Day 30: Talking Race with my Southern Mama {31 Days of #WOKE}

Talking Race with my Southern Mama

 

My mother grew up running through the orange clay of Buford, Georgia, a small town northeast of Atlanta. Though I’ve heard stories about their beloved black maid, Sadie, her father’s house calls as the town doctor and her attending boarding school to avoid the chaos of integration, I wanted to know more. Especially now, as I’m discovering the cost of a whispered history. We sat in her home in the mountains of Colorado this afternoon and had a chat while the kids napped.

Me: Do you remember specific ways you saw segregation in Buford?

Most of the blacks lived on one side of the train tracks and the whites lived on the other. I really don’t remember seeing many black children. We all kept to ourselves and went to different schools on different sides of the city. My dad was a doctor and I remember there being separate waiting rooms for whites and “coloreds,” as we called African American people then. My dad’s nurse, Katie, was black, though, and she was a close friend of our family. I don’t think she had much education, but was trained by my grandfather, who was also a doctor.

I don’t remember much overt racism growing up, but I do remember it was illegal for African Americans to even go to the next county over, Forsyth [We stopped and looked up more information on this at this time and found this Fresh Air podcast about the racial cleansing that went on in Forsyth county in 1912.]. Once when we were driving through Forsyth with my dad’s black nurse, Katie, I remember she had to lie down on the floor of the car because it was illegal for her to even be in that county. She also came on vacation with us, which always felt a bit clandestine because it wasn’t like she could even eat in restaurants with us.

Me: What was the perception of Martin Luther King, Jr.? What do you remember hearing about him? How did you feel during the Civil Rights Movement?

It was a bad time. I can’t believe my mom even let us kids watch the news during that time. Although he was respected for his non-violent stance, I just remember my mom telling me that it wasn’t going to end well for Martin Luther King, Jr. because the cops certainly weren’t taking the same nonviolent stance. I didn’t do any marches at that time, but I did do a march later when we lived in Florida for MLK day to become a national holiday. I remember the private Christian school your brother went to for a while voted not to observe MLK day.

Me: Can you tell me more about your house help growing up?

So our main interaction with African Americans was through our maids. Sadie was our maid for 23 years and was like family to us. The day my father told us she had terminal pancreatic cancer was the only day I remember my father crying. We loved her.

She would come to our house every day from 9 AM to 5 PM except Wednesdays and Sundays. We all came home for lunch since our school and my dad’s office was so close and we’d have traditional southern food. When we ate, Sadie would sit in the kitchen just a few feet away while the rest of us ate at the huge round table. Sadie would also do our laundry, clean and come on Saturday mornings to make us pancakes. Since I had four sisters, I remember her chasing away neighbors who were bothering us with her broom. We always hated Wednesdays when Sadie had the day off because the house just felt emptier somehow.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I realized Sadie couldn’t read or write. I also eventually found out she had a daughter being raised by relatives in the north. Because she worked full-time with our family, she wasn’t able to take care of her daughter.

We went to Sadie’s funeral in the black church when she died. We were the only white people there and they had us sit in the front row.

My best friend growing up also had house help. Their family was even more well-off than ours, so they had a live-in upstairs and downstairs maid. And their maids wouldn’t just put the food on the table for them to eat family-style, but would serve them at every meal. They also had a chauffer.

My aunt and grandmother had house help, but they would mostly just clean for them, not cook for them like ours did for our family.

Me: Do you feel like the portrayal of house maids in the book and movie The Help was realistic?

Yes, it was. In that movie, the help wasn’t supposed to use the bathroom in the house. Our maids did use our bathroom, but my wealthy friend I was talking about had a separate bathroom in the garage. And your dad’s grandmother in Jackson, Mississippi, had a bathroom out in the shed for her house help.

Me: What do you remember about the schools being integrated?

It was my junior year of high school and instead of continuing  in the public schools, my mom decided to send me to a private boarding school. There was just a big fear that the schools would be violent when they went through the transition to integration. My sister who was five years younger than me did eventually attend the public schools and observed some violence, but it wasn’t as bad by the time she graduated. I don’t remember there even being many black people when I went to college at the University of Georgia, though I’m sure there were some.

***

Check back tomorrow for the last post in the series! (Woot!) I’ll be doing a bit of rehashing, reflecting and ruminating on how to move forward from here.

