I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that most people settle into a certain way of thinking and never let go. In my quest to not be “most people,” I take a certain satisfaction in knowing that I once thought one way about things and now I think another.
For me, I once believed that, in America, everyone has the opportunity to lift themselves up by their bootstraps; that, no matter the rung one is born upon, we all live in a country whose economic ladder is there to be climbed. No obstacle is too great. Just tug on those straps and you will rise.
While teaching American History to eighth graders beginning in the 1990s, I developed sensitivity to the plight of the marginalized and disenfranchised members of our society but always with an eye toward the progress the country has made. The American story is one of opportunity, increasingly available to all.
Booker T. Washington of the late 1800s embodied this American ideal. His message to former slaves and their families was that they need only work hard and keep their heads down.
“Cast down your bucket where you are,” Booker T. famously taught his thirsty brothers, so blinded by the vastness of the salty ocean of slavery and oppression that they were unable to see that their drifting had brought them to the mouth of a river with fresh water to be had. For the first time in their lives, a morsel of opportunity was at hand.
Like Booker T., my friends would argue that just being born in America is all the opportunity anyone should ever need. I would like to think this is so, yet, the argument comes from friends who know nothing about starting from scratch in America.
In the larger American story, we must acknowledge that if our grandpas and their grandpas had boots—and they did, in fact, keep on lifting themselves up—we must attribute some of our own success, material comfort, and opportunity, to their bootstrap lifting.
Coming to terms with this notion of American opportunity has transformed my thinking. “[I]t is cruel jest,” Martin Luther King once said, “to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” I offer some chronology to illustrate Dr. King’s point.
If my grandfather were alive, he would be about 110 years-old. If his grandfather were alive he would be about 160 years-old. This means that my grandfather’s grandfather was born about three years before the American Civil War.
Given my particular family, white as we all seem to be, I am going to surmise that my grandfather’s grandfather wore boots. At the same moment, my black neighbor’s grandfather’s grandfather wore shackles.
Without knowing much about him, I am pretty sure that my great-grandfather headed west either to cross the Atlantic or to the American West, worthy of the capital W for all the opportunity that was there for the taking. At the same time, my black neighbor’s great-grandfather faced the threat of the Ku Klux Klan. He certainly had no boots and, lest he imperil his life and family, dared not even imagine himself owning a pair.
When my grandfather went to school with the blessing of white society embracing public education, even as he may not have fully taken advantage of this one, my neighbor’s grandfather ventured into the same cotton field where his grandfather had slaved. The white man who owned the land assured him, as did Booker T. Washington, he need only work hard and he would prosper.
When my father bought a house after World War II, my neighbor’s father moved up North and was corralled into the black neighborhoods of our city. It was there that he rented an overcrowded apartment in an overcrowded neighborhood largely owned by white people who charged whatever rent they chose because they knew that my neighbor’s father had no choice. Of course, my neighbor’s father had no boots. He did, however, have TV and on it he met Martin Luther King, down there in Montgomery talking about boots for black people.
A few years later, when my black neighbor and I were becoming aware, largely through TV, of the things society had been doing to us, we both knew that the cops treated us differently and that the school I attended was like a pair of boots and the one to which he was assigned, based upon the neighborhood to which his father had been assigned, shackled my neighbor to his blackness.
When my father sent me off to college fully shod, my black neighbor’s father questioned his son’s belligerent attitude toward white people. He warned him that upsetting people wouldn’t get them anywhere. “Booker T. Washington told us to work hard and keep our heads down,” he told his angry son, “and someday the white man will realize how much he needs us. Just ‘Cast down your bucket where you are.’”
That’s when my neighbor and his friends burned down the neighborhood.
The newspapers described them as “rampaging Negroes.” I changed my view of these things when I discovered that they were rampaging for a reason: No boots.