(originally posted 02/08 at wordpress)
by Jennifer Collier
As a parent with a child in elementary school, I sometimes become overwhelmed and disheartened by what little influence I have over the content of what my son is taught in the classroom. It probably comes as little surprise that schools often teach lessons in history from a standpoint which celebrates white male dominancy and which underplays and distorts the contributions that women and people of color have made. So when my eight-year-old son came home and announced that his second grade class had been assigned the task of researching a famous American and that he had chosen to study Rosa Parks, I couldn’t contain my excitement. Finally…an opportunity to study an amazing female activist and the contributions that she made to the Civil Rights Movement from a feminist perspective rather than the traditional class room perspective which undermines and misrepresents Rosa Parks and the nature of the Montgomery bus boycott.
The first challenge, however, was to dismantle my own notions of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott and reeducate myself. I am fortunate enough to have access to a devoted women’s studies instructor and mentor, Marlene Howell, who provided me with precisely the resource that I needed for such a pursuit. As I read through the book that Marlene loaned me, She would not be Moved by Herbert Kohl, I was alarmed by the realization that, as a child, I had been taught a grossly misrepresentative version of Rosa Park’s experience, which I had carried with me into adulthood. My second realization was how fortunate I am to have access to resources such as knowledgeable instructors, updated references, and the ability to seek more accurate and well informed perspectives on history, as an attribute of having the privilege of higher education. This is a privilege that all parents should have but unfortunately do not.
She Would Not be Moved addresses the many misconceptions that are often taught in the classroom about Rosa Parks as an individual and an activist, about the African American community of Montgomery, Alabama, and about the nature of what racism and segregation are. After I studied each falsely represented notion about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, I read Kohl’s updated children’s version of the story out loud to my son. Kohl’s version of the story is carefully re-written to give credit where credit is deserved, with regards to the intelligence, forethought, and long standing involvement and perseverance of Rosa Parks and the African American community of Montgomery Alabama. I explained to my son how I had not been accurately taught about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott when I was his age and how important it is for both of us that we learn the correct story. Otherwise, we undermine the courageous women and men who devoted their comfort, safety, and often their lives to the pursuit of equality and fair treatment— a privilege that we are automatically granted because of the color of our skin.
Kohl points out that one of the many false conceptions that have been taught in elementary classrooms is that on the day Rosa Parks was arrested she was tired and frustrated and made a rash decision based on emotion. As a multidimensional woman, who devoted much of her time to working as a social leader for desegregation and the just treatment of the African American community along with maintaining a full time job as a seamstress, it would have been understandable if she was tired. This, however, is not the reason she refused to give up her seat. Using intelligence, forethought, and decisiveness she chose to fight against unjust segregation laws. She had, in fact, been defying the segregation laws on the bus for many years, along the sides of other African Americans in the community. She was usually simply thrown of the bus for her defiance, but this particular time she was arrested (27-31).
Rosa Park’s guilty conviction was the event the African American community decided to let initiate the long planned bus boycott. Groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which Rosa Parks was strong member of, had been making efforts towards desegregation for many years. Rosa Park’s choice to remain seated was a deliberate political move, as was the African American community’s choice to boycott the busses (31-38).
As I helped my son to develop a more accurate portrayal of U.S. history than I had been granted as a child, a sense of empowerment came over me. I realized the opportunities that I have to help guide my child’s education, as opposed to the limitations that I am faced with living in a patriarchal world. Too much focus on the latter can result in feelings of depression and hopelessness. Taking feminist values and using them to guide our children’s learning process is a powerful tool. Some of the gender discrimination and hegemonic notions they are exposed to in the classroom, either overtly or covertly, may be out of our control. We do, however, have the ability to help them examine and question what they are being taught. It can be empowering for a child to realize that they have the freedom to look at subjects from different perspectives and are not strictly tied to accepting everything they learn in the classroom.
Sharing in the learning process with my child has been a meaningful experience that has shown me how it is never too late to reexamine what I think I already know. Having the ability to help him develop knowledge about a strong, decisive, intelligent, and determined woman and the community that endured, sacrificed, and banded together to accomplish progress towards civil justice has been an invaluable experience. As for the family of the student who chose Ronald Reagan for their famous American project, all I can say is… Wow! I don’t know how they got through that one!
Kohl, Herbert. She Would Not be Moved. New York: The New Press, 2005.