rosa, we hardly knew ya’

By far, the best discussion that I’ve heard on the life of Rosa Parks since her death a few days ago, has been between University of Wisconsin professor of Afro-American Studies, Tim Tyson, and On The Media’s Bob Garfield. The piece, which was absolutley fantastic, concerned her treatment by the mainstream press, who, right up until the end, felt it necessary to perpetuate the myth that she was just a meek seamstress with tired feet, and not a well-seasoned political activist who would later find common cause with the likes of Malcolm X… If you get a chance, give it a listen, or check out the transcript. Here’s a clip:

BOB GARFIELD: And yet, as recently as today — I’m speaking to you on Wednesday — the Washington Post, in its appreciation of Rosa Parks, referred very much to her as a seamstress and very little to her as an activist. It did nothing to squelch the myth that she was just one woman who, on a certain day, had had enough. Why do you suppose that that myth endures?

TIM TYSON: I think for some reason we are unwilling to honor people who are politically active. We want to honor people who just have had enough and sort of spontaneously won’t take it any more. But somehow if they get categorized as active citizens, which would be a positive way of saying it, as troublemakers — which is the way we often [CHUCKLES] think about such persons — then somehow it becomes self-serving, part of a movement which we’re less comfortable with. And I think that’s just an American popular cultural narrative that we pick up very quickly. And indeed, it started very quickly after the bus boycott. And they talked about her tired feet. That gets mentioned a lot more often than it should. She may have been a little bit tired, but that had nothing to do with the decision that she made.

BOB GARFIELD: In that same Washington Post obituary I read today there was, it seemed, a palpable sense of disappointment that the myth is, in fact, a myth. Why are we so reluctant to let it go?

TIM TYSON: There’s a sense in which Mrs. Parks is very important to our post-civil rights racial narrative, because we really want a kind of sugar-coated civil rights movement that’s about purity and interracial non-violence. And so we don’t really want to meet the real Rosa Parks. We don’t, for example, want to know that in the late 1960s, Rosa Parks became a black nationalist and a great admirer of Malcolm X. I met Rosa Parks at the funeral of Robert F. Williams, who had fought the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina with a machine gun in the late 1950s and then fled to Cuba, and had been a kind of international revolutionary icon of black power. Ms. Parks delivered the eulogy at his funeral. She talks in her autobiography and says that she never believed in non-violence and that she was incapable of that herself, and that she kept guns in her home to protect her family. But we want a little old lady with tired feet. You may have noticed we don’t have a lot of pacifist white heroes. We prefer our black people meek and mild, I think.

Of course, I realize that some of it has to do with the fear that acknowledging the fact that she was an activist prior to her act of civil disobedience might play into the hands of racists who have sought to portray her has a meddlesome n-word with “an agenda,” but don’t we deserve the truth? And why is that we think one story is any more meaningful than the other? Why can’t she be just as worthy of our praise for being the well-informed, pissed-off woman tired of white oppression, instead of the mild-mannered seamstress with tired feet? I realize why, at the time, one story was chosen over the other, as it resonated better with white people and worked to the advantage of the cause, but why, almost 50 years later, do we still feel the need to perpetuate it?

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  1. Posted November 6, 2005 at 1:42 am | Permalink

    Thoughtful and interesting post.

    Along the same lines, it’s generally forgotten that Helen Keller was an internationally-known Socialist and Wobbly activist who was quite outspoken and made no bones about her beliefs, and traveled around the country visiting sweatshops and factories. She said of labor inequities in such places, “If I cannot see it, I can smell it.” And she talked to the workers. And was roasted in the press:

    (from her Wikipedia entry):

    “Newspaper columnists who had praised her courage and intelligence before she came out as a socialist now called attention to her disabilities. The editor of the Brooklyn Eagle wrote that her “mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development.” Keller responded to that editor, referring to having met him before he knew of her political views:”

    “At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him…Oh, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness which we are trying to prevent.”

    But we remember only the heartstring-pulling tale of the stymied girl whom an earnest teacher taught to sign, as memorialized in the play “The Miracle Worker.” Helen Keller was a rabble-rousing trouble-maker. But this part of her history has been by and large erased.

  2. mark
    Posted November 6, 2005 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    And George Washington was physically incapable of telling even a single lie… I think it’s pretty safe to say that we as a people don’t embrace complexity all that well.

    Thanks for the comment, Laura.

  3. Posted November 7, 2005 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    And what was it? Honest Abe, walking many miles to return a penny or some such tale. We do like our heroes simple, that’s for sure. (I’d probably have to say the same for our vision of our God.)

    Nice entry, Mark. I admit to have been taken in all these years myself. I know next to nothing about Rosa Parks.

  4. chris
    Posted November 7, 2005 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    Yes, simple and definitely not gay.

  5. Teddy Glass
    Posted November 8, 2005 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Howard Stern once theorized that Lincoln had to wear a big hat because that’s where he hid all his KY Jelly.

  6. chris
    Posted November 8, 2005 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    Oh my gawd.

  7. mark
    Posted November 8, 2005 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

    Of all the new books coming out on Lincoln, I don’t know that any addresses “the stovepipe full of lube.”

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