Sunday, August 16, 2015

What I Learned From Julian Bond

I can’t begin to communicate the level of ignorance in my life when I entered college out of small town southern Virginia in 1990. I was shocked to learn that support for presidents Reagan and Bush was anything less than 100% and struggled to come to grips with the reality that professional wrestling might not actually be a legitimate sport. It didn’t take long on a college campus for me to learn that I wasn’t even smart enough to know the things that I didn’t know.
I took Julian Bond’s “History of the Civil Rights Movement” out of genuine interest in learning about those things that I didn’t know. I had no idea who Julian Bond was. He told a joke on the first day of class about walking with Dr. Martin Luther King along the D.C. mall. Dr. King shared a dream from the night before during which he said “I had a nightmare,” to which Julian Bond replied “No, Dr. King, You have a dream.” He then went on to take credit for the title of MLK’s famous speech.

I laughed along with everyone else, assuming the entire scenario was just a fiction to break the ice in class. Only several weeks later did I notice in our assigned readings, the name of my teacher kept coming up—Then I realized, it was this man who played such an instrumental role in the journey towards civil rights in America that I have been given the privilege to learn from.

I learned first in that class, that I had grown up largely unaware of the privilege my race had afforded me. Walking into the room, the make up of the class was still majority white, but much less than any other classroom I’d entered. It made me uncomfortable, even more, the fact that I was uncomfortable without any good reason made me more uncomfortable and brought some of my hidden biases to the surface where they had to be dealt with.

I learned that the best way to approach new people is with humility and not arrogance. I entered the classroom expecting a “teacher” who would tell me about “history.” What I got was a “history maker” telling and showing me how he “shaped history.” I still regret that it took me a few weeks to realize that fact. I’m thankful that he was the regular instructor of the class for the entire semester. We often miss great opportunities to learn because we don’t take other people seriously enough.

I learned that I had to own my history and live my present. As a white male, I don’t need to defend my history, deny my privilege, or bristle when racism is named. Julian Bond recreated “sit-in” training sessions similar to sessions run by the Student Non-violence Coordinating Committee in the sixties. These simulations were difficult and hard to handle, but in light of the fact that they were just that—simulations of training—made the brutal reality of events that actually happened impossible to deny. The past shouldn’t make me feel guilty, but it should definitely inform how I move into the future.

Most importantly, I continued to learn long after leaving Julian Bond’s classroom. From the perspective gained from him I found a new lens with which to view the world. A lens that recognizes the varied experiences of the people in our world and a mind that values the way these varied experiences have weaved the tapestry of humanity that we are a part of today.

I don’t even know how many years he taught this class at the University of Virginia, but I know that several thousand students at least had the opportunity to learn from him. This is just one small way out of many that Julian Bond has shaped the world in which we live.

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