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

Image: By Esther Bubley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

*Includes Amazon affiliate links

Day 22: Following Nikole Hannah-Jones Down the Integration Rabbit Hole (Part 2) {31 Days of #WOKE}

Nikole Hannah-Jones is my hero. Haven’t heard of her? Well, do any Google search including the words “school segregation” or “school integration” and you will likely find an article written by her.

The first time I heard of Nikole was on a This American Life Podcast called “The Problem We All Live With,” a two part-er about the benefits of school integration. (If you haven’t listened to it, please download it right now). Having grown up in an aggressive desegregation program in the public school system in Tampa, Florida, then teaching in the city of Chicago, I felt like someone finally outfitted my blurry eyes with the correct prescription glasses for my horrible vision.

I could see.

Since listening to that podcast and a few others, I have been on my own journey towards sight. But I recently heard her on another NPR podcast, Fresh Air, this time talking about intentionally sending her own daughter to a segregated school.

I surprised my family the day I heard that podcast. I listened while chopping apples for oatmeal while my husband got the children dressed.

“YES!” I yelled out. “YES!” ‘

“What?” my husband said, coming down the stairs with our two-year-old on his hip.

“This.” I said, pointing to the voice on my phone. “Her.” I pushed pause and hit rewind for the fourth time. You have to hear this,” I said. Nikole’s voice rang into the kitchen.

“And I say this — and it always feels weird when I say it as a parent, because a lot of other parents look at you a little like you’re maybe not as good of a parent — I don’t think she’s deserving of more than other kids. I just don’t. I think that we can’t say “This school is not good enough for my child” and then sustain that system. I think that that’s just morally wrong. If it’s not good enough for my child, then why are we putting any children in those schools?”

My husband looked at me quizzically. “That last part,” I said. “Listen again.”

If it’s not good enough for my child, then WHY are we putting ANY children in those schools?

***

My first year teaching, in 2002, I taught in a school that was 100 percent African American. The students there had no memory of a white student ever attending. When I taught there, I drove from the diverse north side of the city to the west side of Chicago, a neighborhood called North Lawndale with very few white residents. You can read about my first year teaching back on day two, but I ended up substitute teaching in a different school in the north side every day for two months after teaching in Lawndale. I eventually taught for four years in another north side school in a mainly white area.

Though I’d hardly call the north side schools flashy, I could see a marked difference in the amount of resources available to the schools who had majority white populations. Parents were more involved, more demanding and had a say in the governance of the school. They knew how to pull strings.

As a teacher, you feel trapped in the system. You work hard, love the faces in front of you and fight for justice in your small square. But as a (white) parent, I feel I am holding more of the cards. Now I can choose. Where do I want to send my children? How involved do I want to be in the school? What “rights” do I want to fight for?

I have the power to stay or go.

But I am not only a (former) teacher and current parent, I am also a follower of Christ. So in that way, shouldn’t my demands be different? Shouldn’t my view of my neighbor shift? Shouldn’t my faith move mountains and my love destroy walls?

Deep down, do I believe my children deserve more than other children? And if I find that voice whispering deep in my subconscious, do I have the courage to confront it and ask where it is coming from?

Things get real when it comes to our kids.

Here are some questions I’ve been grappling with lately:

Would I be willing to send my children to a failing school, trusting that they would get enough of what’s lacking from the ways our family would supplement their education?

Would I be willing to send my children to a school where they would be the minority (which will remain hypothetical in my case right now, since the city where we live is majority white)?

Would I be willing to send my children to a school in an unsafe neighborhood?

And if I answer “no,” to any of these, would I be willing to back up my answer with the Bible? Would I have the courage to ask “why” I wouldn’t be willing–from a Jesus-loving/following point of view?

I’d love to hear someone else’s perspective on all of this, so join the conversation in the comments section. I may attempt to address these questions in the days and weeks to come.

***

Here are some other articles by Nikole Hannah-Jones:

Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City, for The New York Times Magazine (June 9, 2016)

Segregation Now, for ProPublica (fall down the ultimate rabbit hole and get lost in the comments on this one!)

