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Aug 09 2020 - 08:58 AM
What If? Teaching Anti-Racism


Although I am very young, I know it's significant for Al Raby, a teacher and civil rights activist, to deliver the eulogy at my father's funeral, long ago on the North Side of a Chicago Spring. A tall, slender man, he steps measuredly to the podium, to the rapt attention of a very full church whose pews include my entire fourth grade class. I learn how Mr. Raby and my father roomed together for several months in Springfield during the sixth revision of the constitution of the state of Illinois -- how, in fact, they were close friends all through the grueling political campaign that led to democratic changes in government, well into Vietnam. They didn't agree on absolutely everything, nor did they share similar backgrounds; but Mr. Raby, who secured the support of Dr. Martin Luther King to desegregate Chicago schools and housing, likens my father to that great leader; he describes Peter Tomei not just as a man with a dream who had been to the "top of a mountain", but more importantly, as a "man with an ardent belief in justice and equal opportunities for all men under the law -- not only a believer, but a worker."


Pictured beside Jesse Jackson as one of the city's ten outstanding young men, my father, a lawyer, counsels that all men are born equal, and that we must never, ever judge anyone on the basis of skin color.... that is, all men and women are born equal, but unfortunately without equal opportunities in life. School has settled like leaves to the ground, and I listen carefully to his honest and wise opinion. I think of our new teacher, Mrs. Alta Jacko, an accomplished pianist, who drives all the way in from the South Side to share her knowledge and love of music. Exuding warmth and energy, she familiarizes us with Negro spirituals, George Gershwin, and the Harlem Renaissance -- music she will bring over the course of the next thirty years to the Chicago public schools. Sadly and quite suddenly, Mrs. Jacko fails to return to our cherished classroom in, of all places. the courtyard trailer, and in the depth of winter, there's profound heaviness with the return to formal, classical music by a substitute teacher.


Decades past, in the wake of racial justice protests and massive waves of night bikers filling our leafy summer streets, I cycle to the teachings of Nelson Mandela, meaning of "color blindness", and how far we have come, or not come, with regard to race in a broader-based, multi-ethnic, multi-colored world. "What if", I'm asked by my daughter, "to pick out a doll that I like, or one that looks like me -- but the shop only has dolls of a different color -- how might I feel?" Her question takes me back to the blackboard; it's a valuable exercise to flip the story, making me realize more than ever how teaching anti-racism begins with family, extends to school, and must still be addressed by government and civil society, as concern carries on through generations.


Teaching Anti-Racism, the current online Everett Cafe Book Display, is inspired by ongoing social protests over the horrific death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th, 2020 and escalating tensions around the world with regard to race and injustice, particularly with regard to Black victims at the hands of police. It focuses on essential readings that cover anti-racism and serve to remind us of the need to advocate for a more just society. The display embraces a call for wider respect, acceptance, and appreciation of diversity in all its forms, particularly in educational settings, with race as a prime example in teaching for diverse democracy.


Image: Grain-Fall Foliage-Oak Leaf, Courtesy MaxPixels