Monday, December 3, 2012

CNN Discovers "Mr. Charlie" and the Black Agency of Sister Rosa Parks

In 2011, Rosa Parks was in the news, six years after her death. An excerpt from a breathtaking essay she wrote in the 1950s about a “near rape” by a white man in Alabama was released to the public. The handwritten narrative detailed Parks' steely resistance to a white man, “Mr. Charlie," who attempted to assault her in 1931 while she was working as a domestic for a white family.
It was late evening when “Mr. Charlie” pushed his way into the house and tried to have sex with her. Having grown up in the segregated South, she knew all too well the special vulnerabilities black women faced. She recalled, for example, how her great-grandmother, a slave, had been “mistreated and abused” by her white master.
Despite her fear, she refused to let the same thing happen to her. “I knew that no matter what happened,” she wrote, “I would never yield to this white man’s bestiality.” "I was ready to die,” she said, “but give my consent, never. Never, never." Parks was absolutely defiant: “If he wanted to kill me and rape a dead body,” she said, “he was welcome, but he would have to kill me first.”
Does that sound like the Rosa Parks we know?
I wonder how many readers of the above story at CNN, that are not privy to black vernacular speech, are wondering who "Mr. Charlie" is?

There are lies, necessary lies, noble lies, and big lies. Sometimes lies are told with the best of intentions. At other times, lies are pernicious both in intent and consequence. At times, entire peoples believe a lie. It motivates their sense of national identity, citizenship, and purpose: American exceptionalism is one such example.

Myths are a type of lie that can combine all of the above traits. For example, the debate around Spielberg's Lincoln (which merits further discussion this week) involves a myth surrounding a legendary president, the agency of black people in seeking their own freedom, and how various public(s) are invested in the white savior narrative.

Myths should be debunked when we are adults and mature critical thinkers. To point. CNN has a short piece on elder goddess Sister Rosa Parks that pulls aside the curtain of lies surrounding her legacy, and exposes the facile story we tell little children and naive lay people about Parks' tired feet and a public bus.

In all, the Rosa Parks fable is the Santa Claus story of the Civil Rights Movement. Just as with Lincoln, the real story of the Black Freedom Struggle and activists such as Parks, King, Rustin, Randolph, Williams, and many others involves people making choices--to participate or not--in a grand struggle for justice.

Here, Black agency matters. Black agency also scares and upsets people on both sides of the colorline.

A fun anecdote.

Some years ago I was teaching a course on Political Mobilization. I casually mocked the silly story we tell about Rosa Parks where she is an "old lady" (apparently aged beyond all imagination in her mid thirties) who was so tired "she wouldn't get up no more for a white man." I pointed out how Parks was chosen for this action, how she was one of many arrested for similar "crimes," and was an activist with the local branch of the NAACP.

Moreover, I pointed out how Parks was selected for this high profile event because unlike Claudette Colvin, who was also arrested for not giving up her bus seat according to the rules of Jim and Jane Crow, the former was not a pregnant soon to be teen mother. Consequently, Parks fit fully within the approved narrative offered by the politics of black respectability.

A young black woman in my class then began yelling, calling me names, and ran out of the class hysterical because I had insulted her hero. After asking her to grow up and act her age, I tried to explain that histories of Peoples Movements that highlight choice, agency, strategy, and personal risk against State authority are far more accurate and enriching than the silly things we tell kids during Black History Month. Alas, the lie was more compelling to this young woman than the truth.

The real Rosa Parks was a fascinating and strong person of great character. This passage is particularly revealing because it locates her in the context of larger movement--one with real breathing living struggling defiant people as opposed to one dimensional cutouts fit for a wax museum:
Sylvester Edwards was a fan of the Jamaican-born black nationalist, Marcus Garvey, and delighted young Rosa with stories of Garvey’s greatness.  She was especially proud of her grandfather’s willingness to defend himself and his family from the daily terror of the Ku Klux Klan in Pine Level, Alabama. 
“Whatever happened,” she said, “I wanted to see it … I wanted to see him shoot that gun. I wasn’t going to be caught asleep.” This spirit of defense and defiance, she said later, “had been passed down almost in our genes' that a proud African-American can not accept "bad treatment from anybody.” 
In the 1930s, Rosa Parks joined her husband Raymond and others in secret meetings to defend the Scottsboro boys—nine young African-American men accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. In the 1940s, they hosted Voter League meetings, where they encouraged neighbors to register even though it was a dangerous task. In 1943, she joined the Montgomery NAACP and was elected branch secretary. The job required Parks to investigate and document acts of racist and sexist brutality... 
 She was an ardent fan of Malcolm X and Robert F. Williams, a militant NAACP leader from North Carolina who advocated “armed self-reliance.” She admired Williams so much that she delivered the eulogy at his funeral in 1996.
As the real Rosa Parks becomes more familiar to the general public, I am left wondering if circumstances made the woman or if there is something intangible, not easily reproducible, and part of her core being that forced Parks to greatness?

