“When was this book written?” I looked up from my well-worn copy of Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly, and answered, “1998.” It was a question I had been predicting, as it gets asked nearly every time I share the book with my students. I had been reading a scene in which Miah (whose full name is Jeremiah), a 15-year-old black teenager, is reminiscing about a time when he was about 10 and took off running down Madison Avenue. “When his father caught up to him, he grabbed Miah’s shoulder. Don’t you ever run in a white neighborhood, he’d whispered fiercely, tears in his eyes. Then he had pulled Miah to him and held him. Ever.” (p.143)
One of the students had just asked, sounding genuinely perplexed, “Why not?” and another one had immediately answered, “Because someone might think he stole something.” “Just because he’s black?” A tilt of the head, a raised eyebrow, and pressed lips communicated the second student’s response. It was in the ensuing silence that I was asked when the book was written.
It’s odd to think of a book only 12-13 years old as historical fiction, but every year going back to 2007 when I first read it to my Humanities 7 class, there are students who take that perspective, who observe at moments like this, “But things have changed.” Usually, I follow up by asking a series of questions to get the students to examine how much things have changed and in what ways. This year, one of the students did the job for me by simply responding dryly to the above observation, “You think?”
The class erupted in a series of examples of people who proclaim they are not prejudiced but whose actions prove otherwise. One student’s plaintive cry, “But all Muslims aren’t terrorists!” expressed the frustration that all of them were feeling. Okay, they were thinking, the world might be like this, but it needn’t be. As the discussion began to diffuse and subside, I steered them back to the main point and back to the book. “It’s interesting,” I said, “that the book itself perfectly mirrors the discussion you all just had. So Miah had just been remembering his father telling him never to run in white neighborhoods, and their conversation goes like this…” “‘Times are different, Daddy,’ Miah said now. / ‘Not that different.’ / He knew his father was right.” (p.143)
Later on in the book, Miah and his girlfriend Ellie, who is white, begin to talk about meeting each other’s families. It goes well when Ellie meets Miah’s mother: “Nelia took Ellie’s hand and placed her other one over it. She held it a moment. Jeremiah smiled. He loved his mama – so, so much.” (p.160) However, Ellie is concerned about her parents’ reaction. “I used to think my family would accept anybody. No matter what color they were. I’m not so sure now.” (p.163) Her love for and trust in Jeremiah were so deep she was able to confront the far scarier part: “If they have it in them, to not like somebody because of their color – then I might have it in me.” (p.164) Rather than responding with empty reassurance or platitudes, Miah acknowledged, “I get scared of that, too. About myself.” He described a situation when two ignorant, elderly white women assumed for no good reason that Ellie was in danger from him, and went on to say, “Times like that, I hate white people. Then I have to ask myself, How can I hate white people and love you? And I don’t know how to answer that.” (p.164)
Whatever lies within us, it is the choices we make that determine who we are. This may be why so many people were ready to proclaim that we were living in a “post-racial” era when Barack Obama was elected. After all, if the country was willing to elect a black president, wasn’t anything possible? Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Just ask Allan Gribben, whose recent announcement of his intent to publish an edition of Huckleberry Finn that replaces all instances of the n-word with the word “slave” has stirred enormous controversy.
Or better yet, ask José Vilson of Teacher Leaders Network, whose blog entry “Huckleberry Finn and why Post-Racialists Get The Race Thing Wrong Again” examines the controversy. In his introduction, Mr. Vilson comments, “Of the 100 things on our list that need improvement in this country for racial relations, you chose THAT?!” Later on in the blog, after pointing out “Once we try and erase a history, we beg our society to repeat the mistakes of the past,” he explains further why he would advocate for leaving the book as written: “Because, when used in the book, it’s a harsh reminder to our communities that the word primarily ostracizes on a structural level. If we can’t have those discussions in earnest, then maybe we need a re-read of Huckleberry Finn. Maybe it’ll push us to keep having these discussions and stop acting like they never happened.”
147 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, 47 years after Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and two years after Barack Obama was elected, we still have a lot of work to do. Books like If You Come Softly and To Kill a Mockingbird can serve as a jumping-off point for discussion, as can units like the recent “How does power affect the types, targets, and results of prejudice?” Ultimately, though, it has to be an ongoing process. Part of being our own best selves, then, is acknowledging and confronting our common and individual history, and furthermore acknowledging when we ourselves are not at our best, confronting this truth, and doing what we can to make things right.
– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean