One of the threads weaving its way through my Multicultural American Literature course this semester focuses on the importance of knowing our history, the good and the bad. This thread appears in Lila Quintero Weaver’s Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White at the very beginning of the text and moves throughout. I’ve written some about this before, specifically when Weaver details the Know Alabama textbook that she and other student used during her schooling in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today, I want to expand that discussion some by looking at other moments in Darkroom where Weaver points out that we need to know our history because if we don’t we will not move forward. We will remain stagnant or begin to regress.
The image of regression appears from the outset in the prologue, “Home Movies.” Here, Weaver and her family sit around and watch home movies that her father made. However, instead of watching them from start to finish they view the from finish to start. They see a snow ball returning to the hand of the thrower. They see a dog filling in a hole a ground. They see marchers marching backwards from the Perry County Courthouse to Zion United Methodist Church in 1965. Here, Weaver depicts a frame from the film and focuses on the feet of the marchers as they move backwards. She asks, “It was funny, how could anybody know where they were going without ever looking back?” Weaver’s question gets to the heart of why we must know about our past. As Frederick Douglass said in What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future.”
Thanks to her sister Ginny’s books, Weaver realizes that her schooling fails to present her and the other students with the facts about history, or even present them with a wide breadth of historical knowledge. As Weaver questions what’s occurring around her, and her mother tells her she’ll “explain later,” Weaver picks up some of her sister’s books and begins to read. Ginny has books such as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Richard Wright’s Native Son, John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, McKinley’s Mengele the Beast of Auschwitz, and more on her shelf. These books, as Weaver puts it, “filled out [her] education.”
In one panel, Weaver reads Mengele the Beast of Auschwitz in bed as words and phrases such as “Zyklon-B,” “Gestapo,” “lampshades,” and more swirl around her. Light emanates from the book and Weaver stares at the pages with a look of surprise on her face. Even though Weaver does not discuss the Holocaust in Darkroom, this panel highlights that even twenty years following the war she did not learn about the atrocities of the Nazis in school. Rather, she had to fill in the gaps herself. As well, she did not learn about the South’s influence on the Nazis, bringing into focus the need for a full understanding of history in order to keep us from moving backwards.
After reading about the Holocaust, Weaver pulls Griffin’s Black Like Me from the shelf, and Griffin’s experiences open her eyes to the world around her. Instead of remaining oblivious to the racial segregation and disparities, as she does early on, she starts to see how the society in which she lives segregates individuals. She learns, and she opens up. She recognizes her place within an oppressive system, and she chooses to continue educating herself, learning more in order to work to change the system. While she does this, though, others buy into the lessons taught in Know Alabama, lessons that present the Lost Cause narrative of contented enslaved individuals and of Northern aggression and oppression during the war and Reconstruction.
Others might not read books like Black Like Me, Native Son, or others. They may not know about them. They may not have easy access to them. Instead, they read the history books that continue to reinforce white supremacy, not questioning them but taking them as facts. In Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy, Elizabeth Gillespie McRae details the ways that white women worked to control education and used it as a means of upholding white supremacy through the promotion of American exceptionalism and patriotic education. McRae notes that a Mississippi Educational Association (MEA) study from 1938 “found that a student who mastered all the textbooks provided from elementary through secondary school could in all likelihood never meet in his or her reading one black person who had contributed in a significant way to the nation’s development.” Thirty years laters, Weaver’s experience in Alabama would be similar.
The MEA conducted the study in order to see what effects the textbooks had on students, and this study arose from an incident where “a white high school boy proudly recounted to his teacher how he had punched a black girl who had not stepped off the sidewalk for him.” This lead the student’s teacher to wonder whether or not the student’s “schooling might have contributed to this poor behavior” and the boy not seeing the girl as a human being. We know that the lack of engagement with various voices played a role in the student’s actions. Research shows the importance of providing students with a multitude of voices.
All of this makes me think about today and the barrage of calls to stop the teaching of “divisive concepts,” concepts that tell the truth, both good and bad, of our history and provide students with voices of individuals whose perspectives and experiences differ from their own. We have individuals, including the former president, telling people that they must be ready to “lay down their lives” in the fight against CRT and “divisive concepts” because they must preserve “America.”
We know the importance of history. We know the importance of diverse voices. We know the importance of exposing children to the stories and experiences of individuals who differ from their own. We know that these things foster empathy. These things foster compassion. These things foster a critical engagement with the world that will lead us forward, not backward. They will reverse the film, presenting the marchers going from Mount Zion United Methodist Church to the Perry County Courthouse, moving the world forward towards the Beloved Community.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham