Like many others, I am not in D.C. today to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, but I am thinking about the significance of that moment and what has and has not changed in the past 50 years. I find it very significant that it is being held on the anniversary of Bayard Rustin’s passing (even if it is because it is on the weekend) and I find it fascinating that we are celebrating this anniversary with the nation’s first black president in office.
The fact that Rustin’s shadow hangs over this anniversary and President Obama has awarded Rustin the Medal of Freedom has enough symbolic significance that it boggles the mind. Who would have thought that a black gay man erased from more than a half century of history would finally get his due from the black president many of us thought we would never see in our lifetimes?
But that significance is only that – symbolic. I feel much like I did the day after President Obama was elected for his first term. I understood the tears and happiness from figures like Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey when they watched Barack Obama give his victory speech. I understood the excitement my parents and grandparents felt wearing their Obama t-shirts and finally casting a vote for a black man that would actually lead to his making history.
However, I think about how so much is still the same. The only reason I heard about Bayard Rustin before this year is because in college I was the type to stay inside on Saturday nights and watch documentaries on PBS including one focusing on the life and legacy of Rustin as well as other LGBT focused documentaries.
I remember reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X in eighth grade because I planned to do a book report on it. Things such as this were not taught in school. By the time I got to college and found myself enjoying subjects such as Rustin’s life, Civil Rights and other things we were supposed to learn about in grade school were no longer taught. I learned about Harlem Renaissance writers during my senior year in high school because I decided to write my senior thesis on it.
I’m finding it hard to get excited about the gathering in D.C. today much like I found it difficult to get excited about President Obama’s election. Symbolic change does not always translate into real concrete change. I’m glad the young people who are marching and speaking at the March today are showing their strength and have a great awareness of the meaning of this day. However, I still think about the ways we are failing them.
I know there are some schools that have finally made English literature classes far more inclusive than the primarily dead white males (and females) usually taught. However, are we teaching our children that the March on Washington was organized by Bayard Rustin and Philip A. Randolph? Are we teaching our children that Rosa Parks was not the first woman arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man, but Claudette Colvin was erased from that history because she was a dark-skinned pregnant teen? In fact, why do we not teach that Rosa Parks was an anti-rape activist?
I was in college before writers like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks were even part of the curricula. I read books by Chinua Achebe and Nawal El Saadawi even though I was not in the postcolonial literature class in which these books were discussed. I read Monkey in my leisure as well as books like Lies My Teacher Taught Me. In other words, I had to go out and find a world beyond myself even if it was through a book or a Saturday night documentary. Children coming up in schools today should not have to go out of their way to find resources such as this. But I heavily doubt they are encouraged to go beyond what they are inundated with in school.
I was born 15 years after the March on Washington. I know that my ability to get to college and even my failed grad school career are a direct result of the things that happened in the 1950s and 60s. I am more than grateful for that every day of my life. Lives were lost so that I could get to school. But there is still so much to be done. I see every day the battles we all fight against racism and anti-blackness, sexism and misogyny, homophobia and heteronormativity, transphobia and cissexism, classism, religious bigotry and so many other poisons. I know that everyone at that march today believes deeply in their hearts what they say and what they hear.
But what will we do to make sure this is more than just paying lip service and make actual change?