Going Beyond the Sound Bytes
By Taki Telonidis
History lesson. Just the mention of those two words can induce sleep. Yet, working on State of the Re:Union’s Black History Month special has been an eye-opening experience for me in more ways than one. I’ve learned the fascinating story of Bayard Rustin, the man who’s the focus of the show and I’ve been re-inspired by the dramatic events and personalities of the civil rights movement…details that had long faded in my memory. But the most important lesson I take away from this episode is an unsettling one. Were it not for this project, Black History Month for me might have come and gone like it has in other years, acknowledged only with a brief mention on the news, followed by that well-worn excerpt from Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.
But wait a minute! How is it possible that the living, breathing, sweating, dynamic struggle that defined our past 50 years can be boiled down into brief, oversimplified sound bytes as if it were the local news of the day? Sure these clips contain some facts and an acknowledgement of an event’s importance, but they give us shamefully little context and meaning. I’m afraid that many of us have come to take the achievements of the civil rights movement for granted and have allowed this chapter in America’s history to accumulate dust. But this isn’t ancient history, much of it happened in my lifetime and we benefit every day from the contributions and sacrifices of people like Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. This project has given me the privilege of hearing their words and their wisdom and I am so impressed by the eloquence of their arguments and the sophistication of their tactics. These qualities are lost when the entire civil rights movement is boiled down to that one speech, on that one day, by that one man.
We’re told that we live in the information age . . . that must be true given the amount of knowledge that’s at our fingertips. But, to use another cliché, quantity and quality are not the same thing. Even the most monumental information loses its impact if you chop it up into tiny-enough pieces. Working on this show was a humbling reminder that while all people are created equal not all events are. Something as important as our country’s struggle to live up to its promise of racial equality deserves more time and attention than we give it.