Emma and I have been discussing the civil rights movement and the events throughout American history that led up to it. We’ve discussed the word segregation and what it means to a society when we isolate a group of people and how people come to form opinions about other people they’ve never met.
We have discussed the word prejudice and how it is preconceived opinions based on an idea rather than factual. We’ve talked about how those preconceived ideas almost always do harm. We’ve discussed oppression and how many who’ve been oppressed internalize that message and how it changes how they then view themselves.
Emma has asked to read a biography of Harriet Tubman and we have been discussing the importance of Rosa Parks and her decision to not give up her seat on a crowded bus in Montgomery, Alabama. We have not yet talked about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X or Thurgood Marshall, though Emma wrote that she has heard of the first two, and for all I know, may know of all three.
When I asked Emma to write something about Harriet Tubman, she wrote, “defender of freedom.” This was a couple of months ago and I was shocked because the only time I’d mentioned Harriet Tubman to Emma was about three years ago. I had read one of those beginning readers to Emma about Harriet Tubman before bedtime. And while I always hoped she might be listening, even if only a little, I wasn’t convinced she understood what I was reading. This was during those years before I realized Emma understood everything. It was during those years when I believed what I was being told, that my daughter was only able to understand the most basic concepts, and even those, it was often questioned just how much she understood.
Prejudice is when we form opinions about people, that are not based in fact. Prejudice makes us blind, it twists our minds into thinking we understand or know, even when we do not. It can make us deny facts, or decide that what is true, is not real.
As Emma never indicated that she was listening, much less taking everything in, I often wondered. But a couple of people had encouraged me to “act as if” and so I did my best. I remember when I read the biography of Helen Keller and later she asked me to read it to her again. Still, despite the now obvious evidence, I doubted and even when I wasn’t actively doubting, I wondered. Often. It was as though I could not make the mental leap to believe what increasingly seems obvious in retrospect. Prejudice is like that, it fools us into believing we understand things about a group of people that we do not.
As James H. Cone writes in his book Black Theology & Black Power – “How should I respond to a world which defines me as a nonperson?” And later in the same book, he writes, “A man is free when he can determine the style of his existence in an absurd world; a man is free when he sees himself for what he is and not as others define him.”