Greenville, Mississippi looks like a town that the Civil Rights movement forgot. Four decades after the Freedom Summer, this “Queen City of the Delta” still has two of just about everything: two McDonalds, two Catholic churches, two sides of town. There are two Kroger grocery stores. The one with the organic milk and fancy cheeses is called the “white Kroger.” The one with the wilted produce and meager selection is called the “black Kroger.”
And a half a century after the Supreme Court declared “separate” antithetical to “equal,” there are two schools. At the local private academy, the town’s white children enjoy a shiny new building, fly to New York for spring break, and attend four-year colleges upon graduation. At the public school, the local black children—along with the handful of white students whose families cannot afford $5,000 in annual tuition—stare out broken windows, take busses to San Antonio for their senior trip, and struggle to meet the academic and financial requirements to attend college.
This state of affairs shocked me when I arrived in Greenville in July 2006 to begin my two-year stint as a high school English teacher through the Teach for America program. The initial shock, borne of my own naiveté, came when I realized that Jim Crow was still alive and well in the Delta. I had believed the stories my seventh grade American History textbook told me: that the Civil Rights movement had been a success, that all the sitting- and eating- and riding- and praying- and sleeping-in had created a society in which blacks and whites were equal.
The second shock came when I began teaching and tried talking to my tenth-grade English students about race relations in Greenville. In our first unit of the year, we read a first-person account of Rosa Parks’ refusal to surrender her bus seat in 1955. I asked my students to write an essay in which they compared Montgomery in 1955 to Greenville in 2006. I fully expected them to draw the same conclusion that I had made upon my arrival in Greenville: that present-day Greenville was nearly identical to the Montgomery that inspired the legendary bus boycotts.
I was shocked, then, when I read the essays and discovered that my students believed Greenville was significantly different from cities in the pre-Civil Rights South. They cited the facts that blacks and whites may now ride the same buses and drink from the same water fountains and eat at the same restaurants—never mind the fact that Greenville does not have public buses, nor many public water fountains, and most restaurants display a de facto segregation. A few students pointed out that blacks and whites are now allowed to attend the same schools.
After reading the essays, I brought up the schools issue in front of the entire class.
“Where are all the white kids?” I asked.
They glanced uncomfortably around the room, which was absent of any white faces.
One girl piped up tentatively, “They go to private school.”
“So does this mean that we can really say that Greenville is integrated?” I asked.
“We could go there if we wanted to,” another student replied.
“But it’s private school, right?” I countered. “So can everyone go there?”
“Well, white people can go to school here if they want to,” another student pointed out.
“But they don’t,” I said. “What does that tell you about the way things are in Greenville?”
I went home bewildered. How could my students miss the obvious signs of racial inequality in their own hometown, when I could see them after living in Greenville for just a few weeks? As the school year progressed, I realized that my students were as unaware of the history of Civil Rights as they were of the present state of racial inequalities. When we read “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” several students revealed that they thought Martin Luther King freed the slaves. In a discussion of the causes of the Great Migration, many students suggested that African-Americans left the South in the early twentieth century to escape slavery. The State of Mississippi is not doing much to clear up these misconceptions. The high school American History curriculum begins in 1877—fourteen years after Emancipation.
After the Rosa Parks unit, I decided that I had a mission: I was going to make my students see the injustices at work in their own lives. I was going to use literature as a tool both to teach them about the promises of Civil Rights and to reveal to them how those promises were being broken in present-day Greenville. And maybe, just maybe, after they realized just how unjust the divisions in Greenville were, my students would demand the unity and equality they deserved. By talking to my students about race, I could indirectly help create a more just Greenville.
I started them off by reading The Road to Memphis, a book about sharecroppers in World War II-era Mississippi. Have you encountered the kind of racism these characters face, I asked my students. When Trent Lott was elected Senate Minority Whip in November 2006, I planned an impromptu non-fiction unit that focused on Lott’s history of racial insensitivity. Is this the kind of man we want representing the state of Mississippi, I asked my students. We followed up the Lott unit with a discussion of the Oakland School District’s 1996 decision to consider Ebonics as its own language. Do you think “black” English is distinct from “white” English, I asked my students.
