Monday, August 03, 2009
A Lie Repudiated (Dad’s title)
I will probably never forget my sixth grade school year at Solomon Elementary on the Army base of Schofield Baracks, Hawaii. Each week began with students lining up to meet with Mr. Waitt, our teacher, to draw up weekly contracts. Each week ended, weather permitting, with the much-anticipated Friday rocket launch, complete with the measuring of the rockets’ altitude using the trigonometry Mr. Waitt had taught us.
My favorite part of sixth grade was the after-school discussions I had with Mr. Waitt and with my best friend, Ted. For the record, both were white (and both were named Ted). Walking home from school one day, Ted told me about a private conversation he had had with Mr. Waitt. Their conversation, our conversation, and my letter to my dad (who was on his second tour of duty in Vietnam) are all immortalized because of Dad’s subsequent letter to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.
Here is the beginning of Dad’s letter, which includes an excerpt from my letter. I include it intact with its 11-year-old logic:
“A few days ago I received a letter from my 11-year old son. As the day passed, it occurred to me that the beauty of this letter was worthy of a much wider exposure than it had received from my relatively few acquaintances.
In these chaotic times of racism, student and racial demonstrations, murder in the streets, war atrocities, sexual promiscuity and all of the other negatives which threaten to shake the very foundation of ‘Americanism,’ it is refreshing to know that in the society of the pre-teens there exists the simplicity—the obvious simple TRUTH, that in so few words effectively repudiates the LIE which has persisted for decades. Here is a portion of the letter written to me on Jan. 7:
‘…Next week we start debating. Ted told me that he and my teacher were talking. They said there is a man named Strong Thermon (or something like that). This man said that he thinks Negroes aren’t very smart; and that Negroes are good athletes. Then they said,
“Who’s the lowest jumper in our room?”
Who’s the slowest runner I our room?
Who’s the smartest person in our room?
I told Mama about that, and she said that Negroes aren’t dumb. She said the reason Negroes didn’t get education is because white people were scared the Negroes were smarter.
What do you think?’”
I don’t resurrect these old conversations to gain adulation or pity. I don’t write to prove Strom Thurmond’s racism. His early rigorous fights against racial integration are well documented, despite his having fathered a (half) black woman 80 years ago. His later racial views are not as clear. I do not write to prove racism today based on conversations forty years ago.
I write to set up some questions:
1. Have we made progress regarding the image of African Americans as great athletes, but not great scholars?
2. If we haven’t, why haven’t we?
3. If we have made progress, what is it and is there any need for more?
4. If we have not made progress, what is your evidence and what would progress look like?