Awakening Racial Pride, Racial Understanding

For each of us there is an awakening. Something that has been tolerated is simply no longer acceptable. Sometimes it is a moment when a reality is suddenly crystal clear. Sometimes it is more of a process, over time. For me, and for many of my high school classmates, it was a process of racial understanding and emerging racial pride that began one fall day.

“I wish I was in the land of cotton,

Old times there are not forgotten,

Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land.”

Played by the school band, that’s what we heard freshman year when we walked into the gym for our first pep rally. Students were singing loudly and enthusiastically as they stomped their feet on the wooden bleachers. The energy in the room was palpable.

Dixie “Dixie” was the fight song for my high school, John Marshall in Richmond, Virginia. Yes, that “Dixie.” The song born in the minstrel shows of the mid-1800s, the song that was the standard for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, and the song that had come to represent the collective of the Southern states, and the Southern sensibility, in the United States. That “Dixie”.

This was the mid-1960s. Brown v. Board of Education had called for the integration of all public schools about a decade or so earlier, but schools in Virginia were slow to recognize the mandate. In fact, they actively worked against it. When I arrived, John Marshall was still a predominately white school with a small number of black students. Many in the all-white, school administration and many of the white students’ parents had fought against integration. Black people were actively trying to prove that they could fit in. Like most at the time, the black students at John Marshall were Negroes, integrationists, assimilationists. No one wanted to do anything to cause trouble. Black people were trying to gain acceptance in a white world. And on that fall day, the students—white and black—were just kids cheering their football team as the players came into the gym.

We were all children of the cultural South. We all knew the words. By rote, almost everyone sang with little regard for the meaning or essence of the song,

“In Dixie Land, I’ll take my stand,

To live and die in Dixie.”

 A traditional fight song for the South, a song of pride, it had probably been the rallying song for John Marshall High from the beginning when the school opened in 1909, just a little over 50 years after the Civil War. No consideration had been given then to any culture other than white and little was offered a little over fifty years later for black students. It is unlikely that anyone—not for a moment—thought this, a school-rallying cry, might be offensive. Did it really matter?

Something about singing the song probably felt wrong from the start, but we went along to get along. Then, one day the words suddenly came into focus. Our consciousness had been raised. The school rallying song did matter. It was symbolic of so much. How could “We Shall Overcome” be the song of the times—more importantly, the anthem of our people—while we continued to sing “Dixie?”

Students asked the administration to stop playing “Dixie.” They were disregarded. Then one day, in our junior year, the black band members—in one catalytic moment—decided to take action. They didn’t refuse to play the song, it could have been played without them. Their action was far more effective, demonstrating the effect that the song was having on us— it was hurtful. When the band director called for “Dixie,” the black band members played other songs, not just one song, many. Cacophony resulted, then silence. That moment of dissonance accomplished what polite requests had failed to do. In that silence was there any racial understanding or compassion? I don’t know, but “Dixie” was no longer the fight song for John Marshall High School.

To learn more about “Dixie,” listen to this episode of the podcast, “Uncivil.” I guarantee you’ll learn something new.

 

School Segregation: Not All Negative

School Segregation: Not All Negative

The first day of school is always exciting. I’m sure that mine was no different when I walked into Albert V. Norrell Elementary School. Even though Brown v. Board of Education had struck down separate-but-equal schooling, my education started in an all-black school environment. I suspect that I didn’t notice. All the people in my world were black. We were all Negroes—in my family, in my neighborhood, at my church, and now at my school. Nothing new.

Norrell school photo
The author in front of her classmates at A.V. Norrell Elementary School.

At the time, nationally and in Richmond, Virginia, where I lived, people argued whether separate school systems were inherently unequal and whether black students were disadvantaged by this practice. In many ways, the evidence was clear. We received hand-me-down books from the white schools, our science labs, if we had them, had outdated equipment, and the school facilities themselves had only marginal upkeep.

But there was one significant difference. In that all-black environment, everyone was fully dedicated to the success of every student. From the janitorial crew, the cafeteria team, and the faculty to Mrs. Ethel Overby, our principal (the first black woman ever named to be a principal in the Richmond school system), they were all willing to do whatever it took to nurture our desire to learn and to afford us every possible learning opportunity. This reality was a powerful counterbalance to the deficits in the system.

I don’t believe that black students experience that degree of total commitment to their success anymore. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that teachers and administrators don’t want to see their students succeed. I believe that most do. But put simply, I also think that unconscious bias looms large in the education system. Far too many have bought into  ideas—preconceptions—about the pathology of black families, about the inability of black boys to focus, about the myth of laziness, and the list goes on. You know the stereotypes as well as I do.

I remember being surrounded by a cocoon of love and support. I can still remember the pride felt as I stood at school assemblies for the singing of Lift Every Voice and Sing, the Negro National Anthem. I knew I could do anything I set my mind to because everyone told me that I would be successful and everyone’s actions were intended to help me open the doors to success and to walk through them.

The older I get and reflect on the current state of affairs, the better I understand my father’s comment that integration was the best thing that happened to black people and the worst.

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For more information on unconscious/implicit bias, watch this.