1.31.12 I have a distinct memory of being a 14-year-old boy in 1989 watching an MTV video for the Public Enemy song “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” and having my father sit down next to me. I didn’t change the channel, because for some reason I wanted him to see it. He grew up in north Alabama in the ‘50s and eventually worked as a press secretary for a prominent Democratic member of Congress. When the video was over, he looked at me like the ground had ripped open between us and said something like, “Tough stuff.”
We’ve been talking about race in this paper a lot recently, in part because the city is mulling over a recommendation to create a department to oversee civil rights issues and in part because it’s Black History Month in a 250th anniversary year. This week’s feature is about Thomas Jefferson and slavery, a story people think they know already, but don’t really. The kids I grew up with are doctors, lawyers, bankers, and professors, and I bet most of them still know the lyrics to their first LL Cool J song. We grew up in Washington, D.C., during the War on Drugs and learned about the Triangle Trade and the Underground Railroad during the same day of history class. We spent two weeks on the Federalist Papers.
The past is important to the future. As a poster child for “Stuff White People Like,” I can’t help quoting Bob Marley: “You can’t forget your history, nor your destiny. In the abundance of water, the fool is thirsty.” We’ve come a really long way on race as a country, but we have many miles to go. We have equality but not equity. We aren’t segregated, but we’re not integrated either. In Tucson, the school district is fighting about what version of history it teaches its Mexican-American students.
This conversation, here and there, is not about handouts, hand ups, or policies of protection. It’s about how we tell the truth and how we share it. Drink up.–Giles Morris