When I am in need of perspective, I call to historical figures and draw upon their leadership. Easy, shallow existences aren’t the ones history points to as examples of greatness. It’s the tales of peril, bravery, belief through suffering and inexplicable perseverance that send us inward to check our private inventory of humanity and question if we measure up.
Literature and art are two amazing vehicles in understanding and expansion. I never knew what the holocaust “looked like” until “Schindler’s List” opened in theaters. Until I saw that film, I failed to fully fathom the human tragedy these souls endured. I was branded forever with the absolute heroic spirit of perseverance in the face of horrific, inhuman, circumstances.
My daughters Indiana and Mattigan had a similar awakening while reading “The Help.” Having been raised among people of diverse backgrounds, where Anglos are the minority, neither could grasp that in the not so distant past, African-Americans were treated as they were. That book prompted the girls' curiosity, delving deeper and spurring real, raw questions on how things had ever been the way they were.
As a white, recently widowed, single mother, I did not have all the answers, but I welcomed their curiosity and passionate discussion.
In our conversations and research, we met heroes and began to better understand the American Civil Rights Era. We observed it was spurred by a growing consensus across the African-American population, righteously angry, and actively questioning inequality, evil and ignorance. The organization of a powerful leadership gave voice to an uprising against the status quo. In a deadly hostile climate, brave African-American men and women took a non-violent stance against ignorance and bigotry. These people put their very bodies and lives on the line for something greater than their own safety and self-interest – equality. They were taunted, they were maligned, they were brutally beaten and savagely abused. Members of our citizenry died and yet still they rose up against an implied slavery, posing as servitude, masquerading as "separate but equal."
Brave men and women called an end to a society that treated our fellow human beings as animals. These warriors for equality employed action: they marched, they protested, they put their bodies in the way of angry, ugly words and attacks, fists, billy clubs and far worse. So strong was the fight for equality and the right imprinted on the souls of mankind and written in our founding documents: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
The introduction of the Civil Rights Movement to a young person is the end of an era of innocence. Discussions of this country's treatment of our own people opens an uncomfortable door. Behind that door is real, raw, shame. There's power in shame. There's motivation in shame. There's impetus for evolution by facing shame. It is the heart that embraces philosopher George Santayana's oft-repeated quote: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" that will save us from repetition's fate. It is in the remembering of struggle, strength and growth that we aim higher.
In a riveting conversation with WWE Superstar and Super Dad Titus O'Neil about furthering the rights endowed in us by our Creator, we agreed it was our children who possess the spirits to move us closer to the promised land envisioned by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I believe if you want to learn something, ask questions ... then shut up for the answers. I don't know what it is to be a person of color. I said that to every person I spoke to as I wrote this article. I do know, however, what it is to be a human being with a deep heart of compassion and a desire for every child growing up around the world to have the opportunity to fulfill their limitless potential. I have incredible respect for the work Titus does WORLDWIDE for investing in our kids! There are numerous examples of Titus' leadership both inside and outside WWE. His greatest role is that of father to his two sons, TJ, age 13, and Titus, age 11. I wanted to know Titus' perspective on the impact of the Civil Rights Movement and how that evolved from the days of his challenging youth to his intentional investment in the boys he is raising successfully to be contributing leaders and service-minded young men ... just like their dad. One decision Titus made in the trajectory of becoming a father was how he defined that job.
"As a father I wanted to be everything I had never had in a father. I never wanted my kids to go elsewhere for what they needed, to be heard, to be respected,” Titus said.
Titus communicated how from the days of slavery, through the Civil Rights Movement, African-American youth was lost. He explained this loss occurred through oppression and culture’s demand of strength for survival. Titus posits the mantra of "Be Strong, Be Strong" and the insistence "black men aren't supposed to cry" as a place of darkness he wanted to bring to light. Titus has made it part of his mission as a father to his boys and a mentor around the world to demonstrate that black men and boys should not be afraid to show emotion. Titus demonstrates his immense strength in his soft understanding and accepting hugs.
"There's no such thing as a bad kid," is the message young people receive from Titus, along with, "I love you and I believe in you."
Although Titus believes we have a long way to go on the road to true equality, he agrees we are raising a generation of children to make the quantum leap to a society that values every child the way he does his own boys as well as the communities he inspires.
I also asked two other respected Superstar dads for their perspective on the civil rights movement and the future, starting with Kofi Kingston:
"While I am thankful year-round, I do make sure to take a few moments during every Black History Month to really admire and appreciate the sacrifices made by African-Americans throughout history, but particularly during the Civil Rights Movement. They have ultimately enabled me not only to live out my childhood dream, but to also enjoy a comfortable life with my family today.
