It’s so easy—and dangerous—to look at life only through the lens of our own experiences.
After learning that the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN was part of the itinerary this year, I’d become infinitely more excited to participate in this year’s Sankofa trip. We had visited the NCRM on last year’s trip as well, and it had been absolutely phenomenal. I was so looking forward to returning to the museum and seeing everything again: the exhibits detailing the history of racism in the United States from slavery until the present day, the reconstructed room 306 (where MLK had spent his final hours), or the window out of which it was believed the assassin had aimed his gun… I knew what to expect as I’d seen it all last year. I was just excited to see it again.
Much to my dismay, I found myself going through this museum in a daze from which I could not recover, no matter how hard I tried. I seemed to breeze through the exhibits, looking past the artifacts I’d seen last year, and paying little mind to the facts I’d learned on my own in the last twelve months. It was unintentional and infuriating.
Later in the evening, long after we’d returned from our visit to the museum, I realized that, despite my best efforts, I had fallen prey to my expectations. These expectations were borne out of the prior experience I had with this museum and learning the history of the Civil Rights Movement in general. It was a cut-and-dry case of pride, of unintentionally believing that I was already knowledgeable on this era of history after having visited the NCRM once prior to this year’s trip—so knowledgeable, silly little me, that being open-minded and learning things anew from the same source seemed to be beneath me. Oh, I was furious with myself—I loathe this pride when others exhibit it, and to catch myself guilty of it, no matter how unintentional, was so frustrating.
More importantly, however, it was humbling. I’m so thankful to experience this realization right at the beginning of this trip, no matter the cost of feeling disconnected from the National Civil Rights Museum! It caught me off guard and made me stumble a little bit, but so incredibly valuable. And it made me think of how often people in general do what I did—not just at the NCRM, of course, but anywhere else and with anything else. How often do we, after having one certain experience, believe ourselves qualified enough to speak about anything else related to that experience?
That evening, I shared these thoughts with the rest of my classmates in the hopes that I could encourage them to remember that the learning continues after this spring break course. That just because we went on “that one trip that one time in college,” we’re not suddenly experts on these issues, and that while there is value behind the insights we have gained, we have to remember that the things we’ve learned on this trip are not the end-all, be-all regarding this issue. I hope we never forget, moving forward, that there’s still so much more out there to learn: things that will surprise us, things that will challenge us anew, and we can’t let any of our prior experiences like this trip dictate how receptive we’ll be to any of that. And that goes for any experience any of us can ever have.
On Sunday evening, after our visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, we had dinner plans at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. Gus’s is located in a fairly dilapidated part of Memphis, where the streets and sidewalks are peppered with litter and potholes and the walls with graffiti and chipping concrete. In the time between our arrival on the street of the restaurant and the actual meal, a friend and I came across what she deemed was a perfect backdrop for an impromptu photoshoot. And so, picture-taking ensued, and we snapped quite a few good shots of each other (for which I’m quite grateful, really, as I’m not one to take selfies, and so I’m appreciative of any record of my appearance).
But as I studied our surroundings, looking for ways to use them to our advantage in whatever made a good photo, it began to dawn on me the sheer insensitivity of it all. Here I was, romanticizing an abandoned building and its vandalized walls, excited simply for the purpose it could serve for social media profiles. I was benefiting from the sad story of this run-down area for the shallowest of reasons, and nothing in my actions served a greater purpose in return. The pictures I took would maybe get some likes on Instagram and boost my ego a bit, but after that? Nothing. The building would still be abandoned, an eyesore of a target for more vandalism or for blindly privileged people to frolic by and use as a background of their hipster, candid-on-purpose photos.
This sentiment regarding the romanticizing of locations that bear some sort of significance or social implications followed me into Monday as we visited Little Rock Central High School. Once our tour—which was so incredible and informative!—ended, suddenly it was all about good angles and how to pose on the stairs or behind the pillars. There was one photo in particular that we took of all the students where we all sat on a ledge that was very, very high up. We were all terrified—we had to have been at least two stories off from the ground. But it was the perfect shot that we couldn’t miss.
We snapped our photo and carefully clambered down over the other side back to safety, but I couldn’t help but think back to last year’s Sankofa when I was so scared to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge simply due to my fear of heights. Fifty, sixty years ago, these locations had been frightening to people for entirely different reasons, and that just put things into perspective for me. How silly it all felt to be so concerned with taking the perfect picture when there had been much different pictures that were taken there for much different reasons.
What I’m really trying to illustrate here is another sense of lost humility. In the presence of tremendous historical significance like Little Rock High School or implicative societal structure like an abandoned building that was probably the result of some structural or cultural failure of the city, all we can think about is the story that it’ll tell later in a post on Instagram or in blog post—not the story it tells now about what happened before. I wonder how often we forget how we can benefit from a moment in ways other than gaining a few likes or views on social media.
With these thought-provoking insights I’ve gained and over half of the trip still left to go, I’m so excited to see what else is in store.