By Lena Gilbert
April 4, 2017
Growing up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I had the privilege of being bused. Anyone remember the controversial busing program? It was a practice of moving children from different residential areas to redress segregation so that schools could be more fully integrated. And to be honest, it has only dawned on me recently that that was what was happening. Because isn’t that the magic of childhood? Whatever we experience as children is just normal. I just went to my school. The fact that I — a white girl — rode a bus and that our elementary school was on the north side (read: black side) of town made it no more nor less my school. That’s where I and all my friends went. I didn’t know I was being bused. My parents certainly never spoke of it. I knew I went to public school. My mother told me public school is good. And so, it was not an issue.
In all my years of Kalamazoo Public Schools, I never had a white principal. There was Mr. Franklin (lower elementary), Mrs. Comer (upper elementary), Mrs. Dekalb (junior high), and Mr. Caldwell (high school.) Black men and women held positions of status and authority throughout my whole childhood. Period. By the time I graduated high school, I was just barely in the racial minority of my class. It only occurs to me as an adult that other people’s childhoods may have looked different than that.
Black History Month was big. The reason I know that is because we spent one year (fourth grade) in Minnesota for my Dad’s work. For one year I was in an all white public school — not because of deliberate segregation, but simply because white was the only color people in our town of less than 2,000. I remember clearly when February came around, I asked, “What are we doing for Black History Month?” I was met with blank looks.
So, I am a performer — by disposition and profession — and I can trace my first on-stage experience back to Black History Month. In first grade, we had a big February show and each class was given a different spiritual to perform. We practiced a lot in our classroom. I remember thinking that we got the very best one.“Swing low, sweet cherry-ot.” I assumed this song had something do with cherries (sweet cherries). I didn’t know what exactly a “cherry-ot” was, but to this day, when I hear that song, my mind pictures a long branch of a cherry tree sweeping down and lifting us all up cradled gently amongst the leaves. May I remind you, I was six.
However, I landed what I considered to be a very plum acting role in our presentation. Naturally, we were all field hands with a few overseers as we sang our song. Our teacher Mrs. Berg (bless her) gave us some pantomime-y movements to tell the story. My part was the slave who was overcome by heat and exhaustion. I got to really play it up, collapse, and then be carried off stage by my fellow field hands — kinda Elmur Fudd style. I found terrific drama in this whole thing. Again, I was six. I had no context for our American history. We could have been doing the Arabian Nights. The story of slavery and our greatest national shame was introduced not as our story or their story, it was just the story.
[I have to pause here and say that I have some real questions about Mrs. Berg’s casting choice. I’m addressing it because I know that you are thinking the very same thing. Why did she choose me and not a black student to play the slave who collapsed? I always assumed that it was because she thought, “I don’t care. I won’t have my hands tied casting for type. I’m just going to use the very best acting talent available in the class.” That’s my preferred version. But maybe she was delusional. Maybe she was thinking, “My class is going to stop the show this year. There won’t be a dry eye in the house when that little blond girl drops dead in Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” I can’t guess what she was thinking. I played the role as directed. Back to our story…]
We talked about slavery all the time. You know how kids have a fascination with things like death and where babies come from? Well, we talked about those things in our clumsy kid ways — and slavery too. It was another of the scary mysteries we were trying to get our heads around. I think the point is that although the story would be filled in later with details and perspectives, I was always in conversation with the precarious and awful history of black and white in America. I was learning about it alongside my black classmates. This being America, I would later learn the correct taboos to demonstrate shame on the part that was played by people who look like me — by never speaking of it. But in my early years, I’m so glad we didn’t yet have those nuances.
As an adult, I have learned the term “code-switching.” And I recognized it immediately. Growing up in Kalamazoo Public Schools, we did it all the time. If it was talked about at all, it would have been described as “talking white” and “talking black.” I understood when each one was required. “Talking white” was for addressing teachers and parents. (Basically anyone who would be represented by the horn in Charlie Brown.) And I don’t just mean for talking to white parents. When I met the parents of black kids, I would definitely “talk white” to them too. But here’s the thing. I knew that black parents would not “talk black” to me. Or if they did, it was extremely flattering and an expression of acceptance and familiarity.
Among us kids, we went back and forth all the time. “Talking black” was for expressing cleverness and sass. Or it was used as a show of strength if someone felt socially threatened. There were black kids among us who had been taught by their parents to basically only “talk white.” That was a thing. It made them seem a little square, but it was accepted. (For sure, some black kids had a few choice words for them.) There were black kids who resisted “talking white” too. Honestly, I think that was understood, but not especially admired. And there were definitely white kids who were not savvy and could only “talk white.” But the rest of us could flip and flop and choose our words adeptly according to the situation. And I mean white kids talking to white kids or black kids talking to black kids or any combination. Both dialects had their uses.