It’s very easy to forget or take for granted the fact that less than 60 years ago, we didn’t have the freedom to eat at certain restaurants, shop in certain stores or send our kids to certain schools.
I am afforded these and countless other liberties only because African Americans before me decided to stand up and protest; to fight and give their lives so that future generations might be treated as human equals."
Next, some thoughts from Apollo:
"We have come very far and still have a long way to go, but I believe that it is still incredibly important to reflect on the past, as well as focus on leading by example in the present. This way, our children will continue to see that in their future, anything is achievable regardless of race.
Walking through the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis was truly inspiring to me. To see what some of the people such as Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and many others went through for us to be able to be where we are today makes me realize how lucky I am, not just to be here but to be able to live my dreams out, and have a family, and to be able to be a father. It made me realize that I need to appreciate the small things I am blessed with in life and not to take anything for granted; I think so many times in life we don’t realize how blessed we really are."
As a writer I feel words are a sacred vehicle. Similarly, images are transformative. The vignettes assembled by WWE for Black History Month are some of the most captivating teaching tools I've seen in recent history. Our Superstars visiting the National Civil Rights Museum brought reverence, reflection and curiosity. Their power of passion and intellect was welcomed by Noelle Trent, the museum’s Director of Interpretation, Collections and Education. I'm not alone in the belief Noelle’s expert commentary on the videos currently running on Raw and SmackDown LIVE, and across social media, breathed new life into already inspiring stories. The historian who married her interests and brought the National Civil Rights Museum to life with the interactive exhibits impacted our Superstars in enormous ways. So impressed was Noelle by the open minds that met her, she shared with me one question posed to her by Seth Rollins that had never been asked of her by anybody in the span of her tenure there.
Noelle remarked on the contemplative nature of the group of Superstars visiting and the comments made upon learning new or expanded information. She recalls Seth reading through a timeline and then asking her: "OK, I see here we abolish slavery, and then it looks like we are moving along in a good direction. What happened? Where did it go wrong in this span of time to get us to segregation?”
At this part of my interview with Noelle, I sat speechless. Recovering myself, I admitted, "Noelle, I'm an educated woman. I have never even considered that question. I never remember being taught anything about that gap."
A fountain of knowledge, Noelle began to fill in details about the pocket of time never taught in history books. I could hear a smile through the phone as she mused over the fact it was a WWE Superstar who had posed such an insightful question. Ever vigilant in not projecting stereotypes on anyone else, she was proud of the insightfulness of her guest, our “Architect,” Rollins. When I told him that Noelle shared that he had been the first ever to ask her about that gap, he was surprised, but stated, "I was genuinely curious to know the answer."
Genuine curiosity has a wonderful domino effect.
It was with genuine curiosity I asked Noelle our final question that elicited a belly laugh from her and earned me an invitation to her museum. I knew my time was running short with her, so in the way I so often do, I said it like I saw it, "Noelle," I began, "I am just some little white lady, so I can't pretend to know what it is to be a person of color ... what would you say to people who do not know?”
Her laughter was so genuinely delighted, like wind chimes on the breeze, it was an open door to speak frankly, which she did.
Noelle told me we have come a distance from then to now, pointing to the fact she is a black woman, a PhD, and saying there “were none of those in the not so distant past.” She said, however, there is a long way to go to forgiveness, too, because of an oversimplification of the injustice that stole so many lives. A lack of contemplation over the myriad of ways African-Americans must guard themselves and guard the sacrifice of those who endured abhorrent injustices. Noelle called on others not to make assumptions, to think more deeply, to recognize the complexity of the scars left by oppression, bigotry and injustice. Noelle spoke of the doors that have opened to her based on the fight of others, but her responsibility and vigilance in overseeing that door remain open for all who follow.
I sat for a very long time on my hotel bed after ending my phone interview with Noelle. I sat in contemplation and reverence for the sacred space she had opened for understanding. I sat in awe and honor of a new hero I found in Noelle.
I believe education is the antidote for ignorance. I believe conversations are the catalyst for change. I believe we are all stewards of vigilance guarding the open door to the future. I believe forgiveness and acceptance take trust, effort and work. I believe, as human beings, we are more alike than different. I believe behind every hero is the story of humanity ... Always!
Please watch the videos of the Superstars' visit to the National Civil Rights Museum and please visit civilrightsmuseum.org.
My personal thanks to Noelle Trent, Titus O'Neil, Apollo, Kofi Kingston and Shane Davis for the time you invested in sharing your stories with me and enriching my life with their beauty.