A White Woman Reads Martin Luther King Jr. in Idaho

About a month ago I came upon this brilliant article by fellow Idahoan Laura Bracken called Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates in Idaho. It’s long and lovely and left me shaken to the core with recognition and in tears. We have a similar story: like Laura, I was raised among a plethora of white faces. I encountered very little diversity in my life other than books, which have always been my salvation. I longed for multicultural events and friends growing up but turned instead to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and movies like Malcolm X as a teenager.

A few years ago, I picked my daughter’s copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings off a bookshelf. Then The Color Purple. She recommended Zora Neale Hurston and Amazon suggested Melissa Harris-Perry. Then Ta-Nehisi Coates, Isabel Wilkerson, Bryan Stevenson. I backtracked to The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Notes of a Native Son and some poetry by Richard Wright and Langston Hughes. I watched 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, Straight Outta Compton. King Leopold’s Ghost was the plunder of human bodies and Song of the Shank was the owning of one such body. In these stories and histories and art came a visceral recognition of white privilege.
— Laura Bracken, Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates in Idaho

As a high school student in rural Burley, Idaho, I wanted so desperately to understand; I still want so desperately to understand. I also just wanted to get out of there as soon as possible, something quite common in teenagers exploding with potential and wanderlust. This desire is what led me to become a student of American history and women’s studies and, eventually, to move across the country several times.

 January 25, 1888,  Idaho Statesman

January 25, 1888, Idaho Statesman

The racists at Hayden Lake were predominantly from California — not native Idahoans. But racism has a long reach back into Idaho history, from the slaughter and resettlement of Native peoples to discrimination against Chinese and Japanese immigrants. Idaho’s government in the immediate post Civil War period was controlled by whites who had left the Confederacy. Housing segregation created Chinatowns, including one in Lewiston that burned to the ground as white firefighters refused to intervene. In the Rialto Theatre in Pocatello, non-whites were “delegated to the last six rows…on your left-hand side.” In 1916, when the racist epic Birth of a Nation played across Idaho, the advice sheet for House Managers included the words “Please bear in mind that NEGROES MUST NOT BE ADMITTED TO BIRTH OF A NATION UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.” In 1958, the Franklin Park neighborhood in Boise had a sign with “boxcar high letters,” CAUCASIANS ONLY.

But I didn’t know any of this when I moved to Lewiston, which is only 7 miles from the Nez Perce Reservation boundary. My kids and I applauded the Nez Perce riding on horseback in the rodeo parade; I was stunned when a new friend, born and raised in Lewiston, characterized the Nez Perce as a “bunch of drunks.” She said that I should go to the bars and see.
— Laura Bracken
 February 28, 1949,  Idaho Statesman

February 28, 1949, Idaho Statesman

I wanted so badly to study abroad as an undergraduate at the University of Idaho. I thought it might be the only affordable way I’d ever be able to leave the country, but even that was too expensive. I settled upon a national student exchange program as long as I could be in as different of a place than Idaho as possible. I wanted to be in the South and on the ocean but my parents weren’t keen on New Orleans, my first choice, because at the time it had one of the highest murder rates in the country. I decided upon Charleston, South Carolina, and had never seen more old money, sprawling plantations, humidity or black people in my life. It was mind-blowing and awful and extraordinary, my time there, for so many reasons.

When I lived in Charleston in the early 90s the population was somewhere around 50% black and 50% white. I experienced racial tension on numerous occasions during my time there and it always made my heart pound and my hands sweat. One time at a downtown Arby’s I noticed, for the first time in my life, that I was the only white person in a very full restaurant. I stood in line for a long time until everyone else was helped and the cashier looked at me, visibly sighed, and walked into the back room to be replaced by a white cashier who finally took my order. My naïve nineteen-year-old mind was reeling with thoughts about "reverse racism," though I’d yet to hear that term. I was so upset and confused that I got my food to go rather than eat inside the restaurant as planned.

I spent my honeymoon in Memphis - mainly for Elvis and the BBQ - but also for a pilgrimage to the Lorraine Hotel. It had recently been converted into part of the National Civil Rights Museum and Dr. Brown and I made the long sweaty walk through the streets of Memphis from Beale Street through historically African-American neighborhoods. We sat in the bus with Rosa Parks and at the lunch counter and made our way to the hotel room where Dr. King was assassinated, shot on the balcony. It’s preserved in eerie detail and it took my breath away. I burst into tears, like the kind where you can barely breathe because you’re sobbing so hard. The only other people in the room were two black families who stared at me and I was mortified. I ran outside and leaned against the wall on the sidewalk and sat there for an hour to gather myself. I couldn’t bring myself to go back inside.

A decade ago we packed up our cat who pukes in the car and our two-year-old daughter and we moved our growing family from the bustling, multicultural Midwestern city of Minneapolis back to Idaho, something I never thought we’d do. It was so white and so conservative and a place I wanted to run far away from, not a place I wanted to return to. How can I raise diverse kids in such a homogeneous environment? It’s a decision I’ve been thankful for yet questioned every day since. So we read. And we march. And we make new friends who are different than we are. And we listen. We learn. We recognize our privilege. We act as allies. We can’t afford to travel far, but we have a car and gather experiences where we can. We have an education and a library card. We have kind hearts and inquisitive minds.  

As parents do, I often wondered over the years whether I did the right thing, moving my children to Idaho. I fretted whether they would be ready to live in a multicultural world, ready to act as allies for those who face racism, to choose to be one of the thousands of parts. But they are finding their way. It is my task to do the same.
— Laura Bracken

I was given a BLACK LIVES MATTER pin many months ago, when feminist writer Roxane Gay came to Boise State University and I went to see her speak. I’m pretty sure it came from the table in the back of the room operated by the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence. I immediately put it on my summer purse and switched it to my winter coat when the seasons changed. I’ve gotten a lot of looks here in Idaho because of that pin – some of surprise or solidarity, some of distrust or disgust.

Last night I went on an impromptu date with my daughter and friends to see the movie Hidden Figures, about some amazing African-American women who were scientists, engineers, business women and mathematicians who worked for NASA in the 1950s and 60s. I'm appalled I never knew their story before last night. I'm appalled that I'm wearing a BLACK LIVES MATTER pin on my coat still 55 years later. Yet we continue to stand up. We keep trying. We move forward.