Communication Studies at Edmonds Community College
"I wish you all would learn your history. Your real history. Aren't we here to get educated?" Franklin's statement startled everyone, most of all his teacher who had been explaining the impact the French had upon American policy during the eighteenth century. Franklin seldom spoke up in class, and when he did, it was respectfully and with only a little anger. He didn't seem to be a confrontational sort of person, but this time it was clear he wanted to shake the class up a bit. His comment had an underlying tension to it that belied his usually calm demeanor.
Franklin was older than the other students and saw himself as someone who could influence them. So his moderate behavior was not always because he wasn't angry, but because he could guide the younger ones with by his example.
"I see myself as a role model" he often thought to himself. To others he said "Some of the young Black men project to me that they are still in high school. They can use a hand in growing up." Franklin wanted to make sure they all knew where they came from. He knew.
Some of the classmates who knew him felt he had sold out, that he should be angrier. After all, he was African-American and the list of humiliations he had suffered at white hands was long. He could recount lots of times when he had been passed over for promotions. Even now he was back in school because he was having trouble finding a job. And he had been in the military, traveled all over the world. He knew discrimination, in all its shades and shadows, down to his very core.
And then there were those at the college who felt he had repressed his rage for so long, it was no wonder he spoke out with underlying bitterness. Even his teacher stopped him, after class one day and said "Speak out more. These students need to know the slights you must have felt in your lifetime."
But Franklin wanted to talk to the young Black men on campus. He wanted them to be proud and to know their heritage. He didn't want them just to be angry and to tear things down. They all needed to know their history to find their places now.
Franklin was easy to talk to. Students for whom English was not their first language found his slow speech easy to follow. And they found he took time with them and he listened well. He seemed to understand when they were confused and lost.
His best friend on campus was William, a Vietnam veteran whose legs didn't work well and whose speech was hard to understand. William was white, but that didn't seem to matter in the bars where they hung out most Friday nights. It was a "Vets" bar and William was well accepted there. The first night he brought Franklin along was a bit tense. Franklin was the only African-American in the place, and a number of William's friends were openly hostile. Franklin heard "nigger" more than once behind his back. But no one said it to his face. Franklin knew this was a test from the Army. He was used to others saying these words to find out how short his fuse was. He had been in the service for thirteen years and in police work for three years after that. It's the sort of thing that happens when men of a certain age get together. He knew this pattern well.
It used to bother his first wife that he didn't stand up to people more. She felt he let people get away with too much - talking behind his back, acting disrespectful to her. But Franklin felt the need to choose his battles. "Even as a Black police officer I have been stopped - and I knew I didn't do anything. When I'm stopped I know there is a certain way I have to act and talk. You have to be very choice with words." He learned as a young child in California, that fighting didn't teach anyone anything. And he liked to think of his life as a lesson for all the people he touched. His wife didn't see life the same way.
Franklin found the climate on campus much more comfortable. Generally the students were more open - to both his age and his race. They would ask questions and seemed interested in his answers. Oh, there was that incident in the library. One day he asked for help with the computer. The student library assistant ignored him for several minutes. Finally she came over, but seemed impatient with his explanation of what help he needed. She fixed the problem for him and then left. He said "Thank you" as she was leaving. She did not seem to hear him. Later he went to her superior to ask if he had upset her. He found her behavior rude and dismissive. Yet her behavior was not unusual. There were still times when he would get into an elevator and a woman riding in it would clutch her purse tighter.
He was surprised that people did not know facts about their history: that Beethoven was a Moor.; that Timbuktu had been the Oxford University of Africa, that the ancient Egyptians who had created architectural marvels, written great literature, and made amazing scientific discoveries had been African.
So today -the day he spoke out in class, everyone paid attention. "I wish you would all learn your history. We need to understand that not every African-American person who came to the US worked in the fields. There were those who came as indentured servants. There were Black slave owners, too. And many African came as tutors. We are here to learn about the true American history. They don't teach that and it must be taught. The young people must know."
"I don't care why our ancestors were brought here. I just want some respect now," a young African-American man, Josh, replied.
"How will you get that respect if you don't respect yourself." Franklin continued.
"I've got plenty of respect for myself. I just don't get any from other people around here." Josh retorted.
"Look. I know it's hard. But an education will take care of that." Franklin nodded his head when he said this.
"Oh sure. I've heard that before. But I don't see it. I can make $500 an hour being a lookout on the street. What is this education going to offer me? A $10 an hour job? Or maybe no job at all. How many jobs have you had, Franklin."
"It's not easy. I've been told a job is taken but it isn't. I've been looked at like I didn't know what I'm doing. But education is the way out. I don't have anything on paper to prove what I've done. But you'll have the paper - that diploma. I have written so many resumes, that I don't even try anymore. How can you put a whole life on a resume? But I know about the proud people I come from."
A young woman seated next to Josh jumped in: "I don't see why African-American history is any more important than - Welsh history. My ancestors came from Wales. Now there's an oppressed country! Maybe we should spend a week studying Wales. There are many famous Welsh who are ignored in the United States."
Franklin replied, "Tell me, when was the last time a white man or a Welshman was hung - here in our country? Because he was white or Welsh? I'm hurt at your comment, because as late as 1993 a young African-American man was hung in Boston. But we don't learn about that in this class."
"Oh great. - just what we need. Another course we have to take in order to graduate. Where will it stop? African history, South American history", Gabe chimed in."
Others joined in the clamor. "How about a history of indigenous people? Now there's a story yet to be told! " "How about Mexican history? How can we talk about United States history without learning about Mexico, too?" "How about the Chinese? They built the railroads, agriculture, and small businesses that helped the economic success of the entire United States!"
Kaitlyn, sitting next to Franklin, practically shouted to be heard. "Or the history of people with disabilities in this country. Our fight for access to "public" services,. Or a decent life style. Did you know there is actually a deaf culture? And some people say there is a definite disability culture!"
Franklin leaned back in his chair, looked at all his classmates talking to each other, and nodded. "See what I mean? There's a whole lot of history that has nothing to do with Charlemagne and King George. How can we even talk to each other if we don't know our own history? I don't belong to King George's family, thank you, even in the broadest sense! Welsh history in the United States, Mexican history, it's all our history. We need to know it. We're all here to be educated, aren't we? We all need to know our history."
The United States History professor who had been watching quietly, spoke up. So how do we do that? Load on another course? Gabe is right about the stiff requirements already in place. Would you all want to take another class in order to graduate? Well, excellent discussion, class. We can continue it in the cafeteria after class is over. Now let's get back to the discussion of the French domination of America during the latter half of the eighteenth century. "