Non-Conforming: The Problem with “Separate but Equal”

I am an employee at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. As a result of this, I experience a lot of things… especially long working hours. But on a more positive note, I am consistently surrounded by a rich legacy and history of people making whatever sacrifices were necessary to achieve the desired results. We're not going to get into the down sides of the job like people requesting tours of the Underground Railroad. I'll save that comedy for another post. But, I digress, let's get to the storyline of why I wrote this post *scene change*

I hadn't had a real day off in weeks, so I made a point to take the weekend off. For some reason I feel like completely changing atmospheres for a few days every now and then restores your mentally. So, I hopped a train, found a window seat, blasted some Badu in the headphones, and started adjusted my mindset to #VacationMode.


If you've ever rode a train, you know there are no assigned seats. People come on and pick whatever seat they want. Luckily, there's something about a young black dude with locs seated in business class absorbed in a laptop, blackberry, and headphones that doesn't read "I feel like being bothered". If I saw some people headed my way that I thought would still try to disturb me I would quickly fake sleep. I thought if I couldn't bank on the being intimidated maybe I could bank on them not wanting to disturb me. Exhausted, over-worked, and losing sanity by the second… I just wasn't in the mood to be bothered. So, I zoned out deeper and deeper into New Amerykah…

About an hour I heard someone whispering my name across the aisle. Ignore it Tibias, is not really someone calling you. Finally, I looked up and realized that is wasn't my imagination. It was a friend I hadn't seen since junior high who was headed to a teaching conference. In trying to sleep and fake sleep we hadn't noticed we were feet away from each other for an hour. I also didn't notice that a new group was boarding. Before I could even go back into character an elderly black woman was asking anyone sitting in the seat beside me. She looked to be about sixty, still vibrant and beautiful, with an underlying authority in her smile that let you know she wouldn't hesitate to make you go get your own switch and beat you down with it if you crossed her. Before I could even formulate a lie, I reflexively blurted out a "No ma'am, have a seat"… see Grandma, you did raise me well. I even put her luggage up for her.

I love and respect elderly blacks to the utmost. They've done, experienced, and overcome so much. But, I knew today I did not have it in me. I just wanted to be alone. As she reached for her cell phone I came up with a solution: zone out. I reached for my headphones and just as I was about to hit play she says into her cell phone "Yes, I'm safe, and I'm sitting beside a VERY handsome young man" and smiled. There's nothing like perfectly timed compliment. I smiled back and tried to play it off with an "I hear this all the time" grin but I'm sure I she could see the little Rudolph running around in my head yelling "She thinks I'm cuuuute!!!".

This led to a conversation. She told me about how she was traveling to Philadelphia, very articulate. Then she asked about me. I kept it broad: Greensboro. Civil Rights Museum. Visiting home. Aggie (always have to slip that in). That led to dialogue about the importance of our story being passed down, generational mindset gaps, etc. Interestingly enough, right after she informed me that she was Allstate's first black employee in Charlotte she made a comment that stuck with me:
"People fail to realize that the problem with 'Separate but Equal' wasn't the part about 'Separate'. We were doctors, lawyers, teachers, and business owners well before integration… and still are, but you can't expect the media to tell our story for us. We had a strong sense of community. The problem was the 'Equal'."
*if you don't know about Plessy v. Ferguson please go #EducateYourself now*

Now I don't believe for one second that she meant that integration was bad. I do believe that the point she was making is that the reason "Separate but Equal" was deemed unconstitutional was because the varying conditions weren't equal. Somewhere along the way the focus was dedicated so much to eliminating the separate portion that leveling out the equal aspect got disregarded. But what do you think? Was there a problem with separate but equal? If so, was it fixed? Additionally, how does it affect life today? Has the purpose of things like HBCUs, black organizations like NSBE, Miss Black America, etc., changed?

…is it possible that on certain levels the pursuit of access and acceptance to things and situations where we were once denied led to a loss of those aspects that made us unique in the first place?


BeSqrd_Leads said...

The problem with Separate but Equal, was that it wasn't equal. If things were so equal, then when integration occurred, there would have had not been such push back when white students began attending the formally black schools. HBCUs would have been funded equally and we would be talking less about disparities between minority & "majority" groups.

However, I firmly believe that there need for organizations like NSBE, NAACP, etc has grown because the mainstream Western culture still has not fully accepted that people of color have "flavor" that still isn't readily accepted....

Brooks said...

I could write forever about the question you posed but I'll keep it brief. Just a disclaimer "I don't think integration is bad". However, I feel blacks lost some of our identity when integration was put in place.

In my opinion, we (black people) seemed more unified before integration. People had a common struggle and a common goal. There was a sense of community. Black folk supported other black folk.

Black owned businesses were not uncommon before integration. E. Market was full of black owned. Durham had a black wall st. Black owned banks in Raleigh and Durham ( Mechanics and Farmers)

Integration was good and was necessary, but not at the expense of community, and economic development.

IamPoetry said...

Integration vs Segregation: What a topic!

I actually have been waiting on this topic to rear its uniquely ugly head.
I have always been for segregation.

I can definitely understand the need for integration, we all want to be accepted on some level and recognized for our achievements. That's just human nature.

However, during the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, and integration was established it was empowering. I mean, for real tho...we were ego tripping. It was like, "YOU BETTA KNOW I'M IN HERE!" Just unnecessary, I won't go spend my money where I'm not wanted...

But now, its gone sour. We have no identity because we want to, for lack of a better word, conform.

Think of it this way, a high school student that is considered an outcast and wishes to become a part of the 'in' crowd. The outcast just wants to be in with the cool kids, party with them, do H.W. with them, sit at the lunch table with them and just be with them. While wanting to be a part of something else, wanting to conform, this outcast is blinded by his daydreams

Well, one day, this outcast gets an invite to the lunch table and becomes a part of the 'in' crowd. They conform and are now cool! WOOHOO! We've made it to the promise land! While doing all that they wanted,they've forgotten about the rest of the outcasts. Forgotten what it was like to feel that commonality of being yourself and feeling comfortable with it. Not really realizing that all the time, the outcast was always cool, always 'in.' The Outcast lost focus of himself and how he valued himself.

This is how it happens, its as simple as that. Who needs the recognition of another group of people to say that you are important? I never needed anyone to tell me how special and uniquely gifted I was. I know it by being around people who are just like me, doing great things. Now, look at us, everyone wants to be the next Donald Trump. HA!!

Just think of what it would be like if we all just packed up our sh*t and move somewhere with all of our accomplishments and contributions to this world....who would be asking who for equality then?


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