It was a June Sunday morning in Flint, Michigan. I had stopped by a major bookseller to look for two specific kinds of books, one of which was about the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
I recently was inspired and compelled to create a curriculum for middle and high schoolers on the topic. And like any good researcher, I wanted to gather some books to assist me in my efforts.
I walked down the carpeted floors and approached a tall, female employee. She wore a black and white polka blouse, and her face mask donned images of Disney World and bore the words: “It’s Magic!”
As I drew closer to her, she made an awkward turn like the ones I used to make when I turned a corner when I was in the marching band. Perhaps, I was nearing less than six feet in front her.
Nevertheless, I made my inquiry and ask her where I could find a non-fiction book on the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I had searched the history section and found nothing.
As she grabbed the tablet stretched across her chest, she gestured to her right: “Most of the books about race are over there.”
I pulled my neck back just a bit, unsure of how to take her comment. Thankful that my face mask covered one of my infamous Chasity Gunn faces. By now, she was searching her tablet and her personal cell phone to assist me. Unfortunately, she could only find one title, of which she would have had to order because the store was out of stock.
I stopped myself from making a snotty comment about ordering from Amazon. Instead, I thanked her for efforts and walked over to the ‘race table.’ Covered with books, mostly by black authors and mostly many about race, the employee’s description was not entirely inaccurate.
I was infuriated to see how scantily stocked the table was. The words of my retail days echoed in my mind: ‘stack ‘em high and watch ‘em fly.’ Seeing stacks of books only two or three deep did not constitute a fully stocked display. And, this table was toward the front of the store. Prime real estate for shoppers.
I calmed my emotions by thinking to myself that perhaps this was a table that had been created in the past couple of days, it was not a scheduled display in which the company would have ensured ample copies to stock the table. Or perhaps, the table was such was a hit that the retailer couldn’t keep the books on the shelves. Or maybe, the bookseller carried low quantities of books by black authors.
I was disappointed to see a bookstore that covered so many square feet, have so few books related to race, that they could fit onto a single table.
“Most of the books about race are over there.”
Her words replayed in my mind, and I was angry and disappointed. Not so much at her words as an individual, but I believe her words capture a common mindset in America. When I said: “Montgomery Bus Boycott,” she thought race. When we, as a society, hear “slavery,” we think race. When we hear “Black”, we think race. And there’s where our thinking stops.
Like so many other issues and historical events, the Montgomery Bus Boycott is more than a story about race. It’s a story about a group of Americans who were tired of being harassed and pushed to the back. They using their constitutional rights to fight unjust mistreatment. It’s a story about a community of people of various ages and backgrounds collaborating for a common goal. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about courage. It’s about long suffering. It’s about justice.
Yes, race is also a theme woven throughout this story. And it’s an important one.
However, if we continue to diminish such events and stories as purely and solely racial, we are going to miss powerful moments that can help us heal as a nation.
I’m currently taking Yale University’s free course on African American history. Jonathan Holloway describes the course as being about citizenship and asking the question: “What does it mean to be an American?” African American history is about dualisms like God and man, freedom and slavery.
In other words, it’s more than race.
Many of us are learning more about race and its historical context in our nation. In our studies, I hope that we see beyond race. I hope we can identify universal themes embedded in these encounters. I hope we will stop reducing all Black people and our stories to just blackness. We are more than the social construction of race.
We are thinkers, healers, parents, students and human beings like the rest of the world. The Black Experience in America is the American experience. I think we can see the experience of Black folks as a human experience, the barrier that dehumanization creates can be torn down. And we need it to be gone if we are going to move forward and build together as a nation.
So, the next time you are reading and talking about race, ask yourself: what else is there?
I think you’ll be surprised by what you find.
(To be clear, this post is not meant to berate the employee I encountered. I believe she was doing the best she could with the limitations she had to assist me. There were factors outside of her control. I am using my personal encounter with her to illustrate a larger principle.)