Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Something Must Be Done

I have, on more than one occasion, been a late adopter.  I got a credit card years after they were commonplace and only succumbed when I tried to rent a car and the agent said I needed a credit card to do so.  Nearly everyone I knew had a cell phone before I purchased one.  Other things too.

So maybe it makes sense or follows that it was after African American History month that I happened to pick up two books about the struggles black Americans have faced.

Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County is part history and part memoir.  It is about the resistance southern states put up in the face of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Ed Supreme Court decision.  That ruling made it unconstitutional for school districts to have separate but equal schools.  Separate but equal was deemed inherently unequal.

For those under 50 it may seem bizarre that there was reluctance to desegregate.  But if you are eligible to collect social security, the saga of Little Rock in 1957 is likely vivid. Stories about that battle--and listening to radio broadcasts reporting the incident--are among my earliest recollections. I have a vague memory of my parents nervously awaiting the 1956 presidential election, but the 57 Little Rock incident is more clear.

Growing up in Brooklyn, the concept of fighting over segregated schools was tough to get.  I lived in an integrated apartment complex and went to integrated schools.  I could not get the fuss.  But a fuss there was as Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County describes.  It is not about Little Rock in 1957, but a small town called Farmville, Virginia in the late 50s and early 60s.  Farmville had segregated schools and did not care that they were supposed to desegregate. What they did is incomprehensible fifty plus years later.  The County literally closed the public schools rather than comply.  Then they opened a private school which admitted only white students.  So, black kids in Farmville had no place to go to school.  It was the only county in the country that had no public schools.  Robert Kennedy then the attorney general took on Farmville and eventually--four years later--the county established public schools.

The book is as much about the author's experience living in Farmville as the incident itself.  As the author explains, her grandfather was among the townspeople who implemented the plan to close the public schools.  Her parents, of my vintage, attended the private school and, significantly, the author--thirty years my junior attended the private school even though by that time there were public schools.
The author claims that she had no awareness that there was a problem, and now feels guilty about her ignorance and her family's complicity.  The guilt is magnified because she married a mixed race man who would have been deprived of schooling had he lived in Farmville.  Also, her black maid growing up had a daughter who was a contemporary and she had to leave her mother's home to live with a relative in order to get an education.  So the maid--someone the author loved and admired--was separated from her daughter and the perpetrators of the injustice were her employers.

I am glad I read the book but I cannot recommend it. The commingling of the family saga with the events of the day is not blended well.  There is a good deal of repetition.  I think the details of the incident might have been presented with a preface or epilogue describing her family's involvement.

The Underground Railroad is a novel that takes place before the emancipation of the slaves. It is centrally about a slave who escapes.  The book begins with Cora, the slave, enduring the horrors of slavery.  Bleak and ugly are words insufficient to describe her experience.  She decides to flee and does so with another slave.  Cora travels on an actual underground railroad.  We know that the underground railroad is used to describe how slaves escaped with "railroad" used as a metaphor for the series of "stops" where slaves could hide as they escaped.  Cora goes on an actual railroad. I am not sure this aspect of the book is necessary. What is significant is who she meets and what she has to deal with in order to escape.

Usually when I read a book I race through the second half. I thought the writing in the first half of this book was great, and much better than the second half.  Colson Whitehead, the author, depicts portions of Cora's journey very well.  Other characters--the slave catcher, other slaves, the people who help her escape--are also well drawn.  I recommend this book, but for me at least it was not all that easy sledding toward the end.

Some buddies were in town this past weekend. The three of us--white folks in our mid to late 60s--recalled an incident that we witnessed in the dormitories.  Black students had petitioned successfully for there to be separate corridors within the dorms.  The people who lived on these corridors were not all activists, some just wanted the comfort not to feel discriminated against. There were some vocal political figures in the group.  One week, a group of other students--a group comprised of both blacks and whites--had petitioned the dorm directors for a forum to make a presentation against the dedication of corridors for black students. This group claimed that segregated wings of a dormitory undermined attempts for racial harmony.

So, there was a meeting. And it was no fun.

This was the 70s with significant political tension.  The black and white students from the integration group were surrounded by the black students from the segregated corridor.  The forum had no chance to be peaceful. Forty minutes into the tensest of tense conversations a fight broke out and the head of the residence halls got whacked in the face as did a member of the integration group.

The next day black and white parents came up from New York to protest the way their kids had been manhandled.  It was a mess.

But if you read Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County and The Underground Railroad, you could understand how the residual effect of slavery and segregation could lead to the tensions that existed that day in the dormitories and really continue to surface into the 21st century.

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