In 2011, Rosa Parks was in the news, six years after her death. An excerpt from a breathtaking essay she wrote in the 1950s about a “near rape” by a white man in Alabama was released to the public. The handwritten narrative detailed Parks' steely resistance to a white man, “Mr. Charlie," who attempted to assault her in 1931 while she was working as a domestic for a white family.I wonder how many readers of the above story at CNN, that are not privy to black vernacular speech, are wondering who "Mr. Charlie" is?
It was late evening when “Mr. Charlie” pushed his way into the house and tried to have sex with her. Having grown up in the segregated South, she knew all too well the special vulnerabilities black women faced. She recalled, for example, how her great-grandmother, a slave, had been “mistreated and abused” by her white master.
Despite her fear, she refused to let the same thing happen to her. “I knew that no matter what happened,” she wrote, “I would never yield to this white man’s bestiality.” "I was ready to die,” she said, “but give my consent, never. Never, never." Parks was absolutely defiant: “If he wanted to kill me and rape a dead body,” she said, “he was welcome, but he would have to kill me first.”
Does that sound like the Rosa Parks we know?
There are lies, necessary lies, noble lies, and big lies. Sometimes lies are told with the best of intentions. At other times, lies are pernicious both in intent and consequence. At times, entire peoples believe a lie. It motivates their sense of national identity, citizenship, and purpose: American exceptionalism is one such example.
Myths are a type of lie that can combine all of the above traits. For example, the debate around Spielberg's Lincoln (which merits further discussion this week) involves a myth surrounding a legendary president, the agency of black people in seeking their own freedom, and how various public(s) are invested in the white savior narrative.
Myths should be debunked when we are adults and mature critical thinkers. To point. CNN has a short piece on elder goddess Sister Rosa Parks that pulls aside the curtain of lies surrounding her legacy, and exposes the facile story we tell little children and naive lay people about Parks' tired feet and a public bus.
In all, the Rosa Parks fable is the Santa Claus story of the Civil Rights Movement. Just as with Lincoln, the real story of the Black Freedom Struggle and activists such as Parks, King, Rustin, Randolph, Williams, and many others involves people making choices--to participate or not--in a grand struggle for justice.
Here, Black agency matters. Black agency also scares and upsets people on both sides of the colorline.
A fun anecdote.
Some years ago I was teaching a course on Political Mobilization. I casually mocked the silly story we tell about Rosa Parks where she is an "old lady" (apparently aged beyond all imagination in her mid thirties) who was so tired "she wouldn't get up no more for a white man." I pointed out how Parks was chosen for this action, how she was one of many arrested for similar "crimes," and was an activist with the local branch of the NAACP.
Moreover, I pointed out how Parks was selected for this high profile event because unlike Claudette Colvin, who was also arrested for not giving up her bus seat according to the rules of Jim and Jane Crow, the former was not a pregnant soon to be teen mother. Consequently, Parks fit fully within the approved narrative offered by the politics of black respectability.
A young black woman in my class then began yelling, calling me names, and ran out of the class hysterical because I had insulted her hero. After asking her to grow up and act her age, I tried to explain that histories of Peoples Movements that highlight choice, agency, strategy, and personal risk against State authority are far more accurate and enriching than the silly things we tell kids during Black History Month. Alas, the lie was more compelling to this young woman than the truth.
The real Rosa Parks was a fascinating and strong person of great character. This passage is particularly revealing because it locates her in the context of larger movement--one with real breathing living struggling defiant people as opposed to one dimensional cutouts fit for a wax museum:
Sylvester Edwards was a fan of the Jamaican-born black nationalist, Marcus Garvey, and delighted young Rosa with stories of Garvey’s greatness. She was especially proud of her grandfather’s willingness to defend himself and his family from the daily terror of the Ku Klux Klan in Pine Level, Alabama.As the real Rosa Parks becomes more familiar to the general public, I am left wondering if circumstances made the woman or if there is something intangible, not easily reproducible, and part of her core being that forced Parks to greatness?
“Whatever happened,” she said, “I wanted to see it … I wanted to see him shoot that gun. I wasn’t going to be caught asleep.” This spirit of defense and defiance, she said later, “had been passed down almost in our genes' that a proud African-American can not accept "bad treatment from anybody.”
In the 1930s, Rosa Parks joined her husband Raymond and others in secret meetings to defend the Scottsboro boys—nine young African-American men accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. In the 1940s, they hosted Voter League meetings, where they encouraged neighbors to register even though it was a dangerous task. In 1943, she joined the Montgomery NAACP and was elected branch secretary. The job required Parks to investigate and document acts of racist and sexist brutality...
She was an ardent fan of Malcolm X and Robert F. Williams, a militant NAACP leader from North Carolina who advocated “armed self-reliance.” She admired Williams so much that she delivered the eulogy at his funeral in 1996.
Is the personal steel of her (and others') brand of Black Agency in decline, dead, and gone? Or if circumstances demand it, is our society still capable of producing elder gods and goddesses such as Sister Parks? Has freedom, and a type of postmodern comforting Power that is more rewarding and co-opting than punitive, made us all a bit weak?