Did I Bury the Lead?2009.February.28
In my earlier entry about Birmingham, I skimmed over an important detail that I would like to revisit: the moment I cried.
It was in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, in the second room after the film introduction. There were tall glass panels, free-standing like a small crowd in a wide room with high ceilings. Each panel had been laser-etched with full-bodied portraits: people of various ages and races in uniforms for several vocations or lifestyles. It was very idealistic, with everyone smiling and comfortable with his or her panel standing alongside another panel with someone of another color and background – probably bordering on cheesy, but I responded well, I was all smiles, just like the etching of the little black girl carrying her lunchbox and dressed for school.
After meandering through the twenty or so panels, I emerged on the other side of the room to see a large wood and glass cabinet set in stark contrast to the rest of the room. Inside hung a full set of Klan robes, alongside a small, rope-bound cross, ready for burning.
How could they include this? I asked myself. How could they put this on display? How dare they?
Instantly, the answer poured from my face – hot, painful tears that shamed me and shamed my passivity through the earlier exhibits. I had to walk away, lean against a wall, so that my uncontrollable sobs would not disrupt the experience of others. I have never shied away from crying except when there was an audience, and an audience of strangers who were likely having a very different experience only made me more ashamed, simultaneously of my tears and of their lack of them. I didn’t even know why I was crying!
A young Black man came up to me and put a hand on my shoulder. He reminded me that we had come a long way and offered me a hug. My companion came over and stood with me until I was ready to move on. We went at separate paces, and I’m afraid I wasn’t there when her composure was later lost over the choice parents faced between getting their children a better education and saving their lives. The rest of the exhibits were very vivid, very informative, but I worked through them, taking notes and scuttling closer to the gift shop.
It wasn’t until after we had left that I was able to piece together the thoughts that had set me off. There were plenty of violent events covered in the museum, there were artifacts and scenes painted all-too vividly, and there were moving biographies and tributes to heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, but none of these had stirred the guttural sadness that the robes had. What had overcome my jaded, learned, untouchable stance of observation? My reflections led me to think about context. Perhaps it’s a sign that I’m too liberal, but I can understand (though not justify) the actions of an individual. Every individual has stories, and relationships, and complicating factors that can lead to a single instance of bad judgment or even divert them permanently toward a life of violence and antipathy.
What bothered me about the robes was their power of community. Such power does not come overnight, and it doesn’t come without permission. The acts of the Ku Klux Klan were accepted and congratulated by Whites throughout the South as a backlash against those events we now celebrate as “progress”. Then there’s all the half-assers… for every community that actively embraced the Klan, how many more were there who passively supported it, tolerated it, or kept their discomfort to themselves? Yes, I can wrap my brain around just about any action committed by an individual in a particular circumstance, but I have no ability (or desire) to comprehend broad, successful movements of hatred and violence.
Believe it or not, it is just such communities whom I wish to describe in my upcoming book. But I’m not ready to say too much about that here.
Why did I not tell this story when I first blogged about my day in Birmingham? Well, for one thing, I was blogging closer to real-time then, and I was not yet ready to write about the incident or to share it with an audience. But for another, I was not yet sure at that time of the tone I wanted for this blog. That tone has come to me in subsequent entries, as I have decided to focus this journal on my politics through travels and my travels through politics. I cannot write the political without writing the personal, and vice-versa. They resonnate, and it’s these points of resonnance that always interest me most.
Thanks for reading.
Posted in Expanding Community, Quix_Tic Himself, Race in America, Travel, What We Put into Our Brains | Tagged alabama, birmingham, blog, civil rights, crying, exhibit, glass, History, kkk, ku klux klan, museum, race, robes, storytelling, tears, travel writing, usa |