The featured image is from the EJI Memorial. These jars are full of soil from lynching sites in the State of Alabama.
I have the great privilege to be on the current Advisory Board for Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance. Our first convening of the new board was last month and it took place at the Embassy Suites in Montgomery, Alabama. It was my first time to The South since I was 16. When I was a teenager, I traveled with my family to Missouri and Indiana to visit with my mom’s side of the family. Yes, I know that’s not technically The South, but I remember going to my grandfather’s birthplace, standing on the bank of the Ohio river, and looking across to Kentucky on the other side. That’s close enough to The South for me.
My dad, brothers, and I stood out as Mexican and mixed-race people. Our darker skin seemed to make many people uncomfortable, all of whom were blood relatives. After that visit, I vowed to never go back to The South and was apprehensive about what I might experience in Montgomery, especially considering the most recent stories of misogyny and racism in the era of Trumpism.
My passion for racial justice won out and I went to Montgomery, Alabama excited to meet and work with social justice educators from across the country. I was not disappointed by the talent and passion I met in that conference room. I met Dr. Stephanie Jones who is mapping out racial trauma in schools, particularly racial trauma caused by curriculum. I was so excited to learn about her work because it’s directly related to what I’m working on for my dissertation. I got to know Matilda Morrison who is working on LGBTQ topics for kinders in Ventura, California. I spent some time listening to stories told by Kevin Cordi who has a PhD in storytelling. How cool is that? I learned all about the coolest places to visit when I go to New York this winter from Geneviève DeBose Akinnagbe who teaches in Los Angeles. There are so many other people who are doing important work, and if you want to learn more about them, you can here.
Though I am going to be critical here, I want to start by saying Teaching Tolerance is a rich resource for anti-racist educators. I look forward to learning more about what they have to offer and how they are staying current with these problematic times. We need them, and I am committed to doing what I can to help them continue to be at the forefront on a national level in the fight against hate. Please take a moment to dig into their resources for educators.
HISTORY IN THE STREETS
The heat and humidity aren’t the only oppressive things in Montgomery. The history is oppressive. I don’t know if it was the eerily empty streets or the spirits of the past that hit a melancholy nerve as I walked the streets of Montgomery. I’m going to jump ahead in this story a bit to the Friday I spent in Montgomery. We had gone through all of our work as an advisory board and had Friday to explore on our own. Part of our experience with Teaching Tolerance included tickets to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
I had an idea of what I was in for at the museum and memorial, but I was not prepared for simply walking down the street. I started out walking down a street called Tallapaloosa and came to the first intersection where Commerce St. and Tallapaloosa met. To my left was this statue of Hank Williams, so I went to check it out and noticed the street led down to a river, so I headed that direction.
I learned from the placards that this is where enslaved Africans were brought to and from market and then later forced to load cotton bales onto boats for transport. I was expecting something along those lines, so at this point I was feeling adequately prepared to face history.
I walked back up Commerce Street and ended up in a place called The Alley where I was excited to find a Mexican Restaurant! I have this thing where I try to find Mexican food in each new place I visit. I had my lunch then headed back out onto Commerce to just go explore. Not even 100 yards in, I found this placard explaining how the buildings along Commerce St. served as warehouses for enslaved Africans waiting to be bought and sold.
Had I just had lunch in a building that was used to torture human beings? The idea was sickening. Nearly all of those buildings currently house various restaurants except for the space occupied by the EJI. Did the other patrons know what they were doing?
I kept walking toward the Rosa Parks museum. I didn’t go inside, but there was something surreal about standing in the spot she was arrested for unapologetically taking up space that was reserved for whiteness. At just about that moment, a thunderstorm rolled in out of nowhere, and giant water drops quickly drenched me. I wasn’t mad, though. It was hot before that!
I started back toward the EJI, and while I waited for a crossing light, a big, black pickup truck entered the intersection with a Stars and Bars license plate. I’m not used to seeing that in Seattle, and was startled, though I know I shouldn’t have been. On the way back I also passed a beautiful fountain that I later learned was where slave auctions were held.
