Suzanne Tobias

Charleston tragedy teaches that racism isn’t just a history lesson

Charlezetta Nixon, center, joins hands with others as they sing “We Shall Overcome,” at a vigil in response to the killings in Charleston, S.C., at the St. Paul AME Church in Wichita.
Charlezetta Nixon, center, joins hands with others as they sing “We Shall Overcome,” at a vigil in response to the killings in Charleston, S.C., at the St. Paul AME Church in Wichita. The Wichita Eagle

One of the most frustrating things about being a parent is the inability, so often, to answer a simple question:

Why?

The cold-blooded massacre of nine people inside a Charleston, S.C., church last week raised that question again in our home and others. And once again, my husband, children and I are left shaking our heads, discussing history, drawing conclusions and feeling generally hopeless about the human race.

It’s just the latest chapter in our ongoing talks about tragedy.

My children weren’t born when the Oklahoma City bombing happened, or the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. They were babies when the Twin Towers came down on Sept. 11, 2001.

Unfortunately, there have been many mass casualties since. Hannah and Jack have their own memories of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, the tragedy in Tucson in 2011, the Colorado theater shootings in the summer of 2012 and the Sandy Hook massacre a few months later. They remember the Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent manhunt for the suspects, which we watched together on live television.

My children are 17 and 14 now. And so far, hate and violence don’t seem to be going out of style.

Last night at dinner we talked about Charleston, which isn’t far from where my parents live. My memories of that beautiful, South Carolina Lowcountry city include azalea blossoms, cobblestone streets, moss-draped oaks, wrought-iron gates, horse-drawn carriages and rooftop restaurants where you can sip Old Fashioneds amid ocean breezes.

There’s an old saying about Charleston and its sister city, Savannah, Ga., I told the kids: In Savannah people ask, “What do you drink?” In Charleston they say, “Who are your people?” History is sacred there. Heritage is everything.

I used to think that was charming. Now I can’t help thinking of a disturbed young man spewing hate, pointing guns and waving the Confederate flag.

My children are that much more cynical now, that much more aware that racism isn’t something that exists only in history books.

K.J. Dell’Antonia of the New York Times argued recently that what happened in Charleston should serve as a reminder that we need to stop teaching children about the “history” of racial violence.

“Racial hatred and racial violence are a familiar landscape for our children,” she wrote for the Times’ Motherlode blog. “But it’s a historical landscape, one of black-and-white news pictures and hatted figures wearing suits and ties.

“To talk to our children about what happened in Charleston, we need only tell them that those attitudes they were taught were dusty historical artifacts never went away, but only went into hiding, sometimes in plain sight.”

My children attend one of the most diverse public high schools in the city, if not the state. I’m thankful for that, and for lessons learned in history, government and literature classes, though it’s too bad that some teachers still have to fight to include books such as Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” or Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”

The shooting in Charleston is another shock, another tragedy, another hard lesson.

And it’s a reminder that history isn’t always behind us. Sometimes it stares us right in the face.

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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