|In this Oct. 15, 1957, file photo, seven of nine black students walk onto the campus|
of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., with a National Guard officer as an escort
as other troops watch. (AP Photo, Fred Kaufman, File)
When I was in sixth grade, a teacher came up to me at recess and grabbed the book I was reading out of my hands. It was Bette Greene's 1975 Newberry winner Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe, and the cover featured a smiling black girl.
"Hmph!" the teacher snorted, as she let go of my dog-eared paperback. "I hope the boy she likes is black too." Then she leaned in closer. "Otherwise just think what kind of children they would have. They'd be mixed."
My jaw dropped. Even though my family and I had moved from Chicago to the mid-South two years earlier, I still flinched when comments like this dropped as matter of factly from people's lips as what the day's highs and lows were expected to be.
I thought about those words the rest of the day. That afternoon when I got home I took a good, long look at my own family. What was so wrong about being different? What was wrong about being mixed? My family was both of those things, perhaps not in the classic sense but wonderfully diverse nonetheless.
Dad had grown up milking cows in a small town in Louisiana. Mom was from Chicago and knew the score when it came to muggers and the Mafia. Dad was a Southern Baptist. Mom was half Jewish—and a Russian Jew at that—and half Gentile. Dad's family was part Indian with brown skin, full lips and a broad nose that I thought could just as easily pass as black. They were the two most wonderful people I knew.
I was half Yankee and half Southern, part Christian and part Jewish. I liked who I was—until too many students, as well as grown ups, tried to make me feel differently because of my background.
It must have been a thousand times worse for those with dark skin.
Most people remember the summer of 1980 as the year our town suffered through record heat and drought, more than three months in a row with highs above 100 degrees.
I remember the summer between seventh and eighth grade for a completely different reason.
When school started up in August, I looked around eagerly for my friends. Where was Gwen? Where were the others who never made fun of me, no matter how many hoops I failed to shoot in P.E. or how many times I was the last to cross the finish line?
They were gone. Erased as if they'd never been.
I never learned the truth. But whether our town's black families had been forced start their own school or had been driven away with mockery and misunderstanding, the result was the same. Exactly 115 years after the end of the Civil War, the school I attended was once again segregated.
One reader in progress for my historical novel, The Underground Gift, said "(it's a) very brave (thing) to take on (this theme of being a slave and mixed)-even African American writers would think twice about it." I figure when it comes to taking a stand, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. A white person isn't supposed to know how a black person feels, and a black or "mixed" person is supposed to keep his or her mouth shut about the times they've been unfairly treated.
One of my favorite quotes is: "Tell the truth and shame the devil." That is exactly what former slaves and their descendants did, with dignity, in Bearing Witness: Memories of Arkansas Slavery: Narratives from the 1930s WPA Collections, the primary reference source for my YA novel. It was my goal to help my two teenage protagonists, Josepha and Reeca, tell the same story in fictionalized form, although their story is anything but fiction.
Another set of words that moves me is: "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." I believe that is exactly what the readers of The Underground Gift can do for Josepha and Reeca—and maybe even for the book's sadistic antagonist, Benjamin Michaelson—as well as every other person past, present and future that a group of people have decided to hate.
Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe. Good! Because, Philip Hall, I like you too.
POSTSCRIPT: THE STORY HASN'T ENDED
More than a half-century after federal troops escorted nine black students into an all-white school, efforts to desegregate classrooms in Little Rock, Ark., are at another turning point.
According to the Associated Press, the state wants to end its long-running payments for desegregation programs, but three school districts that receive the money say they need it to continue key programs. And a federal judge has accused the schools of delaying desegregation so they can keep receiving an annual infusion of $70 million.
Little Rock isn't the only city whose schools have a history of being desegregated by court order; others include Charlotte, N.C., and Kansas City, Mo., a town only 10 miles away from where the plot of my book takes place.
For my husband, a native California, such behavior is an almost total mind blow. I wish I could tell him tales such as these are exaggerations, but they're not.
You see, it was a school in Arkansas where my experience took place. Little did I know it would be one of several similar incidents that would prompt me to write The Underground Gift.
I pray the coming generation won't find cause to write about this as well.