Monday, July 25, 2016

How my world was integrated

A line of African American boys walking through a crowd of white boys during a period of violence related to school integration in Clinton, Tennessee, 1956. Photo by Thomas J. O'Halloran. Public domain.
A self-ordained professor's tongue 
Too serious to fool 
Spouted out that liberty
 Is just equality in school
"Equality," I spoke the word
As if a wedding vow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I'm younger than that now.
—Bob Dylan. "My Back Pages."
I grew up in interesting times. The schools I attended before high school reinforced the idea of television shows like The Donna Reed Show or Leave It to Beaver that I lived in a white world with no blacks, no Hispanics, no Asians, or anyone else of color. Segregated education was a lie that denied the very nature of humanity. I was not lucky enough—as some people my age were—to grow up surrounded by friends and families of all colors and creeds. I grew up in a segregated world. If and when we crossed the Interstate below 26th Street, we locked the doors of our cars as if we were passing through dangerous zones of interplanetary space.

The Federal courts integrated the Austin Independent School District in 1970. They mixed things up with a vengeance and with a brutishness that placed the law over people. They shut down Anderson High, which was the black high school in East Austin, and bussed the students to four different white schools, one of which, McCallum, received its first black students on my first day of high school there. The black students were furious that their old school had been torn apart and that their friends had been sent in so many different directions.

Instead of being allowed to study in their own neighborhood, the blacks were being sent far and wide into other parts of town that were not particularly welcoming. The McCallum administration had made no preparations to extend a welcoming hand or to bring people together into this new community, and that oversight added to black anger. I remember for the first few days of school the hallway out to the math wing was lined with angry black students staring at anyone who dared walk down this corridor they'd claimed. There were near riots in the lunch room. One burly black guy walking between those folding lunch tables grabbed the ends of two tables, lifted them, and flipped them in opposite directions, end over end, food, dishes, and trays flying every which way. Everyone else fled the lunch room. For the next three years that I was at McCallum, I did not eat in the cafeteria.

Nobody had taken the trouble to demystify the other in this encounter in our racist world of opposites. The blacks were scared and angry, and most of the whites were frightened by this angry alien presence in our midst. The administration realized how they had failed in this drawing together of people, so they scrambled for a few days to develop plans as they struggled to maintain peace despite the anger about to boil over. So after only three days they held assemblies and began to introduce everyone to everyone else, to welcome the newcomers to our school, to set up committees in which students worked together to establish policies conducive to peace and to making the best out of the new arrangement, and to convince everyone that nobody bites, table tossing in the lunch room notwithstanding.

There were of course some angry whites, which I am inclined to identify as the white supremacists sector of my school. There weren't a lot of them:

I am in German class in one of those first few tense days, and outside a rowdy group of six white students carrying sticks and rocks and chanting racist slogans come marching down the sidewalk. A guy seated two desks ahead of mine stands up and shakes his fist in the air in solidarity with the demonstration outdoors. "Kill! Kill! Kill!" he says. I feel puzzled because, even as tense as things are, I see no reason to kill anyone. The teacher told him to sit down and shut up, and she called the office to ask them to do something about the marauders.

What amazed me then and still amazes me now is that, even though they hadn't had the foresight to do all this before the new students drove up in those bright yellow busses, those assemblies, committees, and, most of all, people talking to each other worked. The effort wasn't perfect, but it did enough to defuse a bomb that was ready to explode. Gradually tensions eased, though it took longer than the three years I was in that school for the students from east Austin to achieve social parity with everyone else. The otherness that each group felt for the other took time to wear off.

There were some blacks who came to school but did not participate in it. They wore dressy and expensive clothes and patent leather shoes, wandered the hallways, went to their cars, or sometimes left campus altogether, but they never came to class. They were in the school but not of it. This annoyed me because I thought their presence was disruptive. The classrooms in the math wing had big shuttered vents out to the hallway that ran both along the ceiling and along the floor, and one day when I was in calculus class, I saw through the floor vents a pair of patent leather shoes walking up the hallway. I wadded up a piece of paper and launched it through the ceiling vents, and the door opened. The vice principal in charge of discipline stood in the doorway with my wad of paper in his hands. "Who threw this?" Nobody said anything, and he decided not to press the issue and went away. There was an object lesson there for me: not all people who wear patent leather shoes were the non-participating blacks. My assumptions, like most racist assumptions, had led me astray.

I always hated physical education, and in high school I often showed up for roll call then took one of the many halls in the labyrinthine gym to get out of there. One day, though, at the end of the hall through which I was escaping p.e. were a few black guys smoking a joint. These days I would think nothing of it, keep walking, say "Excuse me," and go out the door. But in that time I was into fear mode, so I said, "Um, do you mind if I come through there so I can get outta here?" They said, "Yeah, come ahead." I knew enough about marijuana to know that it didn't turn people into violent fiends, but still it was three black guys and one white guy in a little-used corridor. That was silly and racist of me, I know, yet the desegregation of my school was the beginning of the end of that sort of thinking.

The failure for which I feel the most shame was during the award ceremony at the Science Fair. I won two prizes, and when the winners were called, they were supposed to go up the few stairs to the stage and shake hands with the judges, who were all science teachers seated at the table, then receive the award certificate. With no animosity but wholly passive racism, the black teacher, who was as legitimate of a judge and teacher as anyone else at the table, just did not register in my mind as a teacher or a judge. I didn't know why she was there, nor did I give her a thought. I did not perceive her as a legitimate person. My passive racism made her invisible. So two times I skipped shaking hands with her. At some point, perhaps years later, when it finally dawned on me what I had done, I felt shame for my omission. I've reached a point now where race (rather than people) is almost transparent to me, but that's nothing to brag about because this is how it should have been all along, and it took me far too long to get to this imperfect stage.

These days, they tell me, students choose which schools they want to attend, and schools make like flowers out to attract the bees. Schools are made better by having them compete for students with programs and specialties. Instead of enforcing who must attend what school according to racial lines or court-ordered bus lines, schools make themselves attractive by offering programs and specialties, and students choose which school they want to attend. McCallum is a "high school and fine arts academy" with a large auditorium added to it.

I looked at this list of Austin high schools and toyed with the check boxes by which someone can indicate what sort of school they're looking for, and I cried a tear because we have come so far yet have so far to go.