Measuring Lives through Currency

!museum11Museum honors young lives lost in church bombing.

For some time now, I’ve been sitting on this report (hyperlink above offers a video news report and transcript of the interviews with the two women pictured above) on the exhibit on display at Atlanta’s new museum in tribute to the four girls killed in the KKK bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama. I have yet to visit the new National Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta, but I plan to make it before summer ends. Admittedly, some of my reluctance has to do with having to purchase tickets. I’ve been to many places around the world where museums, in particular, are free. While this is true of D.C., I don’t understand why most cultural sites, that are not National Parks sites, cost so much money. Even in Paris, entrance to the Louvre is free on Sunday. Tickets to the High Museum in mid-town Atlanta range from $12 for children to $19.50 for adults (the senior rate and the student rate is $16.50) and to my knowledge there are no free days. The entrance fee does not include the $5 per hour parking fees for some lots. Take the MARTA you ask? If you live in an Atlanta suburb, I dare you find a MARTA stop. The only folk I know who use MARTA regularly are those who live close to a stop; I don’t. Instead of using my state tax money to show cruelty towards immigrants, I’d rather it be used towards providing free days to museums and other cultural venues like the theater and concert halls. Any society that denies its citizens routine access to art and culture prevents the development of imaginative, curious, and serious subjects and greatly hinders the likelihood of maturity emerging from its populace. We see just such a lack in U.S. culture through the foolishness available all day long on television. Keeping Up with the Kardashians, The Real Housewives of Anywhere USADuck Dynasty, and Honey Boo Boo are a few examples of this drivel. The $200 million Glu Mobile will take in revenue for the vapid app Kim Kardashian: Hollywood exemplifies the impact of this barren culture. Apparently, Kardashian herself will likely earn $85 million. Though the app itself is free, in order to really live like Kim, you have to pay real money for this faux experience. This culture has no idea what it means to dream anymore. Nevertheless, I will get to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, but I plan on resenting the fee, so that I can witness the exhibit paying homage to Addie Mae Collins (14), [Carol] Denise McNair [11], Carole Robertson [14], and Cynthia Wesley [14] as they were heartlessly murdered just 18 days after Martin Luther King, Jr. shared his dreams in that beautifully powerful August 28, 1963 speech.

Before viewing the above video, I read the transcript describing the visit of two women featured in the photograph who very close to to the children killed in that fatal blast. Katrina Robertson Reed (left), Carole Robertson’s cousin, recounted the events of that September morning and the trials her family suffered in the explosion’s aftermath. Barbara Cross (right), daughter of Rev. John Cross who was the minister at 16th Baptist church, tells how she was in church that day and still weeps when recalling Addie Mae’s final goodbye through the prescience she ascribes to her young friend. What most disturbed me about this story was Reeds final words, which I imagine were prompted by the reporter’s question, the one always asked of black survivors of monumental tragedies: “Was it worth it.” In closing the interview, Reed offers this, “Had it not been for their deaths, we would not have had the Voting Rights Act, we would not have had the Civil Rights Act.” Continuing she adds, “These girls were chosen. Our families suffered a lot. But I think it’s been worth it.” Beloved, the one returned from the dead in Toni Morrison’s novel of the same name didn’t believe that taking her life was a forgivable offense. My friend Tanya has long acknowledged the importance of the moment in Beloved when Ella says to Stamp Paid, “You know as well as I do that people who die bad don’t stay in the ground” (188). I agree with Morrison when she describes her inability to presume to know the judgements of the dead. In order to consider Sethe’s lethal slashing of her daughter’s throat, Morrison thought that the only person fit to make any judgement of Sethe’s actions was the sacrificed daughter. To that end, unlike Reed, I’m uncomfortable saying with any certainty that the death of those girls was “worth it.” I think it’s an altogether different remark from Mrs. Till-Mobley saying that she wanted her son Emmett’s heartless, ugly death to be meaningful, I don’t recall her claiming that his death was “worth it.” I do think Reed was prompted by this question either directly or indirectly given her rearing in a culture that expects black Americans to respond to this dehumanizing question.

