A few days after Christmas 2001, I sat, 13 and angry and depressed, with my dad in a half-full suburban Houston theater. He’d bought tickets for the two of us to see Ali, starring Will Smith. The film begins with a montage that made me weep that night, and still does. With Sam Cooke (portrayed by David Elliott) brilliantly belting renditions of his hits in the background, 13-year-old Muhammad Ali boards a segregated bus. As he trudges past the white passengers to the back, young Ali stares, horrified, at a newspaper photo of the brutally lynched 14-year-old Emmett Till, killed August 28, 1955.
That was the moment I fully realized that I was almost exactly Till’s age when white supremacists killed him in Money, Mississippi. To say he was killed because he whistled at a white woman never sounded right to me, but I could not articulate exactly why then. What I could do was think about the date of his murder. My parents were both alive in August 1955. My mom’s parents would be preparing her for her first birthday. My dad, nearly four, could walk and talk and, knowing him as I do today, perhaps even provide astute political commentary.
As we left the movie, my dad wanted to talk mostly about the outstanding fight sequences. “Ali and Foreman and Frazier really moved like that,” he told me. I said nothing, as is my custom after seeing films. Finally, I muttered from the passenger seat, “I didn’t realize people ever hated Ali.”
My economically privileged childhood was a prolonged exercise in cognitive dissonance. I don’t remember watching the footage of LAPD officers beating Rodney King in 1991, or the ensuing rage when the four cops were acquitted a year later—but the footage was on as I played in our Houston living room. I can recall images of a white Ford Bronco being chased, and the racially polarized reactions to O.J. Simpson’s acquittal a few years later, but what I saw, shown to me by cable media outlets, didn’t make sense.
Two of my best friends in childhood, who were white, claimed to be descendants of Robert E. Lee.* I played and went to church with white kids. I shook hands with President Clinton in the Oval Office and sat in the car as my parents gave white conservative CNN Crossfire host Bob Novak a ride to the airport. The spoken message—in my house, at my Unitarian Universalist church, and elsewhere—was that we had, mostly, overcome; that the civil rights era was terrifying, electrifying, strenuous, and, most importantly, over.
Clues to a deeper truth hid in plain sight. Riots in Los Angeles and shouts of discrimination and housing and school segregation started to chip away at my perception of a post-racial America. For me, adolescence and adulthood have been largely about unlearning what I learned about race and racism and my blackness.
In childhood I had only seen Ali “rope-a-dope” and “float like a butterfly.” Now I know that to truly remember Ali in his prime means remembering the Ali who directly called out the U.S. government and white Americans in 1967 when he said, “You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality.”
What was done to his legacy was what was done to Rosa Parks, to Dr. King, and to so many others. Women and men who could not be subdued in the moment were made docile by memory and by myth. A revolutionary becomes a moderate. An NAACP activist in her prime becomes an elderly seamstress. An often-unpopular heavyweight champion who challenged his country becomes a universally beloved hero.
Just last month, Leslie Butler MacFadyen, a black Unitarian Universalist and founder of the Ferguson National Response Network, was part of a chorus of educators and activists challenging Scholastic on its (now recalled) children’s book A Birthday Cake for George Washington. Written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, the book depicts Hercules, an enslaved person who served as George Washington’s unpaid chef, and Hercules’s daughter Delia. MacFadyen and an onslaught of other critics said the book pushed tired narratives about slavery, and conveyed with words and images that Hercules and other enslaved persons were happy with their condition.
Ganeshram, defending the book, said, “How could one person enslave another and at the same time respect him? It’s difficult to fathom, but the fact remains it was true.” She added that President Washington was “conflicted” over slavery itself.
The book contains a note at the end explaining that Hercules and Delia were real people, and that Hercules later escaped enslavement, though Delia did not. That this “note”—that Hercules strained to flee bondage—was not the topic of the book itself points to the unlearning we must do to find the truth so often shrouded in myth. Ganeshram and Brantley-Newton, in search of nuance and complexity, whizzed past the inherent indignity of slavery, and past the book America’s children actually need.
Black History Month can be a recitation of forgettable facts, or it can be the beginning—or continuation—of a period of unlearning and reclaiming. In high school I unlearned my perception that I had nothing in common with other black folks. I’m still unlearning the sinister sentiment that freedom movements are best led by impeccably-dressed, educated older men. In learning to insist that Black Lives Matter, we are unlearning the notion that “pro-black” inherently means “anti-white.”
May we work, alone and together, to unlearn and reclaim, this month and beyond.
* This sentence has been updated.