By the Content of their Character

Walking to the museum from the metro that blustery day, with my 11th grade scholars in tow, I never could have imagined the eye-opening lessons that a simple field trip would teach me.  I say “me”, and not “us”, because I learned that day something my male African-American students probably already knew all too well.

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This was a field trip I had envisioned since July. I had spent the summer in a grad school class on the topic of African-American depiction and expression in art and literature. After countless hours steeped in the colorful brushstrokes of one Great Migration-era artist in particular, I made a joyous discovery that some of his artwork would be exhibited at a museum within day-trip reach.

When two snow-day reschedules left us past the deadline to schedule a formal tour, the museum kindly agreed to let me take two smaller groups of students through myself.  I worked out a schedule with my co-chaperone, in which I would take the first group of six or so while he took the other kids to eat lunch. Then we would switch and he would take the second half of kids to lunch while I showed the rest of the kids around. I asked the students to request groups by their circle of friends. I hadn’t intended to segregate the groups, but because many of them were close friends from being basketball teammates, I ended up with all of the African-American young men in the first group, while the second group were largely Asian international students.

At the museum entrance, we divided up, and I gave the students some final reminders about proper decorum. Passing through the entrance felt like stepping into an inner sanctum and a hush of solemnity fell on our group. The sound of the students’ feet echoed louder in their lack of speaking. The eyes of the guards snapped toward us like magnets, and their posture stiffened as though on some state of heightened alert. As if I didn’t feel small enough surrounded by towering athletes, I felt the need to grow smaller, to shrink all of us. I couldn’t shake the feeling of intruding somewhere we weren’t supposed to be. In hushed tones I instructed the students to alight the stairs to find the exhibit. As soon as we mounted the second floor, though, more guards appeared, watching every step, every hushed whisper. We found the exhibit and gathered around the collection. A guard followed us in, so close he almost felt a part of our group. I hurriedly took pictures, asked the students some discussion questions, all the while eying the guard and visually patrolling my students to make sure all was in order. Our discussion was short, hushed and hesitant, as each one of us was visibly uncomfortable.

We moved on from room to room, but without fail a guard appeared, monitoring us closely, often joined shortly by a second guard. One exhibit in particular featured a room covered entirely of bees wax. Museum visitors were encouraged to stand in the center of the golden glow of the closet-sized room to get the full experience. One of the students, a tall African-American basketball star and a very bright student, stood in the middle and commenting about the smell and conjecturing about the purpose of the exhibit, and gently brushed his fingertip against the wall.

“Don’t touch that!” We all jumped as the guards voice rang out like a gunshot. The student’s eyes grew wide, and he crept out from the exhibit. The guard had been so close that my periphery assumed he was a student.  We sought refuge in a lower traffic wing of the museum, where at last we found a cheery guard who chatted with us, delighted in the quest for a Picasso, no doubt unaware she was a refreshingly bright light in the museum.
The time for the lunch-time swap arrived, and I braced myself for another foray into the guard’s icy stares. I bid adieu to the first group, and prepped the new group, which were comprised completely of Asian exchange students, with the exception of a biracial Asian/Caucasian-American student. The atmosphere that greeted us had warmed considerably as I entered with this group. Guards seemed disinterested at best, relaxed, some even pleasant. We made our way to the exhibit, and I conducted the same instructions, this time distracted. Wait, I thought, these guards are suspicious of teenagers, even threatened. But as we traveled through the museum at a more leisurely pace, the kids spread out with impunity, admiring paintings paintings unattended, posing for pictures and lounging on the benches.

That’s when the horrible reality I had been too naïve to spot previously crept slowly into my heart in a slow ache. These guards had no problem with teenagers. “Hey look!” I wanted to shout at the guards, as I passed through with the Asian/Caucasian group that they had already probably sized up as studious. “Teenagers! Threatening teenagers who will touch things and stand too close to the paintings–don’t you want to follow them around and stare at them intimidatingly too?” No. These kids were not tall, black young men.

As I followed my students around the museum absently, I pictured the first group, no doubt by now happily eating lunch somewhere. Being well-dressed and well-behaved had not been sufficient protection against suspicion.  If I had taken a Sharpie and written their impressive GPAs on their foreheads would that have made a difference? What about safety-pinning their report cards to their shirts so that the guards could see that they had nary a B between them in my class and had maintained, not just barely an A, but solid, high A’s? Would these gentlemen pose less of a threat if the guards could see the colleges who were already talking to them? Even if none of the athletes had picked up a basketball in their lives, they would have no problem getting into college, and probably even on an academic merit scholarship.  Or what if I had sent in video footage ahead of time of these young men in my class, actively engaged and leading in a class discussion, even helping students who were English language learners?  Would they pose less of a threat if I could somehow provide a magic window into their character and so that breadth of the goodness in each of their hearts were visible?

The next day in class the students working in groups, analyzing some postcards of prints I had picked up to continue the conversation. One of the African-American students began chuckling as he held up the postcard. “This looks like the guards at that museum yesterday!” His observation was met with the concurring laughter and nodding heads of his classmates. The image featured a group of black migrants, lined up to vote and an angry-looking white guard stood, arms folded menacingly front of the voting booth. That image had been painted in 1941.

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(Image source)

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