We have just returned from a 32-hour trip to OKC. I left Roots in Tulsa, both because I knew there would not be time to read and to allow myself a brief reprieve. I have, however, continued mulling the story. . .and the comment to my previous blog. . .over in my mind. Why do I read this stuff? In the case of Native Son, I did not realize what I was getting into until it was too late. If I had it to do over, I do not know if I would read it again. In the current case, although I have not yet finished the book, I would. I would readily read it again. I would readily teach it in a class. I would readily share it, albeit not with just anyone. Why? Although Roots is a novel, it is based upon historical events. It is not gratuitous sensationalizing. These things really did happen. People really did--and do--treat people this way. I do not want to forget. I do not want our culture, our children to forget. Someone must remember if we are to resist repetition.
It may be argued that we can remember the facts without the graphic details, but I must disagree. While I would not consider myself an intellectual, I am an educated person. I know the basic historical facts of the Atlantic slave trade, of American slavery, of World War II, of Vietnam, and of other horrors in history. Yet they are not real to me until I have some personal experience with them. With World War II, it was the grandfather of a Jewish classmate who came to school to share about his time in a Nazi concentration camp. I remember the number tatooed on his arm, his inability to restrain the tears as he related his experience, his grave demand for quiet, for respect. For the evils of slavery and racial discrimination, it is, in part, books such as this. I am an avid and vivid reader--avid in that I can read almost anything, vivid in that what I read becomes very real in my imagination. It becomes a part of me. The horror and ugliness of treating another human as an animal is now a part of me. Yes, I hated slavery before. I have fought back tears when discussing subjects related to racial discrimination with my students, because it is so odious to me. Now, there will be a new passion in my voice, because I have had what is, for me, a very personal brush with slavery. I have come as near to a first-hand experience as I hope I ever do. I may not be able to hold back the tears the next time we discuss America's past in my classroom. Students may see me cry. And that is okay. Somebody needs to care enough to cry, even for sins that were committed 200 years ago. Our nation is still suffering for those sins. There is no magic solution to make them go away, but there is the hope of continued repentance and rebirth.
I do not think everyone should read such books. There are too many books for everyone to read them all. We must, to some degree, accept a differentiation of tasks and skills. For some, remembering is a task; remembering evils of the past to fight them in the present. Fighting racial bias, racial prejudice, racial ignorance is a task that I accept with gravity, but also with some anticipation. I delight in the particolored beauty that rises out of such motley ashes; it is for that joy that I wished to teach where I do. What might my beautifully diverse students say to see a white teacher cry for our ancestors? Would it make a difference to some, to one? Would it impress upon a single youth the need to remember, to repent, to reach higher?