David Ikard: The real story of Rosa Parks -- and why we need to confront myths about Black history

Recorded atMarch 16, 2018
Duration (min:sec)18:00
Video TypeTEDx Talk
Words per minute185.8 fast
Readability (FK)67.92 very easy
SpeakerDavid Ikard

Official TED page for this talk


Black history taught in US schools is often watered-down, riddled with inaccuracies and stripped of its context and rich, full-bodied historical figures. Equipped with the real story of Rosa Parks, professor David Ikard highlights how making the realities of race more benign and digestible harms us all -- and emphasizes the power and importance of historical accuracy.

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:14 I am the proud father of two beautiful children,
200:19 Elijah, 15, and Octavia, 12.
300:24 When Elijah was in the fourth grade,
400:27 he came to me,
500:29 came home from school bubbling over with excitement
600:32 about what he had learned that day about African-American history.
700:37 Now, I'm an African-American and cultural studies professor,
800:41 and so, as you can imagine,
900:43 African-American culture is kind of serious around my home.
1000:46 So I was very proud that my son was excited about what he had learned
1100:50 that day in school.
1200:52 So I said, "What did you learn?"
1300:54 He said, "I learned about Rosa Parks."
1400:57 I said, "OK, what did you learn about Rosa Parks?"
1501:00 He said, "I learned that Rosa Parks was this frail, old black woman
1601:06 in the 1950s
1701:08 in Montgomery, Alabama.
1801:10 And she sat down on this bus,
1901:13 and she had tired feet,
2001:15 and when the bus driver told her to give up her seat to a white patron,
2101:20 she refused because she had tired feet.
2201:22 It had been a long day,
2301:24 and she was tired of oppression,
2401:25 and she didn't give up her seat.
2501:27 And she marched with Martin Luther King,
2601:29 and she believed in nonviolence."
2701:31 And I guess he must have looked at my face
2801:35 and saw that I was a little less than impressed
2901:39 by his
3001:41 ... um ...
3101:42 history lesson.
3201:44 And so he stopped, and he was like, "Dad, what's wrong? What did I get wrong?"
3301:48 I said, "Son, you didn't get anything wrong,
3401:50 but I think your teacher got a whole lot of things wrong."
3501:53 (Laughter)
3601:54 He said, "Well, what do you mean?"
3701:56 I said, "Rosa Parks was not tired.
3802:00 She was not old.
3902:03 And she certainly didn't have tired feet."
4002:06 He said, "What?"
4102:07 I said, "Yes!
4202:08 Rosa Parks was only 42 years old" --
4302:12 Yeah, you're shocked, right? Never heard that.
4402:14 "Rosa Parks was only 42 years old,
4502:16 she had only worked six hours that day, and she was a seamstress
4602:21 and her feet were just fine.
4702:23 (Laughter)
4802:24 The only thing that she was tired of
4902:27 was she was tired of inequality.
5002:30 She was tired of oppression."
5102:32 And my son said,
5202:33 "Well, why would my teacher tell me this thing?
5302:37 This is confusing for me."
5402:39 Because he loved his teacher, and she was a good teacher,
5502:42 a young-ish, 20-something white woman,
5602:45 really, really smart, pushed him, so I liked her as well.
5702:49 But he was confused. "Why would she tell me this?" he said.
5802:52 He said, "Dad, tell me more. Tell me more. Tell me more about Rosa Parks."
5902:56 And I said, "Son, I'll do you one better."
6002:58 He was like, "What?"
6103:00 I said, "I'm going to buy her autobiography,
6203:02 and I'm going to let you read it yourself."
6303:04 (Laughter)
6403:07 So as you can imagine,
6503:10 Elijah wasn't too excited about this new, lengthy homework assignment
6603:15 that his dad had just given him, but he took it in stride.
6703:19 And he came back after he had read it,
6803:23 and he was excited about what he had learned.
6903:27 He said, "Dad, not only was Rosa Parks not initially into nonviolence,
7003:34 but Rosa Parks's grandfather, who basically raised her
7103:38 and was light enough to pass as white,
7203:40 used to walk around town with his gun in his holster,
7303:45 and people knew if you messed with Mr. Parks's children or grandchildren,
7403:50 he would put a cap in your proverbial bottom."
7503:54 (Laughter)
7603:55 Right?
7703:57 He was not someone to mess with.
7803:59 And he said, "I also learned that Rosa Parks married a man in Raymond
7904:05 who was a lot like her grandfather."
