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Why Civil Rights?

March 12, 2009

Yesterday, we had a “Civil Rights” assembly at school. The whole school, in a circle, sharing short research papers about various civil rights leaders.

And the kids were antsy. They were bored. They complained. They didn’t want to read. They hated the research. They didn’t listen to anything.

And it killed me. While my co-worker tried to lead a short discussion on the “importance of Civil Rights,” nobody had anything to say. They didn’t care. They chatted amongst each other, cracking jokes. One kid answered her phone in the middle of it.

And I just watched it all. Tried to quiet kids. But it slowly suffocated my soul. Kids that are so directly affected by the fight for rights by race, or class, or gender in this country – so completely bored and disconnected from the topic.

And so I finally had to say something. Right when our principal was about to just cut the whole thing off to minimize the damage already done, I spoke out. I told them, flat out, “My mom had bricks thrown through her windows when she was your age because of her race. People thought she was Japanese, so they threw bricks through her windows at home. That didn’t happen to me as a kid, because some people stood up. But I am still dealing with other racist actions, so now it is up to me to stand up, for my kids’ sakes.”

And, suddenly, the kids were with me. I went on – for a bit – about the present-tense of Civil Rights and how all the injustice and unfair things they suffer right now is only going to be improved by folks who stand up. Not just three or four token “Civil Rights Leaders,” but en masse. And a discussion started. The kids engaged.

Now, I’m not going to say everything was “saved” and everybody learned a valuable lesson. But the whole mood shifted, and I could see the kids starting to see something. So much left unsaid. But it was a beginning. And I’m itching to continue it.

And so, tonight, I had to just sit down and write. I intend to share this with the kids tomorrow. It’s not polished. I didn’t edit it. No clever rhyme-schemes like I usually employ. But, sometimes, raw feels just fine.* So, some words by CVT:

The kids rolled their eyes and complained – ‘Why Civil Rights?’
And I was shocked into silence
‘Why do we have to learn about Civil Rights?’
Like it was a single set of facts that had to be painfully memorized
‘Why Civil Rights?’

I almost cried with frustration
But – instead – I chose to REPLY:

“Why do we have to learn about Civil Rights?
Might as well ask why we have to learn how to breathe
Because without rights – like air – you’d live a short life on your knees
Wheezing, gasping, choking – letting your ‘superiors’ keep you there
Accepting injustice because ‘that’s just how it is.’

Why Civil Rights?
Because my mom had rocks thrown at her due to the slant of her eyes.
Why Civil Rights?
Because our grandparents were alive when mobs lynching black people ‘just happened.’
Why Civil Rights?
Because without unions, poor trade workers were poisoned on the job.
Why Civil Rights?
Because our great-grandmothers – of any race – couldn’t choose their president.

But that’s past, right?
All those problems have been ‘fixed’ now
By those four Civil Rights leaders you’ve heard of – who happen to be dead
So stop living in the past

And so I will, and I do, and so I will tell you:
Why Civil Rights?
Because an unarmed black man, lying on the ground, submitting to arrest, was shot in the back by a police officer days before Obama’s inauguration.
Why?
Because this country – built by colonizers and immigrants – patrols its borders with guns to keep Mexican immigrants from crossing ‘illegally.’
Why?
Because being poor means you can’t afford to sue your employer when you’re fired for being too sick to work – from the cough the factory smoke put in your lungs.
Why?
Because we can call a U.S. citizen an ‘enemy combatant’ and lock them away without trial.
Why?
Because we can let the education system heap advantages on the already-rich
Letting a budget-crisis close schools in the less-wealthy part of town
While spending a trillion dollars on defense each year.
Why?
Because 25% of the homeless in this country are the same veterans that we ‘support’ – while they’re abroad.
Why?
Because – in most states – you are not human enough to love and marry if you’re not straight.

Why Civil Rights?
Because you have been marked
By your race, or gender, or religion

You have been marked
By your poverty, or sexuality, or disability

You have been marked
For unjust treatment throughout your life
For powerlessness at the hands of those deemed ‘more capable’
For fear, and frustration, and anger when what you were born to limits your opportunities

You have been marked
For all of these things – and more
Until you understand that Civil Rights is not dead, perfect leaders from the past
That Civil Rights is not a few random dates and facts
It did not happen
It is happening
Always occurring
Ever-evolving
Sometimes progressing

But only for and by those who hear the question: ‘Why Civil Rights?’

And respond –
Because they’re mine.”

*Mental note, this isn’t “poetry,” but meant to be performed, spoken-word and all that . . .

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7 comments

  1. This is great. Your spoken word piece was spot on. It is good for those kids that they have an anti-racist advocate like you at their school.


  2. Awesome!


  3. This is fantastic — brought a tear to my eye, and made my want to pump my fist. I wish there were more teachers like you in the public school system.


  4. Thank you CVT, thank you. I only wish I could see you perform this piece, see your students respond, and be a fly on the wall in the ensuing discussion.


  5. WIIFM (what’s in it for me).
    Most kids can only relate when they can see how something relates to their own circumstance.


  6. How’d the sharing go?


  7. Thanks for the love, everyone. Whenever I end up recording that, I’ll link it up here for you all to access.

    Soude- I’m sad to say that the opportunity didn’t arise to share it with the kids on Friday (and now we’re on Spring Break), but I will definitely perform it for the kids, and I will write all about it when I do.

    Uglyblackjohn – Exactly. That’s all teaching kids is about – relating it to them, helping them buy in, so they want me to tell them more. I can’t wait to keep this one going.



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