By the time I made it back to the EJI, which was only a few blocks away, I was dripping wet and glad to be in out of the rain. I thought I was prepared for what I was going to experience. I wasn’t.
I don’t have pictures from inside the EJI because cameras are forbidden. I understand why. The emotional weight of that museum is overwhelming. People were openly sobbing, holding their children a little tighter. It was an interesting contrast sometimes; mothers and fathers with tears in their eyes as their toddlers ran around laughing and playing. If you’re hoping for a feel good, Civil Rights museum, EJI is not the place you’re looking for. You are confronted full force with the evils of whiteness. Images of torture, incarceration, murder, and the commodification of human beings are on full display. I couldn’t help but cry. Only people who have lost their humanity wouldn’t. I tried to hold myself together as much as possible because I felt selfish as a non-Black person taking op that space when there were far more Black families there grieving. I’m not surprised there weren’t many white people, but it’s still disheartening.
The EJI provides a shuttle to the monument about a mile away. I cannot even begin to describe how I felt walking through that monument.
Again, I tried to take up as little space as possible for the same reason. The monument consists of smaller monuments to the lynching victims of each county in The South. Some are marked “unknown.” When you first start out in the space, the individual monuments are at eye level, then, as you go around the square, the individual monuments begin to rise above you. When they are fully above your head it becomes a daunting, haunted space.
At eye level you are confronted with the “reasons” for lynchings, most of which are related to the innocence of white women.
As I turned the next corner and saw the monument to all of the undiscovered victims, I literally could not go on. I sat there for a long time quietly crying.
How can humans do this to other humans? It’s hard to even recount this here. In the center of this space, with the lynching monuments still above my head, was a glass container with layers of soil from various lynching sites in The South. All I could think about was how we have covered up this gruesome part of our past and it’s making a comeback because of our willful ignorance. There are reminders, but they’re too unsettling for many to look at. How do we make people look at this and truly see it for what it is – past and present?
Toward the end of the memorial are duplicate monuments. The curators of the museum have invited each of the counties to pick their respective monument up and display in remembrance of those who were lynched on their soil. So far, not one has been picked up. I went back to my hotel feeling – I don’t even know. Right now I vacillate between rage, despair, renewed energy to fight, and disgust. I’m sorry it took me so long to go back to The South and look this history in the eye. I return to Montgomery next summer for another advisory board summit, and I am ready to learn and see more.
WORK TO DO
Here, I’m going to backtrack to my experiences during the advisory board work. While there are many educators doing amazing things, there were some things that happened I didn’t expect. I should know better. I’ve been in enough social and racial justice spaces to see people who probably shouldn’t be there put their feet in their mouths. I probably said or did something that offended others in attendance, too. Sometimes I get excited and words just fall out of my mouth! We all need to do reflective work and own our mistakes. I have work to do.
There were several times, however, when I felt like it was more than the typical reflective work. I had a couple of moments where I felt like my identity was being challenged. That seemed like such an obvious microaggression that I wasn’t expecting it. Fortunately, I was able to confront the person who committed it and they were receptive. We worked through it and I’m confident we can become good friends and colleagues.
I was surprised at the number of white participants. While I firmly believe white people should be part of this work, I also believe people of color, particularly womxn of color, should have the largest share of leadership. While there are strong people of color on the advisory, particularly Black womxn, there were only one or two who seemed to be in leadership positions with Teaching Tolerance.
I was struck at how delineated the terms “social justice” and “racial justice” felt. I recognize this is because of my own paradigm around those terms. For me, if we say “racial justice” we are including every single social justice issue because people of color experience them all. I’m wondering how I can advocate for more leaders of color and for shifting the language or perception that racial justice is only about race. We have work to do. We can’t go back to the past that haunts the streets in Montgomery. We can’t.