8004:09 He would organize.
8104:11 He was a civil rights activist.
8204:13 He would organize events
8304:17 and sometimes the events would be at Rosa Parks's home.
8404:22 And one time Rosa Parks remarked
8504:24 that there were so many guns on the table,
8604:26 because they were prepared for somebody to come busting into the door
8704:29 that they were prepared for whatever was going to go down,
8804:32 that Rosa Parks said, "There were so many guns on the table
8904:35 that I forgot to even offer them coffee or food."
9004:38 This is who Rosa Parks was.
9104:41 And in fact, Rosa Parks, when she was sitting on that bus that day,
9204:46 waiting for those police officers to arrive
9304:48 and not knowing what was going to happen to her,
9404:51 she was not thinking about Martin Luther King,
9504:53 who she barely knew.
9604:55 She was not thinking about nonviolence or Gandhi.
9704:58 She was thinking about her grandfather,
9805:00 a gun-toting, take-no-mess grandfather.
9905:04 That's who Rosa Parks was thinking about.
10005:07 My son was mesmerized by Rosa Parks,
10105:11 and I was proud of him to see this excitement.
10205:15 But then I still had a problem.
10305:17 Because I still had to go his school
10405:19 and address the issue with his teacher,
10505:21 because I didn't want her to continue to teach the kids
10605:25 obviously false history.
10705:27 So I'm agonizing over this,
10805:29 primarily because I understand, as an African-American man,
10905:32 that whenever you talk to whites about racism
11005:35 or anything that's racially sensitive,
11105:37 there's usually going to be a challenge.
11205:39 This is what white sociologist Robin DiAngelo calls "white fragility."
11305:45 She argues that, in fact,
11405:47 because whites have so little experience being challenged
11505:51 about their white privilege
11605:52 that whenever even the most minute challenge is brought before them,
11705:56 they usually cry,
11805:58 get angry
11905:59 or run.
12006:00 (Laughter)
12106:01 And I have experienced them all.
12206:04 And so, when I was contemplating confronting his teacher,
12306:10 I wasn't happy about it,
12406:11 but I was like, this is a necessary evil
12506:13 of being a black parent trying to raise self-actualized black children.
12606:18 So I called Elijah to me and said,
12706:19 "Elijah, I'm going to set up an appointment with your teacher
12806:24 and try and correct this
12906:26 and maybe your principal.
13006:27 What do you think?"
13106:28 And Elijah said,
13206:29 "Dad, I have a better idea."
13306:33 And I said, "Really? What's your idea?"
13406:34 He said, "We have a public speaking assignment,
13506:39 and why don't I use that public speaking assignment
13606:42 to talk about debunking the myths of Rosa Parks?"
13706:46 And I was like,
13806:48 "Well, that is a good idea."
13906:51 So Elijah goes to school,
14006:55 he does his presentation,
14106:56 he comes back home,
14206:58 and I could see something positive happened.
14307:00 I said, "Well, what happened, son?"
14407:03 He said, "Well, later on in that day,
14507:05 the teacher pulled me aside,
14607:07 and she apologized to me for giving that misinformation."
14707:12 And then something else miraculous happened the next day.
14807:16 She actually taught a new lesson on Rosa Parks,
14907:20 filling in the gaps that she had left and correcting the mistakes that she made.
15007:24 And I was so, so proud of my son.
15107:29 But then I thought about it.
15207:33 And I got angry.
15307:35 And I got real angry.
15407:38 Why? Why would I get angry?
15507:40 Because my nine-year-old son had to educate his teacher
15607:45 about his history,
15707:47 had to educate his teacher about his own humanity.
15807:50 He's nine years old.
15907:52 He should be thinking about basketball or soccer
16007:56 or the latest movie.
16107:58 He should not be thinking about having to take the responsibility
16208:02 of educating his teacher,
16308:05 his students,
16408:08 about himself, about his history.
16508:10 That was a burden that I carried.
16608:12 That was a burden that my parents carried
16708:14 and generations before them carried.
16808:16 And now I was seeing my son take on that burden, too.
16908:21 You see, that's why Rosa Parks wrote her autobiography.
17008:26 Because during her lifetime,
17108:28 if you can imagine,
17208:29 you do this amazing thing,
17308:34 you're alive and you're talking about your civil rights activism,
17408:38 and a story emerges
17508:40 in which somebody is telling the world
17608:43 that you were old and you had tired feet
17708:45 and you just were an accidental activist,
17808:48 not that you had been activist by then for 20 years,
17908:52 not that the boycott had been planned for months,
18008:55 not that you were not even the first or the second or even the third woman
18109:00 to be arrested for doing that.
