Food for Thought


June 20, 2014 by Jean

One of the challenges for my retirement is to replace the intellectual stimulation that I have long gotten from my interactions with students, especially through class discussions. As my retirement approached this spring, I began to understand how much I had taken this intellectual stimulation for granted and that I would need to find a substitute when I was no longer teaching.

Right now, I am finding my needed intellectual stimulation primarily in books, and one of the books I borrowed from the library as my retirement began has provided a lot of food for thought. That book is Jeanne Theoharis’s political biography of Rosa Parks, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Beacon Press, 2013).

Most Americans will recognize the name of Rosa Parks, the woman whose refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955 catalyzed the Montgomery bus boycott, the rise to prominence of Martin Luther King, and the US civil rights movement. If you ask people what they know about Rosa Parks, most will describe her has a tired seamstress who refused to move because her feet hurt and whose one act of defiance made her an accidental activist. Theoharis calls this the “Rosa Parks fable.”

I have long known that the Rosa Parks fable was not an accurate account. When I began to teach about the history of women’s activism in the United States, I encountered a number of accounts by African American scholars attempting to set the record straight. Most important of these was When and Where I Enter by Paula Giddings (William Morrow, 1984), a history of African American women’s activism that was required reading for my course. From Giddings, my students and I learned that Parks was a long-time activist and secretary of the Montgomery NAACP chapter, that this was not her first run-in with Montgomery bus drivers (some of whom refused to stop and pick her up because she was a “trouble maker”), that she was not the first woman who got arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus, that she had been part of an NAACP effort to find the right case to litigate, and that a boycott had already been planned by the Women’s Political Council, an organization of Black professional women in Montgomery, who had been watching for the right moment to put those plans into action. And we had some very lively discussions about why Giddings’ account, available since before they were born, hadn’t been taught in their schools.

Theoharis provides an account that is both broader and deeper. Her goals are to understand Parks’ Montgomery bus action in a larger context of activism, to debunk the Rosa Parks fable, and to understand why the narrative of the tired seamstress has been so persistent despite readily available information to the contrary. Theoharis shows us that long years of resistance and activism, including the activism of Rosa and Raymond Parks, provided the foundation for the civil rights movement. I was amazed to learn that well before the bus boycott, Rosa Parks had successfully registered to vote in Alabama – a difficult and dangerous accomplishment for any African American in the Jim Crow era. Even more importantly, Theoharis documents Parks’ continued life of activism after the boycott, including her work as a staffer responsible for constituent relations in Congressman John Conyers’ Detroit office, her admiration for Malcolm X, and her support of the Black Power movement. Throughout her presentation of Rosa Parks’ “rebellious life,” Jeanne Theoharis also provides an analysis of how complex interactions of race, gender, and social class worked to obscure these facts in favor of the fable of the tired seamstress. I, for one, found this analysis thought-provoking and intellectually exciting.

Having read Theoharis’s book, however, I find that I’m not satisfied with just being intellectually stimulated  by it; I want to share that intellectual stimulation with others. When I was teaching, I would have found a way to bring this material into the classroom. But that option is no longer available. A few days before I left Gettysburg, I gave a talk on the history of women’s rights activism at the local high school. It was an enjoyable experience, and I may find opportunities to do the same sort of thing here in Maine. Once things have settled down a bit at home, I also hope to pursue the possibility of a book club. Meanwhile, I’ve joined Goodreads to see if that site might provide opportunities for intellectual stimulation and more food for thought through virtual discussion of interesting books.


7 thoughts on “Food for Thought

  1. Jean says:

    Fascinating subject matter today! I certainly didn’t know anything beyond the “Rosa Parks fable.” Yet it doesn’t surprise me that they were looking for “the right case to litigate.” We’ve seen that in other social issues/causes that one group or another wants to move through the courts. It’s kind of sad that her personal history is distilled down so much that it qualifies as a fable. Same thing, I think, happened to my ancestor, Mercy Warren Otis. It’s only been in the last few decades that her place in history has been fully explored.

    Our senior hall has what are called Enrichment Lectures where guest speakers (paid) will come in and give a presentation about something in their area of expertise. I also had an great aunt that did the same thing at high schools and women’s groups about state history topics. I’ll bet if you really got lonely for sharing your knowledge you wouldn’t have much trouble finding a group that would welcome you as a speaker. I’ve heard speakers at the senior hall on under water exploration, airplane crashes, Victorian Clothing, photography, historical buildings….just to name a few.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, I’m a little familiar with Mercy Otis Warren from biographies of John and Abigail Adams. But, you’re right, I don’t know that much about her as a historical figure in her own right. Thanks for the suggestion about using my educator skills with other seniors.

  2. I now understand that I also lost that intellectual stimulation when I left the classroom and even more so now that I retired although there wasn’t as much stimulation as aggravation as an administrator. I joined Goodreads but have not interacted there so I would be interested to know how you make out Jean…a fascinating account of a history we were not given.

    • Jean says:

      Donna, I’m still trying to navigate my way around Goodreads, but so far it is not encouraging. It seems as though a gazillion book clubs get created there, but the ones that are online only seem to run out of steam quickly. I’ve joined two, but neither of them has had any activity in many months, and my messages to the moderators have not gotten any response. (I did notice, though, that the “Obsessive Gardeners Support Group” seems to be very active.)

  3. Melanie says:

    I have enjoyed reading your posts for over a year now, and hope you will keep them up in your new life. I love your clarity of writing. M.

    • Jean says:

      Melanie, Thank you for visiting and for commenting. I intend to keep up these posts and hope to include them. I’m trying to write every day and produce 7-8 posts a month for each of my blogs.

  4. Jean, I know what you mean by needing intellectual stimulation. Reading helps a little, but sharing ideas with others–the questions raised, the approaches taken, etc.–is so much more engaging. When I’ve finished a book that generates lots of ideas I want to share them, but regular book clubs don’t seem to create that kind of atmosphere, at least in my experience. I’d love to know if anyone else has found a place for this kind of outlet. Several months back, a former colleague posted a link on FB to a book review (In “The Chronicle of Higher Education”) written by another former colleague that had generated a lot of negative responses. A number of us responded on FB to the review and the responses which took us on a really interesting exploration of the topic of the book, the ethics of reviewing a book whose subject you are very, very close to, the question of a reviewer’s personality looming larger than the ideas, etc. I felt so energized after that. Not the usual FB exchange. Anyway, please keep us updated on which outlets you’ve found helpful. I for one, am still looking.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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