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

Day 21: What Ever Happened to Integration? (Part 1) {31 Days of #WOKE}

“I cannot see how the Negro will be totally liberated from the crushing weight of poor education, squalid housing and economic strangulation until he is integrated, with power, into every level of American life.” –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

***

I completed most of my homework on the school bus in sixth and seventh grade, because I rode an hour to and from school. My county in Tampa, Florida, was still under a 1971 court order to integrate its schools when I attended middle school in the 90’s. Those of us in the (mainly white) suburbs were bused to schools in the lower income, predominantly black, areas of Tampa to ensure the schools would be integrated.

“Didn’t it bother you that I went to school in such a rough neighborhood so far from our home?” I asked my mom a few years ago after realizing more about why I attended school so far from our mostly white suburb.

“You were separate,” she said. “All your classes were in the honors hall, so you didn’t interact with many students who actually lived in that neighborhood.”

So even within a school designed to promote integration, white students were kept separate from non-white students by being placed on honors halls. Reflecting back, I realized she was right. Though I had a handful of black students in my class, the majority of my class was still white.

I recently came across a fascinating document from 1973, detailing the implementation of integration in my county along with ten other counties throughout the nation. In it, a school administrator said, “‘Without the benefit of student transportation,’ he concluded, ‘it would be impossible for the schools to overcome the effects of a history of residential and educational segregation.'” (School Segregation in Ten Communities, p. 35)

This is an extremely complex issue, but it seems like busing was the only solution to integrating the schools when the residential areas remained segregated. I wondered if the schools were still integrated today.

Hillsborough County was finally released from its court order to integrate the schools in 2001. The county achieved what is called “unitary status,” meaning they no longer need to be closely supervised by the federal government. According to the Cowen Institute, “To be declared “unitary” by a judge, a school district must demonstrate that it has eliminated all traces of intentional segregation in six areas, called the “Green factors”: 1) student assignment, 2) faculty assignment, 3) staff assignment, 4) transportation, 5) extracurricular activities, and 6) facilities.”

But it seems that what unitary status actually means is that now students can attend their neighborhood schools again since the schools are no longer rigidly supervised. The school I attended for sixth grade is now back to being 73 percent African American, 20 percent Hispanic, 6 percent white and 1 percent “other.” Have the schools, therefore, “re-segregated”?

As a child, I had no idea I was in the middle of a system designed to eliminate segregation. Later, as a teacher in a magnet school in a white area of the city of Chicago, I thought nothing of the fact that most of the students of color at the school rode buses for nearly an hour to attend school because their parents knew the value of integration.

Often we move along in life unaware of the systems that guide and constrain us, much as a fish is oblivious to the water that steers him. I did not see that I was being forcibly integrated, just as my parents accepted the reality of segregated living until they were in their teens. Perhaps it’s time we open our eyes, peer around and start asking questions.

The 1973 document spelling out the integration plan in my county concludes on a positive note:

“Desegregation in this racially and ethnically mixed community
has not been easy, but there is evidence of growing optimism and
satisfaction with what is happening in the schools and community
because of desegregation. Nearly 100 students who had left the school system have reportedly returned. The superintendent’s office reported that it had received fewer than half a dozen calls concerning problems
with busing during the first half of the 1972-73 school year. Some
of those originally opposed to the plan now seem prepared to agree
with the view expressed by the Ventura County Free Press as schools
opened in September 1971:

‘If there is a solution to the racial, social and ethnic differences that divide our society, this is where it seems to be–in kids rubbing elbows with other kids–kids who are different in many ways–and finding that nothing ugly rubs off. It’s a part of education that too many of us grown-ups missed, and if it takes some busing to achieve it for our youngsters then we must face the necessity for busing even without a court order.‘”

Reading this last paragraph is sobering. The writer hoped they were moving towards a solution to end the problem of segregation. But as schools slipped out from under the nose of the federal government and achieved “unitary status,” it seems our school system eased back into segregation.

According to Tanner Colby, author of Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America, in an article for Slate, “The racial balance created by busing was a fiction, and in the absence of those programs we’re just seeing the country for what it has been all along, what it never stopped being: separate and unequal.”

***

What was your experience growing up? What was the racial make-up of your school? What about your children’s school today?

Check back tomorrow for more discussion on this topic.

This article is a fantastic overview of the history of integration in the U.S.: The Massive Liberal Failure on Race, by Tanner Colby for Slate

 

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

*Includes Amazon affiliate links

Day 21: What Ever Happened to Integration? (Part 1) {31 Days of #WOKE}