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Whitewashing Black Leaders: Background information when reading Who Put This Song On?

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Who Put This Song On?

by Morgan Parker

Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker X
Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2019, 336 pages

    Paperback:
    Mar 2021, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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Whitewashing Black Leaders

This article relates to Who Put This Song On?

Print Review

March on Washington for Jobs and FreedomIn Morgan Parker's debut YA novel Who Put This Song On?, the narrator (named after and loosely based on Parker herself) has a political awakening as she learns about famous figures from the history of the Black struggle for liberation and civil rights. Doing her own research, Morgan is surprised to discover that the stories and legacies of many of these figures, including Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman, are quite different from the versions she learned in school during Black History Month. This is a reflection of a common tendency in education and the media to present a more palatable, almost saintly rendering of Black activists.

For example, Morgan notes that Rosa Parks is frequently depicted as an old woman who was too tired to move from her seat on the Montgomery, Alabama bus, and decided in the moment to protest segregation. In this version, it seems as though Parks took a stand and set off a wave of political action almost inadvertently. In reality, it was a carefully calculated act of rebellion. Parks had a long history of activism in which she served as secretary to the NAACP, fought for suffrage and helped organize against the unfair targeting of Black men by the justice system. Even as a child, when Parks was bullied by white children in her neighborhood, she fought back. She later recalled, "As far back as I remember, I could never think in terms of accepting physical abuse without some form of retaliation if possible." This is quite a departure from the stoic Parks of the collective imagination.

Amid the hagiography of Martin Luther King Jr., it is easy to forget that the Civil Rights Movement icon was wildly unpopular in America for his activism, with a 75% disapproval rating shortly before his death, and that he was under surveillance by the FBI who declared him "the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country." We are often taught that King's activism was one of nonviolence, which it was, but to focus on this aspect entirely is to gloss over his overt challenging of structures of power in America. In particular, King spoke out against the complacency and meek politics of the "white moderate," saying in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," "I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's greatest stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens' Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice."

Harriet Tubman is often depicted as a messiah-like figure guiding slaves to freedom with a lantern in her hand, however, as Morgan discovers, Tubman was much more likely to be carrying a gun. Tubman may have been nicknamed "Moses," but she also was a pivotal player in the planning of abolitionist John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. Brown even referred to her as "General Tubman." Harpers Ferry was a shocking act of open hostility that Brown hoped would initiate a slave revolt, and Tubman openly supported it.

The whitewashing of the lives of historical figures like these often results in the censuring of Black activists today. Jeanne Theoharis, author of A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History relates this issue to the public outcry surrounding former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's kneeling protest of the National Anthem, and Black Lives Matter activism: "We're constantly being bombarded with, 'This is not what King would do.' You know, 'Be like King, be like Parks,' that strip and utterly distort what the civil rights movement was and what people like King and Parks actually did and stood for." When remembering the legacies of these significant figures, it is important to note that they were in favor of loudly and openly challenging the status quo.

Photo of March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, courtesy of U.S. Government.

Filed under Society and Politics

Article by Lisa Butts

This "beyond the book article" relates to Who Put This Song On?. It originally ran in October 2019 and has been updated for the March 2021 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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