I was five years old when I started first grade. For the first week, I was a bus student and my stop was my house. There was another stop about 500 feet away. This in itself is not that notable for an elementary bus route. But the other bus stop was at the intersection of my road and one that curved around into a block of public housing. There was a whole group of kids at that bus stop, the one in front of my house was just me.
My mother thought this was silly and told the school I would be fine walking to the bus stop at the corner. But the school pushed back. They claimed it was too far according to their bus guidelines. My mother pointed out that some of the kids at that stop lived in the back of the neighborhood and had to walk from just as far. The school told her it was unsafe. She said she’d walk me over herself. They said no. It wasn’t unsafe because our house was on more of a main road. There were kids “from the projects” at that stop and they couldn’t ensure my safety — as a kid not “from the projects” — until I was on the bus, with an adult employed by the school.
My mother was incensed. She demanded they change my bus stop to the corner. They refused, So she changed my status to a walker and brought me to school every day. She wouldn’t be part of a system so blatantly classist and racist even as a conscientious objector. We often drove or walked kids to their homes in “the projects”. They were nice little neighborhoods made up of two family homes and I never once felt unsafe there.
A couple decades later I worked in East Hartford. It was a call center, a hundred cubicles, a soul-breaking job. I started as a temp and a couple of my co-workers sort of adopted me into their lunch group. All women and all Black, except me. One in particular decided to mentor me, She taught me the job. But she also gave me wardrobe tips and told me to stop biting my nails. We talked about resumes and interviews and microaggressions. When I got pregnant she organized my baby shower. And one of the three times I saw Revenge of the Sith opening weekend was with her. Not because she was a Star Wars fan, because I was and she wanted to experience it with me and through my eyes.
At some point in this threeish years long relationship she gave me a book to read. A romance novel about a Black couple and by a Black woman. And after a couple weeks she asked if I’d read it yet and I said no. She got annoyed and said “because it’s about a Black girl?” in a way that was both question and answer — and accusation. And I stammered something like, “no! I don’t read romance novels” and that was true. But so was her assumption. She came to see Star Wars because it was my favorite story and I didn’t do the same for her.
Flash forward again and I still think about that book all the time. I wish I remembered the title so I could read it now. I only remember the cover was yellow, with a stylized Black girl wearing a polka dot dress.
A couple years ago in grad school I did a presentation on diversity in the books kids read in school. The stats I used were 30 years old, but hadn’t been updated since. So for my final project I wanted to do new research myself. I asked four different professors to be my advisor for the project. They didn’t refuse, but they discouraged me. The most frank one told me everyone already knows the lack of diversity in school readings is a problem. But it’s too big a problem. My grad school project can’t solve it. The subtext was: it can’t be solved. At least not without systemic change to not just our schools but our society. So no one wants to talk about it. Teachers and schools and libraries are doing the best they can, they tell me. White people are doing the best they can.
And that is just demonstrably untrue. We are clearly not doing the best we can. I know we are all exhausted trying to “fix” education, especially this year. I know we feel powerless and trapped in a broken system. But my middle school bus stop was at the corner, not in front of my house. Sometimes change happens so slowly, so quietly, so invisibly we don’t think of it as change. We cannot let apathy win. We cannot accept the status quo.
John Boyega correctly accused the Star Wars sequels of not knowing how to tell the stories of the non-white characters. Imani Barbarin correctly pointed out that Chadwick Boseman only got to portray an array of important Black heroes because no one knew he was sick. We need those stories. We can and must do better. I can and must do better.