In 1952 my grandfather built a house for his wife and six children in a small South Carolina town. The house had four bedrooms, one bathroom, a dining room and a living room you could enter only if you were dressed in your Sunday best or entertaining company or if somebody had died. After my grandfather passed away, my mother raised us in that family home under the same rules—the living room was still off-limits, but there was another room we were welcome to enjoy.
In the center of the house was a den-style family room we called the “middle room.” It was where the entire family congregated. It was where we prayed, sang, laughed and danced. Long before I was born, my grandfather lined the entire middle room with sturdy oak shelves, and over the years, to this very day, even after all six children have left home and raised their own families, everyone in the Harriot clan still deposits all their books there.
It rivals almost any independent bookstore and some libraries. You can walk in that middle room right now and find everything from two full sets of 1970s World Book encyclopedias to—what I believe is the greatest and most important book ever printed—The Black Book.
At some point, before I was old enough to remember, my mother decided she did not trust anyone to educate her children and decided to home-school me and my sisters. Although she drilled us on mathematics, history and the English language, our schooling was mostly self-directed, courtesy of the middle room. It led to many awkward incidents, like the strange side eye I received at church after I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X at 9 years old and began ending every sentence with, “if it is Allah’s will.”
I read any and everything. I was introduced to Lerone Bennett Jr.’s Before the Mayflower at the same time I discovered Encyclopedia Brown. When I was 12, I read the science fiction novel Soul of the Robot and liked it so much, I figured that Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice couldn’t be much different, right? I read the entire thing. Nary a robot to be found. It was an eccentric, intense, scatterbrained, all-encompassing education, but none of it came from textbooks or school curriculums.
Every year during Black History Month, there is always a discussion about whether the American education system adequately integrates the contributions of Africans in America into its teaching. As one of the few outsiders who has seen both perspectives, I can’t even say that I learned more black history than they teach in schools, but it is clear that I’ve learned an entirely different history.
Whenever I find myself in a discussion that involves black people in America from a historical perspective, I usually end up quietly bowing out of the conversation. It is not because I don’t know or understand black history; it’s because I realized a long time ago that I am often at odds with the prevailing, accepted narrative surrounding our history.
Even though I eventually attended public schools, I can’t recall ever learning anything about black history in a classroom. I had an Advanced Placement history teacher who was a Civil War buff who offhandedly mentioned slavery a few times, and I’m sure someone acknowledged Martin Luther King Jr. once or twice. Even though I don’t specifically remember it, they had to have said something, right?
When I hear people discuss the civil rights movement, the textbook, board of education version seems vastly different from what I remember reading about from primary sources. In their renditions, black people started the civil rights movement in the mid-1950s, unanimously decided on nonviolent resistance, elected King as their sole spokesperson and lived happily ever after.
They never mention that in the 1920s, Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association had a membership (over 1 million) that would make the NAACP look like a neighborhood pitty-pat. They forget to mention that the majority of white Americans hated the peaceful demonstrations (pdf) and that black America was split 50-50 on whether nonviolence even worked. Do they even refer to the ongoing debate between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, who were the MLK vs. Malcolm of their time?
I recently served on a panel discussion at a local university about the fight for black lives. The young audience all agreed that protests were useless in the new millennium. They thought the civil-rights-style protests were relics of a bygone era. They mentioned that today’s generation wouldn’t sit passively like their grandparents. After listening for a while, I understood exactly where they were coming from:
They had no idea what “protest” meant.
This is why they wholeheartedly buy the message of the T-shirt that boasts “I am not my grandparents.” It’s why they believe that blacking out their social media profile picture is an act of defiance. They have been spoon-fed a diluted mixture of history that shows the civil rights marchers strolling hand in hand singing freedom songs, but not the billy club beatings they took when they showed up at the polls and fought their way into voting booths.
They read about the March on Washington, but not the firebombed Freedom Riders. They have seen the Lorraine Motel but not Fred Hampton’s bloody, bullet-riddled mattress. They don’t know about the Deacons for Defense. They think the march is the actual protest in the same way people see the duck gliding serenely on top of the water, not knowing that it’s furiously paddling underneath.
Our history is a perpetually gruesome fight with bloody fists and missing teeth. It must be watered down to mollify that perpetual fighting machine that exists deep in the blackest, sweetest parts of our souls.
My aunt lives in that house there now, but we still consider it our family’s homestead, even though my grandfather who built it died before I was born, and my grandmother passed away when I was a teenager. When my friends tell me how their elders passed down stories and share bits of history, I used to feel a slight tinge of jealousy. Then I realized that my grandfather did the same for me. He gave me an everlasting, eternal truth that will never be diluted. That house will forever be a part of my history. The middle room will always be my home.