Black Americans and immigrants of color still have to fight daily for their right to live freely and in peace. Let’s say you can vote (if you haven’t committed a felony or weren’t born at a time when social security cards were issued or the midwife who served your rural community didn’t print birth certificates) there are so many things folk of color dare not do: you can’t go home from the corner store after purchasing Skittles and Iced-Tea; you can’t play your radio at a volume that another motorist finds unacceptable; you better not be in a car accident and seek help from someone in the community where you were injured; you’d be hard pressed to have a wonderful schooling experience with teachers who were interested in teaching you anything and routinely supporting your intellectual abilities (only athletic talent gets positive attention); good luck telling the police that they’re harassing you and living to see another day after the chokehold they lethally applied; good luck rockin’ those Havana or Senegalese twists in support of your homeland’s security; forget buying medication if you’re seriously ill and your meds don’t come in a generic form; don’t even try crossing the U.S. border because your life is threatened–we know you’re only five, but we can’t offer you sanctuary anywhere in these United States–so go on back to Central America, tell your parents that we’re a nation of laws (unless your black, unarmed, face down on a subway platform in Oakland) and we already have a workforce that will accept low wages–that’s what we send these people to inner-city public school for. So what exactly was the martyrdom worth? Was it “worth it” for Addie Mae Collins’s family when they discovered that her body was not found in the plot where they buried her? Was it worth it for the McNairs when the city of Birmingham haughtily supported his alleged crime of accepting bribes while holding an elected position? This man’s daughter gets blown to bits at church and we should expect him to live without being deeply impacted by her death? They didn’t think he paid enough? After all the damage, hurt, and loss J. Edgar Hoover caused during his term as Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), this country still finds it acceptable to name its headquarters after him but Birmingham decided they needed to immediately rename The Chris McNair Health Center upon his fall from grace? McNair’s unwilling sacrifice of his daughter in a nation that viciously declared inequality and legally informed disgrace upon all black Americans wasn’t punishment enough?

Though the U.S. loves tales of redemption, like romance, they’re fairy tales. This country continues to go about the business of killing black children–Aiyana Stanley Jones, Trayvon Marton, Jordan Davis, Timothy Stansbury, Wendell Allen, Adrian Broadway, Titania Mitchell, Rahquel Carr, Endia Martin, Jasmin Thar, Haidiya Pendelton and every frightened brown child crossing the border seeking sanctuary in these United States. 50 years after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four black girls as well as two black boys, Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware in the aftermath, the observation James Baldwin offered his nephew about the world he would face as a black person in America still hold true. “You were born into a society,” Baldwin wrote, “that spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being” (The Fire Next Time 7). How has the death toll of so many black children suggest an homage to the murder of those black children in 1963?

I’ve been doing some reading about the Oklahoma City Bombing as well as the Newtown school massacre and so far, no one has ever asked whether the hundreds of people mercilessly killed was “worth it;” instead, these deaths are mostly described as “senseless.” Biblical terms are not used in narrating the public message about these tragedies. The victims are not “martyrs” in some holy war against a hateful, homemade, homeland crime. The survivors haven’t been groomed to take measure of their loss through currency. “Is it worth it?” is a raced question that renders dead black children in the form of Isaac–despite the fact that Abraham didn’t kill him. Christians believe that God  sacrificed his son to redeem souls who would then receive the promise of everlasting life in Heaven. Believers weep in acknowledgement of that tremendous sacrifice. They try to better themselves and the world around them for the high price that Christ made on their behalf. Not a single parent whose child was killed on September 15, 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama was asked to sacrifice their child and not a single one of their children asked to be sacrificed. No global effort towards self-betterment or civic tribute has become gospel  in these here parts. The death of those children has not improved the lives of scores of black American children or poor, brown immigrant children facing certain death on their way back home. As Morrison’s Ella would have it, those four black girls and two black boys killed in Birmingham on that terrible Sunday died “bad” so they wont’t “stay in the ground.” Stamp Paid agreed. Morrison writes, “He couldn’t deny it. Jesus Christ Himself didn’t” and though he returned with a loving spirit, that may not be the rule, which is the point of Beloved as she returned with a vengeance.


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