Saturday, February 9, 2002
Has Lawrence erased all of the prejudices Langston Hughes experienced here as a boy?
In the reminiscences of Langston Hughes, Lawrence doesn't fare all that well.
From his boyhood, Hughes recalled a Lawrence in which he and his black friends were turned away from a carnival that had been billed as an event for all Lawrence children. And he remembered the day he was kicked out of school because he posted a sign on his desk that read "Jim Crow Row." Local classrooms had been integrated by that time, but black students at Central School still were required to sit in the back row.
Of course, these stories come from a different era. Hughes lived in Lawrence as a child, from 1903 to 1915. Things are different now. But as Lawrence celebrates the centennial of Hughes' birth, it might be appropriate for each of us to consider just how much different our attitudes are toward local residents who are different from us.
Our schools are fully integrated now, and it's wonderful to see children from many different racial and ethnic backgrounds learning and playing together. Businesses are legally barred from discrimination in their hiring practices. Many of us count people of different races among our friends and colleagues.
But have we truly erased the divisions Hughes saw in Lawrence when he was a boy?
In addition to being black, Hughes' family was extremely poor. Many would say that the divide between the haves and have-nots in Lawrence still is deep. Hughes and his family attended a black church. For some reason, racial divisions still are clear among local church congregations. Even though Lawrence was founded as an abolitionist community, it wasn't until the 1960s that the city voted to build a municipal swimming pool that would be integrated.
Kansas University also has been criticized for not making a greater effort to recruit minority students, especially black students. Those students, of course, are welcome to attend KU, but the university has been criticized for not having enough minority faculty members who will attract and act as role models for minority students.
The formal vestiges of discrimination are gone, but if we look deep within ourselves, we may see that some of the prejudices and attitudes have survived, not just toward blacks but toward American Indians, people with disabilities, homeless people, people of other faiths or people who are "different" in any number of other ways. For instance, some of us have had to examine and perhaps adjust our attitude toward Middle Eastern or Islamic people because of fear triggered by the Sept. 11 attacks.
These feelings of discomfort or prejudice may be only human, but they are a part of our nature that we should fight against. It may be comforting to look across Lawrence and see a diverse, vital community, but a closer look will reveal differences and prejudices that still need to be dealt with.
To recognize these issues and rededicate ourselves to addressing those issues would be a fitting tribute to Langston Hughes on the 100th anniversary of his birth.