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Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore on Rosa Parks

Paperback Project discussions begin on Monday

Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore will lead a discussion about Rosa Parks on Monday, Feb. 13 and Tuesday, Feb. 14 at 12 p.m. in the Howard Thurman Center. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore selected the biography Rosa Parks: A Life, by historian Douglas Brinkley, to launch the Paperback Project, a discussion series that will explore current social, political, and cultural issues through books. The first Paperback Project events take place on Monday, February 13, and Tuesday, February 14, at noon in the Howard Thurman Center. Elmore shares his essay on Rosa Parks, written for the occasion of the Paperback Project.

By Kenneth Elmore

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man — when I could get it — and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

— Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman?”

Rosa Parks took Sojourner’s truth and stated the question more bluntly: “Ain’t I human?” For me, reading about Rosa Parks provided an opportunity to reflect on what it means to live life as a descendant of slaves and what obligations are required of these same descendants — this is reflection that hits close to my home. Both sets of my grandparents spent a great deal of their lives in South Carolina as sharecroppers. If we had known the true age of my paternal grandfather, I suspect that we would have discovered that he spent a portion of his boyhood as a slave. Like so many others, my relatives spent a number of years doing backbreaking labor while negotiating racist policies throughout the deep American South. As children, both of my parents also lived under the system of sharecropping and the brutal, humiliating, and immoral system that made Black Codes and Jim Crow policies the way Americans interacted with each other, especially in places like South Carolina. 

My parents remind me of the people I read about in Douglas Brinkley’s Rosa Parks. But I prefer not to dwell on the negative. These were creative people. These were people who were fighters. These were people who made sure that a person like me would not have to endure the same humiliation, cowardice, and brutality that would limit my ability to act as a citizen of this country. The book Rosa Parks reminded me of the conversations I’ve had with my parents and my grandparents about the struggles in this society to create the “more perfect union.” In fact, the book is about the lives and the times of my family — many of us may be able to see our lives and the lives of our families within this book.

The experiences of Mrs. Parks represent a reminder that to be an engaged citizen, I cannot skim through or overlook past events. Rosa Parks: A Life, by Douglas Brinkley, reminds me of my role as a leader in a university environment. How I need to be involved in generating relationships and actions about the society, the University, in my neighborhood and in my community, so that I can focus and struggle with others to influence and promote learning and accomplish positive change that benefits “the common good” for our society. I selected Rosa Parks not simply for its themes but to ask you to do what it made me do — examine what it means to be a decent, responsible, and moral person within the places in this country where I live and where I work. As you go through the book, I offer you some of the aspects of it that meant something to me. 

This is a book full of joy. Music brings joy, and it is present in Mrs. Park’s life. I “heard” a lot of music throughout this book. Throughout this book, I heard Ma Rainey’s blues, Bessie Smith, and Joe Turner. The descriptions of Mrs. Parks’ experiences made me “hear” Ella Fitzgerald’s Azure, a raw ballad by Erskine Hawkins, and the fun of a Louis Jordan song. I could hear Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and even a bit of Coltrane when I read. And if you listen for music in books, as I do, don’t miss Sly and the Family Stone, Ray Charles, and Aretha’s Some Day We’ll All Be Free (trust me, it’s there). 

This book reminded me of the books and documents that I should have read (or should have read more thoroughly). I also saw the great unsung heroes of American history (people like my parents) who should have books written about them; people who should have paintings painted about them; people who should have photographic essays made about them; people who should have symphonies written about them. As you go through the book, look for the insight from some of the great people who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Consider people who we know existed, but never received publicity (the two women who sat on a bus prior to Rosa Parks, but for various reasons didn’t get books written about them). Go and learn more about people like Septima Clark and Myles Horton and their roles. Consider the different legacies of James Blake, Strom Thurman, and Virginia Foster Durr on us and on Rosa Parks. Think about historic places like the Dexter Avenue and First Avenue Baptist churches and their roles throughout Rosa Parks’ life. 

I hope that you’ll explore resources like those put together by Clayborn Carson, or resources that might be available at places like Detroit’s Wayne State University, on Rosa Parks. I hope that you’ll read through some of the “great” documents and debates from the Civil Rights Movement — historical texts and recordings that talk about the people and the times. Go back and read — the great speeches of Dr. King, Tolstoy’s Nobel address, writings about the role of civil disobedience, the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and the grand speeches of Marcus Garvey.

Make sure that you take a look at some of my favorite authors — James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. Dubois, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison. They understood Mrs. Parks’ experiences and wrote beautiful books and essays as a result. As you read this book, be sure also to understand the value of churches for Rosa Parks and others. These institutions were extremely important (especially the AME Church) in America’s quest for civil rights. And don’t miss the moral courage of people like Virginia Foster Durr and Robert Gratz.

As you can see, I am fond of this book. I hope that you’ll engage in some of the conversations that we plan to have over the course of the semester about Rosa Parks and a number of the themes from the book. Even better, I hope that this can be a catalyst for you to consider how we, as people who hope to be leaders in this society, struggle with some of the important issues of race, class, culture, and American pluralism. I look forward to seeing you throughout the semester.