Is the personal steel of her (and others') brand of Black Agency in decline, dead, and gone? Or if circumstances demand it, is our society still capable of producing elder gods and goddesses such as Sister Parks? Has freedom, and a type of postmodern comforting Power that is more rewarding and co-opting than punitive, made us all a bit weak? 


olderwoman said...

Rosa Parks was a great woman, and a hero, but so were a lot of other people. They did not stand alone. They were nurtured in families and communities that taught them to stand up and knew they were part of a broader movement. The Women's Political Club of Montgomery and other intentional groups organized the bus boycott. Parks played her role and so did the people around her. Parks stayed committed and active to her death. So have a lot of other people.

From outside the movement, I still see individual heroes and groups of people doing what they can, and I also see structural and political factors that have made it harder to make gains. The intense repression in Black urban areas after the 1960s and especially after the 1980s is not irrelevant. Nor are the political shifts that made White working class voters the swing vote between 1968 and 2008.

Black Sage said...

Is the personal steel of her (and others') brand of Black Agency in decline, dead, and gone? Or if circumstances demand it, is our society still capable of producing elder gods and goddesses such as Sister Parks? – ChaunceyD

CDV, the question you’ve put forth reminds me of a statement a co-worker of mine says affectionately to me in the midst of others about twice a week: “They don’t makem like Blakk Sage anymore.” This is an appropriate segue into how I feel about Madam Parks and the frequent statement mentioned above to me by my co-worker is much more aptly applied to Madam Rosa Parks because the good Lord just don’t make people like her anymore. This is my first reasoning as to why another Rosa Parks is extraordinarily unlikely.

Here is my second reasoning as to why that another Rosa Parks is far removed from the immediate horizon. I believe that Black Americans have been hood-winked into believing that we are no longer in battles that consist of intentionally planned social strife, economic warfare and psychic warfare as well. Blacks have also been conditioned to believe that everything was made correct through the mere struggles and civil unrest of the past, especially the 1960’s civil rights era. This notion, I believe, has lulled the vast majority of Blacks to slowly slumber towards giving up the fight and the struggle because the system relentlessly gives the appearance through various conduits (TV, Internet, print news, books, movies, selection of Obama) that it is no longer necessary to do so.

Razor said...

CD, certainly Rosa Parks and others' brand of Black Agency is in decline and on life support. I believe that it was in part the circumstances of the times, but also the ethos of the times.

As Olderwoman states...They did not stand alone...and were nurtured by family and community. There was a sense of shared destiny and collective experience. Today, we are a very fractured community at best. We are not just seperated by our new addresses, we are seperated by class and class consciousness. The people we consider great are even different.

Yesterday, Thurgood Marshall, Paul Robeson and Martin Luther King were great. Today, they would be considered fools. Fools for passing up the filthy lucre, personal comfort and fame over their concern for other black folk, here and abroad.

We Black folk have been in the shameful process of losing our souls and religion, literally, for the last thirty years or so. First our leaders, then we as a people followed suit. We began to worship the same gods as our oppressors, not realizing that it was their False God of White Power/Privilege. With the help of television religious pimps and hustlers became more prominent than genuine religious leaders. Worse, like cancers they were replicated in communities all over America. They stand for nothing and promote runaway capitalist greed.

Bruto Alto said...

"I believe, has lulled the vast majority of Blacks to slowly slumber towards giving up the fight"

Someone much smarter than myself said: "Look at the people closest to you. How they live and what they do will describe you.

Who you place around you matter.

nomad said...

"Here, Black agency matters. Black agency also scares and upsets people on both sides of the colorline."

Ah, the triumph of the Civil Rights era. The illusion of inclusion gave us the confusion of a delusion that turned our agency into complacency.

Anonymous said...

Going hand and hand with Black Agency is the largely ignored American intellectual history that Parks extended through her activism. Reinhold Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society explicitly predicted in 1932 that a movement of non-violent resistance would be what secured civil rights for African-Americans. Myles Horton was inspired by Niebuhr and founded the Highlander School, where Parks and others discussed strategies that would be most effective as civil rights actions. Parks, King, and others deepened and transformed both Niebuhr's early hypothesis and Horton's training.

Sitting down on that bus marked an intellectual statement by a movement, not a fortuitous collapse due to physical fatigue.

chaunceydevega said...

@older. like the sister who stood up at the ALEC meeting?

@BS. would we be better off if freedom came later and even harder?

@Razor Were they stronger or were the temptations and lucre not as powerful as what many are subjected to today?

@Bruto. All our standards have fallen. Or am I just being cynical?

@Anon. Why the fear of discussing the Highlander School? Common red scare mess still hanging over us?