White friends; Charity and I sat with only Black students.
The Black friend zone and Black lunch table had become the only safe space at that suburban school, where I never saw a Black educator. The only Black kids adopted and praised by the majority-White school culture were the ones who helped them win athletic championships. As if purchased from an 18th-century auction block, their Black teenage bodies were the school’s commodity.
Charity and I are still in contact to this day. When John Lewis passed over the summer, I thought of her. I thought about how I had been mis-educated, and how I was unable to protect her and the integrity of our shared history in that classroom that day. Back then, I was a teenager who was afraid of stepping out of bounds, too afraid to appear different. I was traumatized by the entire debacle and too scared to speak up about it with the one person in the room charged with explaining it: my teacher. I didn’t want to come off as difficult nor did I want to cause any ‘trouble.’ But I was already different; I was the Black kid in the classroom, and so was Charity.
The Eurocentric education system has never reared Black kids to question White historical narratives, White leaders, nor the present systems of White supremacy. In retrospect, the only lesson achieved that day was a classroom full of students watching Black people get their asses kicked in black-and-white film footage.
I was too young to have a clue regarding the insidiousness of what had occurred. I was a teen, unable to critically think my way through the fogginess of their seemingly disinterested cultural heritage. That kind of needed double-consciousness has been and continues to be my people’s Black reality, our living nightmare.
The r-word, racism, never came up. That word had already shaped my life negatively and was still doing so. Previously, I had merely “escaped” just another majority-Black inner-city failing school. Here, somehow I had landed in what I thought was paradise: their majority White world. I arrived unprepared and multiple grade levels behind. And for that, I was criticized, branded by centuries of racist propaganda so deep in their psyche there was no way to persuade any of them, but that I was the dumb Black kid, who was lazy and intellectually inferior. My and the other Black students’ annual test scores seemingly-confirmed their people’s historical hypothesis, as most of us Black students were academically behind and rarely ever invited or seen in advanced classes.
To this day, I don’t believe the racialized systemic forces that shaped my unpreparedness ever crossed the minds of my White classmates, nor the mind of that teacher.
She never thought to teach us the tremendous sacrifice that people like John Lewis made for Charity and me to have access to better education and attending classes with our white peers. That would have been too real, too close to home.
My teacher had simply played a video that soon would be ejected from the memories of most of the students by the end of class.
Our Black American, iconic cultural giant, John Lewis, his community, and the journey to Black voters’ rights had been minimized to a blip, a small, irrelevant checkmark on our educational journey. It would never even be formed into a question and asked on a standardized test.
Perhaps she thought it sufficed.
The underdeveloped history lesson should have been fashioned to bring our cultures together. The lack of consciousness shown by both my unsympathetic or ill-trained teacher and a district that, at the time, was too afraid to address the historical truth in that classroom, that racism shaped everyone — from the students to the teacher — led to a missed opportunity toward racial healing.
Whether because of White fears of honest discussions about race and power in U.S. history or because Black lives simply did not matter enough for a thorough history lesson on civil rights, we were never given the whole history that day. And I know Charity and I weren’t alone in our thoughts; we, and every student in that classroom, deserved better.
Today, we hardly think about how our nation’s past prolongs today’s injustices in and out of the classroom — that negative mental impression marked and left in every Black kid’s forehead who passes through its stubbornly, seemingly unchanged public educational system.
It is my belief that missed opportunities such as my history class experience are why people are marching half a century after Selma and after the death of the honorable John Lewis.
May God rest his precious soul, and may this evil pandemic and the racial inequality it reveals be the pain we as a nation shape into an urgent equitable racial justice plan that’s seen to its end in 2021.