A few rambling thoughts about Rosa Parks...
Rosa Parks died yesterday at the age of 92.
When I was growing up in Maplewood, New Jersey in the 1980s, the neighborhood was a diverse and affluent suburb. My good friend Marcus Johnson had a black father and white mother; I had friends who were Asian; one of my best friends was Jewish; my next door neighbor and still one of my closest friends, Josh Izzo, was, and still is, Italian. In my family alone, there are two adopted children, my sister Kate and my brother Michael, both Korean.
When I first learned of the Civil Rights Movement, it was in that very town. I lived there from Kindergarten until the 5th grade, formative years. While as I've grown older, I've come to judge the complacency and affluence of commuter towns like Maplewood, it gave me a grand delusion that I will hold with me forever: that the Civil Rights Movement was a success of the past. That we were living in its afterglow, where racism was something of a bygone era.
It wasn't until I moved to rural Pennsylvania, in 1988, that I ever heard the word "Nigger." When I did, I was sure that someone just hadn't phoned the people of Boyertown and told them that they were 20 years late in their worldview. I came to understand that I was mistaken, and that Boyertown was probably far more representative of this growing, aching nation than it should have been.
I thought of Martin Luther King as my personal hero and role model (in the 3rd grade, most likely), but I found the story of Rosa Parks less instantly inspiring. MLK stood up and told the world about his dream with eloquence and passion that could inspire a child. It took me a few more years to understand what kind of bravery it took for Rosa Parks to do what she did.
Now, I often hear a call to reassess the point we have reached in relations between the races in this melting pot. There are some clear successes and some subtle failures. The images of New Orleans show the unspoken truth of racial inequality; that it is not only displayed in the open prejudic of a bigot. Racial inequality is the product of systemic lack of access; of subtle distinctions between characters based on the color of their skin. In our age of "multiculturalism" who hasn't said that a certain way of talking is "black" and another way is "white?" And don't think I'm only pointing the finger at one race: it has become an epidemic. Confusingly, this broad labeling of behavior and culture by way of race has also come as the races grow ever closer in population and in economic access.
In a liberal education and liberal mindset (such as mine), we often write off racial inequality to a numbers game. We say that disparities in the performance of different races is economic. On the other side, we find an open disdain for a conversation of inequality as systemic. We find a belief that only work and achievement, on their own, creates equality. Both sides have their strengths, and their blinders.
This is why the image of Rosa Parks is one that is more necessary than ever. She was not a warrior or a disciple of a worldview. She was a Christian, a working woman, and she was trying to make her way through Alabama in the an era of social change. She became symbol for a movement, and no rhetoric could ever rise to the power of her simple refusal to move.
The important truth is that he was not truly defiant: she was exhausted. What could be more exhausting than acquiescence? What could be more exhausting than a life in the shadow of bigotry?
We should remember, from her, that sometimes its not the fight that wins the day, its the refusal to accept something false or intolerable. She teaches us that was have free will, a choice as to how we will approach our small choices. She didn't shout, or hammer a ploughshare into a sword. She showed the honesty that only exhaustion can bring; an honesty that said "I will no longer participate in something that harms me."
We should remember the most important lessons of Rosa Parks and that increasingly distant time:
There is no difference between one human being and another except what the world as placed on their shoulders.
How we carry our burden is what defines us, no matter how small that burden may appear.
There is no such thing as a small act of beauty.
- Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.