When I teach the first semester of Freshman Composition, I usually assign a particular reading to my students--one dealing with the question of public space, what it is, how it can be altered, and who alters it. The revelation-turned-argument the author, an African-American writer, makes is that black males have the power--whether they want it or not--of altering public space wherever they go, regardless of who they really are and by virtue only of the color of their skin.
My students' reactions to the author's revelation are always divided into two categories:
1) the well...DUH! reaction
2) WOW reaction
Most students fall into the second category--at first. Then as we discuss public space they begin to remember moments when they too altered public space just because they are black; moments long forgotten, or brushed aside as inconsequential, swept under the rug, or ignored because they are always uncomfortable to confront. Because when you confront the unpleasant--the unpalatable--no matter which side you fall on, you confront an ugliness no one wants to see, or own.
I thought about public space quite a bit when we were walking around Colonial Williamsburg. You can't help BUT think about it when you are surrounded by people dressed in period costumes, challenging you at every corner to set aside, for even a few moments, who you are and where you came from. I love being in an environment where you can suspend your disbelief, and your sense of what the world is supposed to look like; where people walk around dressed out of history books, and you walk around feeling as if you'd stepped into a play. But let's face it, the history that makes up the colorful and fascinating tableau of Colonial Williamsburg can also mask a history of exclusion; it's a history that very much belongs to white males, and a history built upon oppression and enslavement. It's also difficult to walk through the site without being confronted by this fact--and this is a good thing, I think.
On Friday afternoon we sat with the kids in the area outside the old capitol building, surrounded by a crowd of visitors, young and old, and waiting for a re-enactment of the reading of the Declaration of Independence. Several "interpreters" (as the costumed re-enactors are called) dressed as working-class colonists milled around, discussing in loud voices to each other what independence meant.
There was much excitement in the air--it was hard to miss, even among those visitors who were more obviously rooted in the 21st century, like the man with the bluetooth device still hooked to his ear.
Before long a black man carrying a tool box and wearing the long pants and raggedy shirt of a slave joined the discussion, after first telling the onlookers loudly that his master had given him permission to listen to the reading.
"What's this independence people are talking about?" He asked of all of us visitors awaiting the big declaration.
"What's it mean?"
He turned to different people, the question hanging in the air, unanswered.
"I like the sound of this independence," he continued. Then he pumped his fist into the air, to encourage excitement. "I like this independence!"
A few visitors cheered with him, but there was an unmistakable sense of discomfort creeping into the air.
He turned to the few who had cheered. "Does this mean I'm free? Does this mean I get to leave and find my wife and boy?"
Some people looked away, their attention drawn to the soldiers on horseback who were approaching the capitol building gates. At that moment the Declaration of Independence was read, and all attention was focused on the front of the building. When it was over, the black man appeared again, shuffling into the crowd of visitors, his toolbox in one hand.
"Hey!" He shouted, at no one in particular. "They're telling me this independence business doesn't include me! Is this right?"
Then people turned away--not out of rudeness, but out of discomfort; they reacted the way we all tend to react when someone has challenged our sense of public space--what it is, and who we are when we are occupying it. I think our adult instincts are to turn away from what is most uncomfortable, what is unfair, what is unpleasant, and most people did.
"That's not fair!" the interpreter continued. "That's not fair!"
But what I did notice was that the children in the space around the black man did not turn away; instead, they stared at him, confused and questioning, looking for an explanation as to why this wasn't fair. That was the teaching moment, I think; the moment parents needed to seize in order to teach their children not just about history, but about the right responses to it; that when our sense of the world is challenged in public space discomfort is okay and normal, but it's what we do with it that counts. Do we sweep unpleasant facts under the rug? Do we teach them that it's okay to walk away from racial injustice? Do we teach our kids to turn away from difference?
Or, do we kneel down in front of our kids, pull them close, and say to them, this is what independence should mean, this is what equality is, this is what we must always remember.