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
DescriptionAfrican American and Diaspora Studies scholar

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)