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To the victor go the spoils, a phrase we are all familiar with. Simply put, the winner of any contest, struggle or battle, gets all the prizes, rewards, and bonuses associated with the win. But, more importantly, the victor writes the history.
I was born at Saint Francis Hospital almost three years before the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson – the Act that made it illegal to charge poll taxes, prevented election officials from conducting literacy tests and forcing Black voters to recite entire portions of the Constitution, which was impossible, to be allowed to vote.
My first real memory was on November 22, 1963, the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I walked into the kitchen where my mom was making lunch and said, “Mommy, the President was shot.” This memory was not triggered by the enormity of the event, but because the broadcast of Bozo Circus was interrupted. It would be many years before I understood the magnitude of his death.
In 1967, the Evanston School Board voted that all schools be fully integrated physically. The disproportionate burden of busing Black children is for another time. Central School was in a very diverse neighborhood and had been integrated for years; I became part of the class entering school that year, dubbed the first fully desegregated class to go through the Evanston public school system.
The curriculum for elementary education in Evanston and across the nation was standard: Christopher Columbus “discovered” America in 1492 with his three ships, the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria; we saw images in textbooks of Native Americans (Indians) scarcely clothed enjoying the feast of Thanksgiving with the new settlers, eager to contribute to this great feast by bringing only maize; the war against the British and the signing of the Declaration of Independence bought us our freedom; the first Presidents of the newly formed government were lauded; and oh yeah, slavery. …
My neighborhood – the 900 block of Sherman Avenue bordered by Main Street to the south and Lee Street to the north – was truly diverse, with every ethnicity well represented. My universe during those formative years seemed free from racism. Despite the trope commonly used today – “I don’t see color” – we did, but devoid of any tension based on race. But then we grew up.
My universe expanded, like all the kids on the block, first by merely matriculating from elementary to middle school, and then by entering the brand-new solar system of Evanston Township High School. That middle universe is where most of us lost our innocence, where seeing color became a part of our identity, where you could be labeled by your peers as an “Uncle Tom” or an “N-word lover”, where talking white and trying to act Black was a real thing. Where having a white girlfriend or Black boyfriend went from being cute in the eyes of parents to problematic.
Middle school is where the effects of the depiction, misrepresentation, and miseducation from the textbooks of history kicked in. This is the moment when we were forced to pick a side or be shunned by those who believed there is no middle ground—you were either Black or white. Remember, the history in our textbooks was not written by the slaves.
In 2020, George Floyd was murdered, some would say publicly lynched, and his death was captured by multiple angles on video. Eight minutes and forty-six seconds. Indelibly etched in history. “Black Lives Matter” is on the lips of every American and the entire world, whether for or against.
But what will the history books 20 or 200 years from now say about this moment? Who will be the victor?
Will history be written by those who have for centuries held the power to quell any efforts for equality, those who have already bent history to show themselves as being superior, developed oppressive systems and laws to maintain power and have dominion over everyone else by any means necessary?
Or will it be written by those who in this seminal moment stood up and finally voiced outrage over the disproportionate number of Black men and women too numerous to be named that have been killed? Killed at the hands of lynch mobs, white vigilantes, the police, those who “feel threatened,” people who mistake us for intruders sitting in our own apartments, and too many other countless scenarios where the only common denominator is the color of our skin.
Mr. Wallace is a lifelong Evanston resident.