Thus far on the way

            I’m no expert on being “woke.” I’m still working on my anti-racism. But I’ve been on this earth for 56 years and I know one thing: nothing’s going to “cancel” me.

As white people stumble forward in our conversations about race, we depend on our friends—Black people, indigenous people, people of color—to get us back on course, to keep pointing the way forward.

But we need to know, as we travel together on this road to healing, it’s not their job to make whites feel comfortable.

            Here in Jacksonville, we’re struggling to come to terms with our history. High school students are protesting, demanding Black history be taught for what it is: the very worst, and the very best, of American history.

Of human history.

It starts with local history.

The students marched out of class to ask the Duval County Schools to educate them about Jacksonville’s shameful and triumphant moments: Ax Handle Saturday and A. Philip Randolph, the KKK and the Black national anthem, a once-racist local press that might actually, finally, see the light.

The kids know who “Rodney freakin’ Hurst” is—even if they didn’t realize he is very much alive and still educating generations of Jacksonville residents. The sixtieth anniversary of that infamous Saturday, August 27, 2020, marked a turning point in our history, capping off a summer of Black Lives Matter protests here.

Rodney Lawrence Hurst, Sr., kicked out of the Woolworth’s lunchroom at age 16, survived the bloodbath to write our city’s real history. Our children understand well the civil rights movement “was never about a hotdog and a coke.”

The 16-year-old child grew into a father. Last August, Hurst’s weary feet reached—at least for a moment—the place his forefathers envisioned.

But the work of a fuller, fairer nation involves constant gardening. It requires a fuller, fairer understanding of our history, in all its complexity, both good and evil.

Local activist and Women’s March Jacksonville President Bonnie Hendrix said it best in her letter to the Times Union:

“History is based on facts, and facts do not change. What changes is the perspective on history as people grow and become more enriched with knowledge.”

When we know better, we do better.

History teaches us a disgraceful fact about our school board. Some of the schools named for figures of the confederacy acquired their names after 1954. White people in Jacksonville—our elected school board members—deliberately named schools after these infamous men in clear retaliation against the landmark Supreme Court decision on desegregation, Brown v. The Board of Education.

In fact, Pine Forest Elementary School was built on Jacksonville’s southside years after the Brown decision, for the purpose of educating segregated, Black elementary students.

It would take the better part of two decades and some lawsuits before desegregation got underway in our beloved, maddening city.

These facts we cannot change.

What we can do, however, is renounce the racist motives entailed in naming some of our schools.

What we can do is understand why, given our history, these names are still a slap in the face to Black people.

We have the chance to right a wrong.

When we know better, we do better.

Changing the names of schools doesn’t erase history—but it may well lay the groundwork for our future—a fuller and fairer future.

That’s what these civic conversations are about.

One thing they’re not about, one thing they cannot be about, is making white people feel comfortable.

The controversies at two local high schools, Bolles and Douglas Anderson should have taught us that, if nothing else. (I won’t rehash them here.)

As I stumble along this path, I hope my friends will help me stay on course. Sometimes relationships bring us to uncomfortable—even painful—places.

And when we know better, we do better.

I’ve learned the hard way that the appropriate response to being called a racist is, “Tell me more about that. I want to learn why.”

May God give white community members the grace to sit with our discomfort for as long as it takes to build a more equitable Jacksonville.  

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