MLK Day and The Back of the Bus

I was born and raised in Detroit. Although my greatest wish growing up was to leave Detroit and never come back, I now look back and think what a gift it was to live there at the beginning of my life.

Detroit was, and still is, a big melting pot.The schools I went to were about 30-50% white (although a large portion of those were Jewish) and 50-70% black, Arabic and Indian (depending on which school and which year).  I thought that all of us got a long really well (although I’m white so I’m the last person who would know if any minorities felt prejudged).

As a child we learned about civil rights but there didn’t seem to be the emphasis on it like there is today.  I remember one year when I was 9 or 10 years old and it was the first time we had had a really big discussion about racial inequality. Or at least the first year that I had actually thought much about it. The teacher started by saying that in the old days blacks had to sit on the back of the bus.  My only experience riding a bus was the school bus, and by far the coolest and most awesome place to sit on the bus was in the back; only the Fifth Graders got to sit there; the highest ranking Fifth Graders were in the very last row.  So when the teachers told us that the blacks had to sit in the back of the bus, I simply did not understand the problem.  Perhaps the white people were too stupid to know that the back of the bus was for the cool people. Or maybe the black people didn’t know that they had actually lucked out. Kind of like your parents punishing you by making you watch TV all night. I simply didn’t understand why people said there was a  problem. As is usually the case when I’m faced with a deep and profound issue, I completely missed the point.

And when the teacher told us there were separate drinking fountains for whites and blacks,  I thought that was the most far-fetched idea I had ever heard. Obviously something like that wouldn’t be true because why wouldn’t blacks and whites be allowed to use the same drinking fountain? We all used the same drinking fountains at school and nobody had ever said anything was wrong with that.

So I simply wrote all this off as my teacher being completely misinformed.

Now that I’m grown up and know that the issue wasn’t about which part of the bus was cool or not, I don’t know whether to look at young me and be proud that I thought that prejudice was a far-fetched notion, or horrified that I had no idea that racism was actually a large part of our nation’s history. Either way, I want to make sure that my kids understand that that sort of evil belief–that people are good or bad based solely on their color–is not an acceptable way of thinking.  I do remember eventually being proud that Rosa Parks, who started all the back-of-the-bus rebellion, got out of the South ASAP and moved instead to Detroit, where her life would be better.

My kids will sometimes ask hard questions that I don’t know the answer to: like York, at age 4, asking why all the moms watch the show about the tan lady. He meant Oprah. I didn’t know whether to say that she wasn’t tan but African-American. But wasn’t it good that he just thought of everyone as different shades of the same color?  I don’t  remember what I told him.  I still don’t know the right answer to his query. There are a lot of things that I don’t know about race, and I won’t ever really know, being a white person.  But I hope my kids will grown up to treat everyone equally well, whether they’re tan, pink, peach or brown.

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