One of the disturbing things about living in the American South is the painful history that is constantly in our faces—monuments to “Confederate” leaders, former slave quarters, plantation homes, street names, buildings, and spaces where “significant” events took place. Although I am convinced that we must keep the past before us to avoid making those same mistakes, sometimes “American History” can be overwhelming. It is undoubtedly exhausting navigating that terrain while nurturing a child’s development.
Remembering the Stormy Past
Some years ago, my husband and I served as chaperones for a school field trip to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama. The Sixteenth Street Church is the site of the September 15, 1963 bombing that claimed the lives of four girls who were preparing to participate in Sunday morning worship services: Carole Robertson (age 14), Carol Denise McNair (age 11), Cynthia Wesley (age 14), and Addie Mae Collins (age 14). Sarah Collins (age 12), the sister of Addie Mae, survived but suffered life-altering injuries due to the hate crime, a consequence of mounting racial tensions around desegregation.
My son knew a lot about the battle for civil rights in America at age nine, but I was worried about this field trip. I didn’t want his being in the physical presence of that place to change him–to make him angry or fearful, or worse, to feel the limitations of his agency. I recalled his strong awareness of injustice at the pronouncement of a “Not Guilty” verdict for George Zimmerman when he was on trial for murdering Trayvon Martin. My son was barely seven at the time. His concern, then, was not Black and White, but child and adult. He wondered aloud how rational adults could allow another adult to escape punishment for killing a child. Because of his strong reaction to that verdict, I did not know whether he would be outraged or miserably grieved by hearing the gruesome details of the deaths of the “little girls.” As we toured, I cautiously waited. I held my breath.
Being in the church where the girls chatted and worshipped was far more intense than reading about it and knowing about it. There were no words for the mixture of grief, anger, horror, powerlessness, “what ifs,” and “whys” that stormed my brain. As I was trying to process my own emotions and keep them in check simultaneously, I was watching my son. Making sure he was [still] okay.
He listened intently. He studied the images. He read captions and discussed them with friends. He danced in the exhibit that was modeled after a 1950s/60s “coloreds only” jazz club. On the way home, he asked questions. He processed. And I whispered a prayer of gratitude. He knew more, but his sense of self and place in the world was still intact. I exhaled. I continued to wait for the dawning. He felt the intense sadness about the [continuing] assault on Black skin and Black bodies to morph into anger. I prayed that it would not damage or debilitate him. I still walk with that prayer.
A Coming of Age
Now 15 years of age—just a little older than the four young women of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church—we see a young man who, though outraged at the atrocities committed against those who looked like him, is secure in his relationship with God and knowledge of His presence with him.
More Than a Tourist Attaction
When we were at the church, our tour guide reminded us that the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was not simply a “tourist attraction” or a stop on the “Black History” tour. However, it is still a vibrant church that serves many of the same roles in the community that it has served since its beginnings. So, while we mourn the four little girls and America’s defective past and current turbulent racial reality, we can celebrate the fact that we are still here–worshipping, learning, dreaming, and creating change in our small areas of the world.