18209:03 You become an accidental activist, even in her own lifetime.
18309:08 So she wrote that autobiography to correct the record,
18409:11 because what she wanted to remind people of
18509:15 was that this
18609:17 is what it was like
18709:19 in the 1950s
18809:23 trying to be black in America
18909:25 and fight for your rights.
19009:28 During the year, a little over a year, that the boycott lasted,
19109:33 there were over four church bombings.
19209:35 Martin Luther King's house was bombed twice.
19309:39 Other civil rights leaders' houses were bombed in Birmingham.
19409:43 Rosa Parks's husband slept at night with a shotgun,
19509:48 because they would get constant death threats.
19609:51 In fact, Rosa Parks's mother lived with them,
19709:53 and sometimes she would stay on the phone for hours
19809:56 so that nobody would call in with death threats,
19909:59 because it was constant and persistent.
20010:01 In fact, there was so much tension,
20110:04 there was so much pressure, there was so much terrorism,
20210:06 that Rosa Parks and her husband, they lost their jobs,
20310:09 and they became unemployable
20410:11 and eventually had to leave and move out of the South.
20510:17 This is a civil rights reality
20610:20 that Rosa Parks wanted to make sure that people understood.
20710:25 So you say, "Well, David, what does that have to do with me?
20810:31 I'm a well-meaning person.
20910:33 I didn't own slaves.
21010:35 I'm not trying to whitewash history.
21110:36 I'm a good guy. I'm a good person."
21210:40 Let me tell you what it has to do with you,
21310:42 and I'll tell it to you by telling you a story
21410:44 about a professor of mine, a white professor,
21510:48 when I was in graduate school, who was a brilliant, brilliant individual.
21610:52 We'll call him "Fred."
21710:55 And Fred was writing this history of the civil rights movement,
21810:59 but he was writing specifically about a moment
21911:02 that happened to him in North Carolina
22011:04 when this white man shot this black man in cold blood in a wide-open space
22111:08 and was never convicted.
22211:10 And so it was this great book,
22311:12 and he called together a couple of his professor friends
22411:16 and he called me to read a draft of it before the final submission.
22511:20 And I was flattered that he called me;
22611:22 I was only a graduate student then.
22711:24 I was kind of feeling myself a little bit. I was like, "OK, yeah."
22811:28 I'm sitting around amongst intellectuals,
22911:31 and I read the draft of the book.
23011:35 And there was a moment in the book
23111:37 that struck me as being deeply problematic,
23211:40 and so I said,
23311:41 "Fred," as we were sitting around talking about this draft,
23411:45 I said, "Fred, I've got a real problem with this moment that you talk
23511:49 about your maid in your book."
23611:52 And I could see Fred get a little "tight," as we say.
23711:59 He said, "What do you mean? That's a great story.
23812:03 It happened just like I said."
23912:05 I said, "Mmm ... can I give you another scenario?"
24012:08 Now, what's the story?
24112:10 It was 1968.
24212:12 Martin Luther King had just been assassinated.
24312:16 His maid, "domestic" -- we'll call her "Mabel,"
24412:20 was in the kitchen.
24512:22 Little Fred is eight years old.
24612:24 Little Fred comes into the kitchen,
24712:26 and Mabel, who he has only seen as smiling and helpful and happy,
24812:33 is bent over the sink,
24912:35 and she's crying,
25012:37 and she's sobbing
25112:40 inconsolably.
25212:42 And little Fred comes over to her and says, "Mabel, what is wrong?"
25312:47 Mabel turns, and she says,
25412:50 "They killed him! They killed our leader. They killed Martin Luther King.
25512:54 He's dead! They are monsters."
25612:59 And little Fred says,
25713:00 "It'll be OK, Mabel. It'll be OK. It'll be OK."
25813:04 And she looked at him, and she says, "No, it's not going to be OK.
25913:07 Did you not hear what I just said?
26013:09 They killed Martin Luther King."
26113:13 And Fred,
26213:15 son of a preacher,
26313:17 looks up at Mabel, and he says,
26413:20 "But Mabel, didn't Jesus die on the cross for our sins?
26513:25 Wasn't that a good outcome?
26613:27 Maybe this will be a good outcome.
