A Guest Blog from my wife, Pam Young
It has taken a lifetime of learning to make up for the history I was never taught in the traditional classroom. Growing up in south Texas, I knew a lot about Cinco de Mayo, Dia de los Muertos and Texas history. I knew a bit about World War II because my father served in it before I was born. I knew about indentured servants and Scottish land clearances because of family history. I knew about Ruby Bridges and the Civil Rights movement because of the evening news and it was all so bewildering to me because in my little town my school was integrated some time before I was born. We all started first grade together and it never occurred to us it had been any other way. It wasn’t talked about.
Eventually I started learning things and each time a dusty door of history opened to me, I began to see without naive blinders. When I took a job teaching music at an inner city school in Houston I learned from the kind and patient elder teachers of color, who gently and openly taught me about inner city poverty, education to promote freedom, and music and literature that had been skipped over in my own education. Can you imagine that a lifelong musician and school of music graduate had never heard “Lift Every Voice and Sing?” It’s true. I learned it at Bowie Elementary along with my students In the eighties.
I had another revelation when I taught in Hempstead in the nineties and I relived that experience today when a conversation on Facebook brought it back to life. I started some elementary choirs in Hempstead and we did some really cool things. There were about 120 kids in my 5th and 6th grade choir and we had so much fun! We did several big concerts every year, performed at the fair and Fiesta Texas and Bobcat football games, and for several years we sang at the Texas Celebration at Liendo Plantation. There weren’t planatations in Beeville, so when we were asked to sing at the historical home of the sculptress Elizabet Ney, I took the kids. We sang Disney songs and Texas our Texas and I remember singing Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World” with sign language. We had a black principal and assistant principal, and I wonder in retrospect how they really felt about it, but they never said anything about how some of the children or their parents might have reservations. Then one day, a dear friend and colleague whom I adored (and still do) just nonchalantly said when asked to go with us, “I don’t do plantations.” Another dusty door creaked open. Here I was, thinking how great it was to take my sweet singers to sing at a big, pretty house while many of them had long family histories of pain and suffering in the community and it was a burden to their parents to decide whether to let them go. Yet they were so kind and loving toward me and didn’t want to say anything to me about it. After Eula Richard gently offered a comment to open a closed door of history to me, we didn’t go back. I never told her how meaningful her candor was to me. History class was the place for them to learn about plantations and I took the time to learn more on my own. Today my sweet choir children (now in their thirties) were gracious to me again and didn’t want me to feel bad about it. That’s the kind of people they are. I wish I had a time machine and could go back and do it all differently.
These were just the first of many eye-opening revelations I have found and the doors have continued to open over the years, the most enlightening of which was the door of adoption. Raising black sons, it was my duty to learn black history, but even if I hadn’t gone looking, the reality of how they were often perceived spoke volumes of truth into my life. Suddenly I saw things in my everyday life that I had naively missed before. It truly felt as if I had been wearing blinders and was seeing the world around me for the first time.
I’m still learning about dusty doors that need to be opened. A really raw video shared by my niece this past week mentioned historical events I hadn’t known. It sounds ridiculous, but I had not read the histories of Tulsa and Black Wall Street. I never heard the hideous history of Rosewood. Now I have and I am going to keep opening the dusty doors that are hard to walk through because knowing the truth sets us free.
People around the country are opening the door to knowledge about Juneteenth today like never before. What has been a glorious celebration in Brenham and other parts of Texas for many years is spreading to the rest of the country. I remember when I first learned that Texas slaves didn’t even know they were free until that day 2000 troops sailed into Galveston with the proclamation. I didn’t learn it in school. We have been passing by these dusty doors too long. I’m asking my black friends to continue to speak truth in love and I’m asking my white friends to walk through the doors of truth. A lack of knowledge and understanding is a form of bondage. We can walk in freedom together if we are willing to do the work.
Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
‘Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on ’til victory is won.