When I taught the same students in American Literature the following year, I continued my crusade to bring about my students’ racial enlightenment. I began the year with a unit on the Literature of Civil Rights, in which we read works by James Baldwin and Flannery O’Connor and Martin Luther King. I followed with a novel study of The Bluest Eye, which focused on the legacy of racism. As I planned my lessons, I spent more time considering which texts would lead to provocative discussions about race, rather than focusing on how best to teach essential skills in reading and writing.
A year and a half into my mission, Barack Obama delivered his speech on race. As I listened to Obama’s words through the tinny speakers of my friend’s laptop computer, I felt a surge of pride. I counted myself as one of the Americans Obama praised for being “willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk – to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.” It was okay that I was not teaching my students as much content as I wanted to, that I was not raising their ACT scores as much as I hoped. I convinced myself that I was helping my students in a much nobler way: I was teaching them to see their world as it really was.
Two weeks later, my third shock came. It was an aftershock, really, since it hit long after the earthquakes of my early days at Greenville had subsided, when I thought the worst had passed.
At the beginning of class one Thursday, I gave a lecture about Toni Morrison’s commentary on the history of American racism in The Bluest Eye. Alyssa Stevenson (name changed) put her head down on her desk at the beginning of the lecture. As the lecture continued, she sighed several times with displeasure. After the lecture was over, I pulled her out in the hall to ask what was wrong. She would not say. She returned to her desk, then stormed out of the room a few moments later.
At the end of the period, an assistant principal knocked on my door and asked to speak to me in the hall. When I stepped outside, Alyssa was leaning against the wall, eyes on the floor.
“Alyssa came to my office to tell me that she thinks you’re saying racist things in class,” the principal said.
The shock did not come from being called racist. I had been called racist before, once implicitly by my faculty advisor at summer school in Houston who noticed that I called on my white students more than my black or Hispanic students, and once explicitly by a Greenville parent whose child was failing my class. These accusations did not make me feel much beyond momentary indignation. I could write them off as the hasty conclusion of an overly sensitive observer or the frustrated ravings of a concerned mother.
The shock came from the source of the charge. Alyssa is not a casual observer of my class; she is well into her second year as my student. Nor is Alyssa irrational or vindictive. I have long admired her for her sensibility and self-confidence and have encouraged her countless times to run for mayor when she comes of age. She does not openly express hatred or distrust of me, as many students do. She came to talk to me when she discovered she was pregnant at the beginning of the school year. She has asked me to call her in the evenings to remind her when important assignments are due. Alyssa would only call me racist if she were truly offended by my words and actions in class.
“It’s all you talk about,” Alyssa explained. “You talked about it last year, and you talk about it even more this year. If the conversation isn’t finished one day, you’ll keep going with it the next day.”
I didn’t know what to say. She was telling the truth. I do talk about race all the time. I do insist on continuing unfinished conversations from previous classes. I considered my obsession with talking about race to be proof of the lack, rather than the presence, of my prejudice.
But Alyssa disagreed. She thought that my eagerness to talk about the history of racism in America and its continued legacy today demonstrated my desire to perpetuate hate in this country. In her words, she thought I was “down-talking” black people.
As with the first two shocks I felt in Greenville, this conversation with Alyssa revealed the depths of my naiveté. I had fancied myself in the same category as the Civil Rights heroes of the 1960’s simply because I moved down to Mississippi and tried to talk at my students about racism. I thought that, with my class discussions (if “discussion” is the correct word for when a teacher stands in front of a room, rants for a while, and then is greeted by uncomfortable silence) I could succeed where the freedom riders and the Supreme Court of the United States had failed. I could bring Greenville one step closer to being a unified city.
More dangerous for my students, though, is the narcissism that Alyssa’s comments revealed. By expressing her discomfort at the class discussions that brought me so much pride, Alyssa highlighted whom I was really helping with all my talk of race: not my students, but myself. If I really cared about ridding the world of racial inequality, I would have devoted some of that talking time to doing the job that Teach for America selected me to do: closing the achievement gap. With six weeks to go until the close of the school year and the end of my teaching career, my students still need to be reminded to indent at the beginning of a paragraph. They still trip over words like “dominion” and “mutual.” They still struggle to make the 18 on the ACT that they need to attend college in Mississippi.
And there’s still two of everything. I haven’t done anything to change that. According to Alyssa, I may have made the distance between the two sides of Greenville even greater.