I couldn’t stop myself. I gobbled up the rest of those episodes in half a day.
I know who Medgar Evers was now. That’s something. I have also just consumed such a rich bunch of delicious and devastating history that my brain can’t quite cope. I suppose it would be more accurate to say I have a sense of who Medgar Evers was now. I know what kind of a figure he was, what sort of activism he was most involved in, and I can picture his wife telling the story of the night he died. I couldn’t tell you which organization he was part of, though. I couldn’t tell you what state he lived in or in what year he was killed. I wouldn’t pass a test. Over dinner tonight, as I tried to talk about what I learned from Eyes on the Prize, I could give only impressions. My emotional responses. The general ideas I have now about what forces were at work.
For what it’s worth, this is typical of me. I frequently forget facts most people find important. I remember some moments and forget others without regard to how much I cared about them at the time. I’ve lost entire conversations with people I love deeply, but kept track of instants no one else found significant. I have no idea what happened in Song of Solomon— I don’t even remember who Milkman was– but I remember when Milkman flew.
So: I don’t know what I will be able to say a month from now I learned from Eyes on the Prize. I have some impressions, but I suspect most of the facts will be gone from my recollection soon.
I know SNCC and the SCLC found themselves opposed to each other often. I know the young leadership of SNCC wanted to build a more sustainable movement with local leadership, and did not always love having King come to town. Stokely Carmichael, wearing an orange sweatshirt I at first found disorienting– is he in prison?– said right at the end of the final episode that the foundations for the Black Panther Party were laid in the second county the marchers crossed when they were finally able to walk from Selma to Montgomery. What does that mean? I need to learn more about that.
I know Sheriff Clark of Selma, Alabama couldn’t put a cap on his hatred. It came out in the violent little movements of his body when he pushed protestors off the sidewalk.
I know many more Black women were vocally involved in this whole movement than are talked about today. Reading about the Civil Rights Movement in history books could give a person the impression that young Black men did this, with maybe one or two extraordinary women. But women were all over this footage. Women were organizing, speaking, and marching every which way. Why had I never heard of Fannie Lou Hamer? Or, to ask a more fair question given the nature of my memory: why can I picture Black men marching and speaking and hear Black male voices ringing through the ages, but not picture Black women in those same contexts without actively trying? Is that some sort of internalized misogyny that I should tackle after Project Poetry? Or is there something wrong with the way this history is told?
I was also struck by the way in which Black history (as taught in schools) is divorced from other history in the United States. I know this intellectually, but I was still struck when Ross Barnett, the Governor of Mississippi, complained about the student volunteers who came into the state during the Freedom Summer to register voters and teach children and do other great things in the name of civil rights. His stated complaints were (1) they were outsiders with no respect for the culture and customs of Mississippi, and (2) they were acting like hippies, which made them no one he wanted to emulate.
And I thought, hippies? I had this moment of dissonance.
But yes. Hippies. The 60s I hear about from white people, whose salient characteristics are free love and fun drugs, are the same 60s in which Black Americans were boycotting stores in downtown Nashville and Freedom Riders were being beaten in Birmingham. Why is this not obvious to me? Why do I see Black history as something disembodied from the rest of American history? I’ve always been instructed that Black history is important. I’m just not sure I’ve been instructed that Black history is history, and that it is all inextricable: Black history, white history, Jewish history, Native history. I have a mental image of chapters in textbooks that might be titled, The 1900s, with a separate heading somewhere underneath for Black Life in the 1900s. I think of them somehow as completely separate things. There is history, and there is Black history. That’s racist as hell.
I’m not arguing for the end of Black History Month. If our education system sucks at integrating Black history with “regular” history, and it does, then Black history should absolutely get its own mentions. I guess I just think our education system should suck less. (Understand, please, that I am not blaming this exclusively on teachers. I am a teacher. We don’t have much control over what we teach. Who gets to write textbooks and who gets elected to school boards matter at least as much as who gets paid a third of their worth to stand in front of children and say what they’re hired to say.)
We’ve wandered dangerously close to journal territory now. For the sake of the perhaps three people who read this this, I will stop until I’ve gotten ahold of myself. By which I mean gotten some sleep.
Final thoughts: Eyes on the Prize is worth it, and I still probably couldn’t pass a test about anything I saw.