Taking My Godchildren to Meet Rosa Parks
ED GORDON, host:
Rosa Parks was described at her funeral yesterday as a quiet and humble woman. Even so, as commentator S. Pearl Sharp discovered, Mrs. Parks was not without the deepest understanding of her place in history.
S. PEARL SHARP:
About 10 years ago, I had the opportunity to take my three godchildren to meet Ms. Rosa Parks. The Detroit winters were hard on Mrs. Parks, so in her later years, she spent the winter months with mutual friends in Los Angeles, California. I had met Parks before, but for this trip I think I was as nervous as the children. After all, this was going to be a private audience, just her and us. My godchildren's parents made sure the children had every hair in place and freshly polished shoes shining like headlights. Their appearance reminded me of the '50s, when they would have been described as looking spic and span, a term derived from a popular laundry soap. It was a time when our dress and our extraordinary attention to personal hygiene were directly connected to the way we might be perceived by white folks.
I wanted to be sure, also, that there would be no silliness in the presence of this queen mother, so I instructed the children to prepare some questions they might ask of Mrs. Parks. Each owned a different anthology with the biographies of our black heroes, so I told them to bring their books in case she was willing to sign them. Mrs. Parks was so gracious, and she showed great interest in the children. She took their books and began to look at them. Opening one, she turned to the page about her life and took time to silently read a passage. Her brow furrowed. Then, in a move that stunned each of us, she took the pen and began to cross out lines. Our mouths dropped. My godchildren looked from one to the other in stark amazement. She was crossing out stuff in their books! And with an ink pen!
`They always say I sat down because my feet hurt,' she stated with great irritation. Scratch. The pen moved across the page, deleting the passage. `That's not why I took that seat on that bus.' The next book, and another few lines were erased from someone else's version of history. And it made sense. Parks had trained for civil disobedience at the famous Highlander School. She had worked with youth in the area, including a young woman who everyone had hoped would make the legal stand against bus discrimination that Parks ended up making. I've never forgotten that meeting because it clarified for me that truth is not singular. There is your truth and my truth, depending upon who is having the experience and, more important, who is documenting it.
On the same evening that Mrs. Parks' body was being memorialized in the Rotunda of the nation's capital, some PBS television stations ran a documentary on the desegregation bus boycott in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which took place two years before the famous Montgomery bus boycott that made Mrs. Parks a household name. Perhaps because it was not as successful, the Baton Rouge boycott is often forgotten in the telling of the civil rights movement. Even more ignored is Mary Ellen "Mammy" Pleasant, who was thrown off a streetcar in San Francisco in the 1860s. She sued the city of San Francisco and won. Our moment with Mrs. Parks taught my godchildren and me that we must be delicate in our documentation of the moment and diligent in correcting the distortions of our history. Doing so is the strength of our past and is crucial to our future.
GORDON: S. Pearl Sharp is a writer and a documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles. Her latest film is called "The Healing Passage/Voices from the Water."
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