Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks died yesterday, at the age of ninety-two. She is of course world-famous for her refusal to cede her bus seat to a white man when the Alabama law made such a refusal a crime. Many regard her act as the start of the Civil Rights Movement.

Parks was very important, but the mythmaking about her is also interesting. Even the BBC cast her sudden determination to stay sitting as something that just happened because Rosa was tired after a long day of work, as if she was a total political innocent, for example. Yet in reality she was very involved in the political movement that her refusal made famous. She was politically active and she worked in a group of like-minded people. The alternative myth is very appealing, but a myth it is, and its effect is to downplay the importance of political action in general.

Though I have spotted a human tendency towards similar mythmaking in other contexts, too. We seem to want to see our geniuses as lonely individuals, toiling away in a cold garret with no help from anyone else. It's a lot less exciting to read and find that they were amply supported by colleagues, mentors and often even the moneyed establishment.

None of this is intended to belittle the achievements we celebrate, including Rosa Parks's famous act of civil disobedience.