Last semester, I attended Breaking the Silence, which was an event hosted by several CUSSW caucuses to discuss power, privilege, oppression and all the ISMS. During the event, the guest speaker, Professor Z, discussed various topics and the issue of colorism came up. We were talking about the Civil Rights Movement and she brought up several figures we all knew – Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, you know, the usual. But then she asked if we had ever heard of Claudette Colvin. Most people had not. Professor Z explained how Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on a bus before Rosa Parks. She told us that Claudette Colvin was the first person arrested in the bus segregation struggle in Montgomery, Alabama. According to an NPR article, she was a party in the civil rights lawsuit that eventually declared bus segregation unconstitutional in Montgomery. But most of us had never heard of her. Why not?
The first set of pictures should look familiar. It’s Rosa Parks. The second set is Claudette Colvin. Rosa Parks was light-skinned. She was older. She was married. Claudette was dark-skinned. She was a teenager. After her arrest, she became pregnant and she was not married. The activists of the time did not think Claudette would be a good representative to push the movement forward because of colorism and ageism, among other things. How could they get people to take a child seriously? How could they get people to sympathize with someone so apparently immoral? Rosa Parks’ social location was much more appealing to the movement; her light skin, for example, made her less intimidating to the White people from whom the activists needed to garner support and understanding. In an NPR interview, Colvin mentioned that Rosa’s “skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class. She fit [the] profile.” Claudette did not fit the profile.
When I was doing some google searching about her this week, I came across this Drunk History video that briefly explores Claudette’s role in the Civil Rights Movement.
I love the concept of Drunk History because it explains history in a lively and entertaining way. Though I love history, I know some people find it quite dry. Drunk History is so great because it’s comedy; it kind of tricks people into learning something. The fact that it is easily accessible on TV on Comedy Central and social media means more people will have access to it, especially youth.
And how empowering could the story of Claudette be to young people (obviously the drunk aspect couldn’t be shown in schools, but her story could be shared in another interesting way)? Even though she was young, Claudette was able to stand up against injustice and have an immense impact on the Civil Rights Movement. It reminds me of how so many students of color today are rising up and fighting injustice all over the country. It’s amazing to watch! But, then I think of my students, who in their adolescence, are still trying to understand their identities. For some of them, they are wrestling with what it means to be Black and Brown. They talk about inequality. They talk about police brutality. They talk about not seeing themselves represented in the media. They’re right. They aren’t represented in the media, and they’re not represented sufficiently in the history books either. They don’t get to learn of the many contributions Black people of all shades have made in this country and beyond. The same unfortunately goes for other groups of color as well.
It’s so unfair! Students deserve way more than what they are getting. This, of course, is not to belittle the impact that Rosa Parks had on the Civil Rights Movement and Black history. I just think we have to revise curricula so that students learn more about their histories in schools. Let them learn about Rosa AND Claudette! It doesn’t have to be either/or; it can be both/and. As we continue to celebrate Black History Month, let’s commit to learning more than we were taught. Check out #HistoricPOC and http://blackhistoryalbum.tumblr.com. These are both collective, photography-based projects that ask people to submit pictures of people of color, particularly Black people, living daily life. It’s such an amazing effort to use social media to spark people’s interest in history and combat the singular story of Black life we learn in school.