Tonight, we went to see the off-Broadway show Too Heavy for your Pocket, which is set in Nashville during the early 1960s, when racial segregation was the norm, and when whites went to the white bathrooms and the “coloreds” went to the coloreds’ bathrooms. The main character gets a scholarship to attend college, a big deal for him and their family, but he decides to risk it by joining the Freedom Riders’ movement to stand up for black people’s rights. That also means he risks leaving his wife a widow, and a single mom given that she’s actually pregnant with his child (but he doesn’t know this because she’s too angry with him to tell him).
There’s the micro element of how Bowsie’s standing up for black people’s civil rights affects his two friends and wife, and thus his family. But there’s also the macro element of how what he’s doing is contributing to a better life for his future children and future generations of black Americans who simply want to have a seat on a bus and not think about certain sections being for whites vs. blacks. There’s the desire to live in a world where he doesn’t have to have a designated water fountain just for people who have the same colored skin as him. And there’s the desire to just be, and to be equal to everyone else. Maybe he might die, but he’d die for his future generations of black men and women, and for his child who may end up growing up in a world, never knowing what it was like to sit in the back of the bus with other “colored” people.
The feeling I had watching this show was similar to how I felt when Chris and I visited Little Rock Central High School last October with my local friend there. Imagining being one of a handful of people who looked like me, attempting to attend my first day of school full of white people who didn’t want me there would be absolutely terrifying. My friend and I both joked that day that the two of us would be too scared to do what the Little Rock Nine did in the late 1950s. We’re not fearless or radical at all; we have lots of fear. We’d be scared of pain, scared of being spat on and given death threats. And in Bowsie’s case, we’d be scared of dying and never seeing the people we love ever again.
That’s why every time I hear stories of the Freedom Riders or anyone who has protested or risked their lives for civil rights, I always feel a little bit more and more awe and respect for these people. They were thinking about the future lives of others, not even their own lives or the lives of people they knew in their lifetime, and how those lives could be better. They’re far bigger than I could probably ever be.