I n my 8th grade history class in Boston, my students and I talk about race. A lot. We look at race from historical and current-day perspectives. We think about how current oppressions are often mirrors of past ones. We learn language to describe the evolution of racism in our country, from slavery, to Jim Crow segregation, to mass incarceration today. I have been doing this work for 15 years now, and each year, I find myself further enmeshed in the stories of the movements that we study.

My family immigrated to the US from India in 1969, well after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We are the beneficiaries of a centuries-long struggle for equality, but our community's connection to the struggle has not always been articulated clearly, and our relationships with the people who put themselves at the forefront have not always acknowledged the ways in which our privileges have come as a result of other people's sacrifices.

Last summer, I decided that it was time for me to bear witness to this history. To stand in the courtroom in Sumner, Mississippi, where Emmett Till's killers were acquitted. To put myself on Medgar Evers' driveway in Jackson, and stare at the bloodstains still visible in the concrete. To walk the massive halls of Central High School, and imagine the Little Rock 9 navigating them each day. To visit the women of Gee's Bend, Alabama and listen to them weave talk of quilting with talk of justice. To cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, recalling Bloody Sunday with each step.

Where would South Asians go to school without Brown v. Board of Education? Would the grandfather clause prevent us from voting in the absence of the Voting Rights Act? Would our seating choices on buses and trains be still be dictated by the government, if not for the Freedom Riders? And but for the courage of Mildred and Richard Loving, would our choices around love and marriage still be circumscribed? The litany of physical and emotional violence faced by African-Americans in their struggle for justice reminded me that the path to my freedom is bloodstained, but not by my own blood.

More than half of my students are immigrants to this country themselves, or the children of immigrants. The rest are direct descendants of our country's profoundly racist history. When I teach, I want them all to see that we are bound to each other by this history. That our freedoms come from a shared source, and that our oppressions can only be dismantled through shared struggle. I want them to have the kind of consciousness that so many adults in our society still lack.

I am a better teacher for having taken this trip. I am more descriptive, more specific, more able to tap the emotions of adolescents in a way that solidifies their learning. But I am also a different person for having taken this trip. One who can't wait for the day when her nieces and nephews hit 8th grade, and we can do this trip again, together.

Neema Avashia
New Orleans, Louisiana
Photo Location
Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama
Little Rock, Arkansas
My partner

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