In one of Maya Angelou’s autobiographical novels, I read that she hated when white people took on the black dialect. And that got me. I thought, “Good thing she never visited Northglade Elementary school. We were all over the place.” Because I understood in her writing that it felt down-putting and disrespectful to her. And of course I can see that. It absolutely can be done badly. Probably I’ve done it badly. In my defense, I started early and I was very close to excellent primary sources. But I have monitored myself closely all these years, fearful of discovering some unknown or untapped well of racism deep in the caverns of my soul.
For example, I was always afraid of the “lunch ladies.” That’s what we called them. They were the law and order matrons of the school. This being the early 80s, (which looked a lot like the late 70s. Fashions changed slowly in Kalamazoo) they wore terrific Afros and great gold hoop earrings. And they’d shout things like, “Don’t be doing that!” All these years I imagined that it must have been the Afros and the hoop earrings that scared me. And then I sent my boys to Irish Catholic school for preschool. And there are hall monitors who make me jump in the exact same way as I did around the lunch ladies when I was a kid. The words are different. But when I heard, “Get to class, don’t dawdle, Ann-Marie!” with the same fierceness, I thought, “Oh thank God. They’re the same! It’s not a black or white thing. It’s not racist that I was afraid of the lunch ladies. It was completely appropriate. They were scary.”
From the vantage point of today — where I live in gentrified, segregated Brooklyn — I see wisdom and thought and care in the decision of Kalamazoo Public Schools to integrate so fully. And as with so much of what we experience in childhood, I had no appreciation for it at the time. I didn’t think about it at all, actually. Black kids and white kids go to school together — obviously.
Except that now my children attend New York City schools — one of the most segregated school systems in the country. And it’s a loss. Where are their black friends? I never knew I had to cultivate them because integration was a given and a natural part of my school-age life. To be fair, my son is one of about eight white kids in his class of 30. The rest are mostly Chinese or Bangladeshi. It’s not that there’s no diversity. But I am keenly aware that across town there are schools almost entirely black and brown and of course, other schools that are much more white. I am in favor of more mixing.
In America, we talk of “choice” almost like a fetish. To say that I am not in favor of choice is almost like saying I’m not in favor of thought. But we are not always so good at making short term choices for our long term best interests. Yes, it’s an uncomfortable thought at first to think of putting our precious darlings in an environment with other precious darlings who look different. You won’t believe how quickly it becomes normal. But making it possible to choose to stay separate leads to inequality on very basic levels.
Unbeknownst to me, it turns out that the busing program of my childhood in Kalamazoo was followed and studied academically. It was a system-wide decision to move children around and racially mix the elementary schools in response to the high school race riot crises of the late 60s and early 70s. Before busing, people thought it was best to keep children at elementary schools within walking distance of home. After busing, the schools that had previously been 80–90% black students (for example, Northglade — my school) discovered a new public will to quickly improve the physical state of the buildings. Yes, integration was hard fought and the opposition to mandatory busing was strong. That whole fight happened before I was born. What I can report, from the experience of a little white girl in a black neighborhood at a distance of several decades, is that I am enormously grateful that I was never given the choice. In the absence of real experience with the “other,” we all listen to myths and make up assumptions. And we end up needing statements like “Black Lives Matter.” When I first heard that expression, my instinctual response was, “Duh. What’s the question?” Except that I see it’s a necessary assertion for communities who have allowed themselves to keep separate and who don’t know each other.
When I graduated from Kalamazoo Central High School, I wanted out of that town like a bat out of hell. I admit it. My dreams and passions have taken me far. But lately, I find myself looking back with real nostalgia and gratitude for the integrated community I had no appreciation for then. James Baldwin said the price of segregation is apathy and ignorance. I do not want segregation. I do not want apathy and I do not want ignorance. Even though some in society tell me that I should be able to choose those things. I’m a white woman of privilege standing here saying, “I see it.” I see the micro-aggressions. I see the veiled (or not) racism. And in this country, it is assumed that I do not.
I am an American. And I am not well. Because my country is not well. I say to hell with school choice. That’s not the answer. Let’s bring back busing, blend our communities and improve all the public schools for all our children. Maybe then our grown ups will stop killing each other.