26713:30 Maybe the death of Martin Luther King will lead to a good outcome."
26813:36 And as Fred tells the story,
26913:38 he says that Mabel put her hand over her mouth,
27013:43 she reached down and she gave little Fred a hug,
27113:47 and then she reached into the icebox,
27213:49 and took out a couple Pepsis,
27313:51 gave him some Pepsis
27413:53 and sent him on his way to play with his siblings.
27513:56 And he said,
27613:58 "This was proof that even in the most harrowing times of race struggle
27714:04 that two people could come together across racial lines
27814:07 and find human commonality
27914:09 along the lines of love and affection."
28014:12 And I said, "Fred, that is some BS."
28114:16 (Laughter)
28214:18 (Applause)
28314:20 Fred was like,
28414:23 "But I don't understand, David. That's the story."
28514:26 I said, "Fred, let me ask you a question."
28614:29 I said, "You were in North Carolina in 1968.
28714:35 If Mabel would've went to her community -- you were eight years old --
28814:39 what do you think the eight-year-old African-American children
28914:42 were calling her?
29014:43 Do you think they called her by her first name?"
29114:45 No, they called her "Miss Mabel,"
29214:47 or they called her "Miss Johnson," or they called her "Auntie Johnson."
29314:50 They would have never dared call her by her first name,
29414:53 because that would have been the height of disrespect.
29514:55 And yet, you were calling her by her first name
29614:58 every single day that she worked,
29714:59 and you never thought about it."
29815:01 I said, "Let me ask you another question: Was Mabel married?
29915:05 Did she have children?
30015:06 What church did she go to?
30115:08 What was her favorite dessert?"
30215:12 Fred could not answer any of those questions.
30315:17 I said, "Fred, this story is not about Mabel.
30415:20 This story is about you."
30515:22 I said, "This story made you feel good,
30615:25 but this story is not about Mabel.
30715:28 The reality is,
30815:29 what probably happened was, Mabel was crying,
30915:32 which was not something she customarily did,
31015:34 so she was letting her guard down.
31115:36 And you came into the kitchen,
31215:38 and you caught her at a weak moment where she was letting her guard down.
31315:42 And see, because you thought of yourself as just like one of her children,
31415:45 you didn't recognize that you were in fact the child of her employer.
31515:50 And she'd found herself yelling at you.
31615:53 And then she caught herself,
31715:54 realizing that, 'If I'm yelling at him
31815:57 and he goes back and he tells his dad or he tells mom,
31915:59 I could lose my job.'
32016:02 And so she tempered herself, and she ended up --
32116:05 even though she needed consoling -- she ended up consoling you
32216:09 and sending you on your way,
32316:11 perhaps so she could finish mourning in peace."
32416:16 And Fred was stunned.
32516:17 And he realized that he had actually misread that moment.
32616:22 And see, this is what they did to Rosa Parks.
32716:25 Because it's a lot easier to digest an old grandmother with tired feet
32816:31 who doesn't stand up because she wants to fight for inequality,
32916:34 but because her feet and her back are tired,
33016:36 and she's worked all day.
33116:39 See, old grandmothers are not scary.
33216:42 But young, radical black women
33316:44 who don't take any stuff from anybody
33416:46 are very scary,
33516:47 who stand up to power
33616:49 and are willing to die for that --
33716:51 those are not the kind of people
33816:54 that make us comfortable.
33916:59 So you say,
34017:01 "What do you want me to do, David?
34117:03 I don't know what to do."
34217:07 Well, what I would say to you is,
34317:09 there was a time in which,
34417:11 if you were Jewish, you were not white,
34517:13 if you were Italian, you were not white,
34617:16 if you were Irish, you were not white
34717:17 in this country.
34817:19 It took a while before the Irish, the Jews and the Italians became white.
34917:24 Right?
35017:26 There was a time in which you were "othered,"
35117:28 when you were the people on the outside.
35217:33 Toni Morrison said,
35317:35 "If, in order for you to be tall, I have to be on my knees,
35417:38 you have a serious problem."
35517:40 She says, "White America has a serious, serious problem."
35617:44 To be honest, I don't know if race relations will improve in America.
35717:50 But I know that if they will improve,
35817:51 we have to take these challenges on head on.
35917:56 The future of my children depends on it.
36017:58 The future of my children's children depends on it.
36118:01 And, whether you know it or not,
36218:03 the future of your children and your children's children
36318:07 depends on it, too.
36418:09 Thank you.
36518:10 (Applause)