Postcard from Little Rock with famous stairs from segregation to inclusion

A visit to Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas, a National Historic Site? Done! Ever since watching the documentary “Eyes On The Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement” and learning more about the Little Rock Nine and the events in 1957, I wanted to see this site of former social and political struggle. (I call these my “pilgrimages” to meet God and fellow human beings in a deeply challenging way.) Using religious and biblical language, this place has an aura of holiness where I want to take off my shoes like Moses in front of the burning bush.

Absolutely gorgeous and majestic building! If I did not know that it is a high school, I would think it is a big, old university or government building. Like the beautiful state capitol buildings all around the USA. To me, it looks even more majestic because of its troubled history.

To quote a History Channel website, “The Little Rock Nine were a group of nine black students who enrolled at formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957. Their attendance at the school was a test of Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. On September 4, 1957, the first day of classes at Central High, Governor Orval Faubus called in the Arkansas National Guard to block the black students’ entry into the high school. Later that month, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in federal troops to escort the Little Rock Nine into the school.”

As we know, history is not just about facts. (Those you can learn by simply searching for  ‘Little Rock Nine‘). It is about the truth that it stands for and the mirror it holds out to us. We can judge the past generations, but they always push back with a rhetorical question –  what would you have done? I looked at those beautiful stairways and the large platform at the LR Central High School and though to myself, “What a stage! What a platform for the whole world to see!” Much of the Western world did watch the ugly face of blatant racism on full display.

And then I think about all the other schools and institutions around the world, past and present, which are not under such a spotlight but ,nonetheless, struggle with the same issues. ‘Us’ and ‘them’. ‘Insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. Those who ‘belong and deserve’ and those who ‘don’t belong and don’t deserve’.  Separating people by race, gender, language, religion, ethnicity, etc. Little Rock Central High School could be anywhere and, in some ways, it is everywhere.

Europe, Australia, Southeast Asia, North America… all parts of the world. Ask the Rohingya in Burma, ask tribal people or anyone with dark skin in Thailand, ask Aboriginal Australians, ask the Gypsies in Latvia and other European countries, ask the Sudanese in Egypt… I think of all the conversations I have had with friends who have experienced different forms of racial prejudice.

Racism comes in many shades of attitudes and forms. I never knew I could think as racist and speak as racist until I found out that I could. And I am very grateful for dear friends who called it out! I have been blindsided many times. Just like many of us who don’t think about “racism” because we think we can choose not to think about it.

The neighborhood around Little Rock Central High School is another powerful visual reminder that the struggle for our common human dignity is continuing. The neighborhood is an obvious “hood”. For me as a visitor, it looks like a Hollywood movie about gang-ruled, run-down, trashy, poor neighborhood, but unfortunately this is not a movie set. I drove around thinking how I would not want to live here, how I do not even want to park my friend’s  car anywhere and how out of the place the beautiful historic high school building looks. It is very easy to imagine that, back in 1957, this was a mostly white (or maybe all white) neighborhood. Now the residents are mostly black. Obviously at some point the demographics were completely switched. Even as the high school was becoming integrated.

I saw many white high school students coming out of the buildings, but they did not walk very far. Getting into their cars, parked right in front of the school and school buses and driving away. To some, surely, nicer, newer and much safer neighborhoods. The contrast between the two realities  – the school and the neighborhood – could not be any starker.

This short pilgrimage to Little Rock Central High School grounds reminded me that of us, not just Americans, are on a continuous journey. To quote Martin Luther King, Jr., “The arc of moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” There are many more beautiful, but difficult stairways to climb.

 

Minnesota is a long way from Burma or Latvia

This is a photo from St Paul, Minnesota. Did you know that June 20 is a World Refugee Day? St Paul has become home to thousands of refugees. One of the ethnic groups settled in MN are Karen people from Burma (Myanmar). There are estimated 10,000 Karen in Minnesota and St. Paul currently has the largest and fastest-growing Karen populations in the U.S. Other communities in Minnesota with a large Karen population include Worthington, Willmar, Austin, Albert Lea and Faribault.

I never imagined that my life would be connected to this story that links places so distant and different from each other. When I see women or men with a traditional Karen shoulder bag walking down the street in Roseville or West St Paul, I think to myself “This is a long way from the villages and farms and jungle trails in mountains of Karen State in Burma.” It is also a long way from the refugee camps on Thailand – Burma border.

I have one of those bags and I love to see the smile on people’s faces when they ask me, “Where did you get this? What?! You have been to Mae La refugee camp? When? Why?” I explain about our former work in the migrant schools, about teaching English and our many many friendships. I love to talk about the beautiful Karen dances and songs and crafts. And the food but not the fish paste! Anything but the fish paste.

We went to this year’s World Refugee Day celebration in St Paul. It was a treat to see traditional Karen dances and hear the songs and also listen to the stories. These young people were very grateful for the opportunities and freedom they have in their new home country and also were proud to introduce others to their beautiful, rich culture and history.

It have mixed feelings as there is always a sense of homesickness. It makes me think of all the Latvians and other Europeans who came to Minnesota as refugees after World War II. I have heard stories from people who had Latvian neighbors or friends and husbands. Stories about all the good Latvia food, all the Latvian dances and songs and, of course, all the partying. (Unfortunately Latvians were known for the large amounts of alcohol they could consume)

One of the guys I know is named John. He is very much an Irish American but his best friend while growing up in North Minneapolis was a Latvian guy. And John got the special treatment from Latvian community because of his name. “Jānis” is the Latvian version of John and it used to be one of the most popular names in Latvia. (You walk in a room and say “Jānis” and see how many guys will turn their head!)

Making a new home in a far away land is not easy, but it is a part of our human story through the ages. Wars happen. Lives get destroyed. We get up-rooted and then we go and put our roots in a new place. It makes a big difference if the new place is welcoming and open. I am very grateful to know so many people in Minnesota who have opened their hearts and lives to give shelter and refugee to people who have had to flee their beloved countries and homes and farms and families. Thank you, Minnesota!

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Karen traditional dances in Mae Sot, Thailand (photo from personal archive)