"BLACK AMERICANS MAKE PROGRESS," the headline of the Weekly Reader announced in large, block letters. I smiled to myself as I picked up the parcel of newspapers reserved for my class in the main office. I had been teaching at Morton Elementary for more than a month, and I had been searching for instructional materials on African American culture with little luck. Here, at last, was a story guaranteed to engage my students.
Photographs of African American students in integrated classrooms. Graphs showing a steady rise in the incomes and educational levels of black Americans. An entire front page devoted to the impact of the civil rights movement and the Civil Rights Act. I couldn't wait to distribute the newspapers and present my fourth-grade students with this report on the lives of black Americans like them.
As soon as my students caught sight of the headlines of their Weekly Readers that afternoon, however, I sensed that something was terribly, terribly wrong. Instead of the sea of waving hands that usually greeted my opening question, "Who would like to read?", I looked out over an eerily still classroom of scowling children, their bodies tense, their eyes on high alert. No one volunteered to read. Instead, my students sat warily at their desks and glared at me.
A storm was brewing, but I—a 21-year-old white woman who had never before lived in the South—had no idea what was wrong, no clue why they had suddenly turned angry and sullen. I called on Ramonia, someone I could count on to read well and one of the class's acknowledged leaders. But she refused to read. I called on Clinton, another leader. He shook his head. I called on polite and dependable Emmeline. She looked away from me. And then, much to my relief, Matilda raised her hand.
"I'll read," she volunteered. Some of the children gasped out loud at Matilda's offer, and others shot her accusatory looks, as if she had somehow betrayed them. But the tone of her voice was not conciliatory. It was defiant. Matilda smiled mysteriously at her classmates, taking the time to meet their disbelieving stares. "Watch me," her flashing eyes seemed to say. And then, in a perfectly composed voice, she began to read: "NEGRO AMERICANS MAKE PROGRESS."
As she read on, she pointedly substituted the term "Negro" every time the word "black" appeared in print. At once, the tension in the room lifted. Now everyone wanted to read. Chester and Emmeline followed Matilda's lead, using "Negro" in place of the adjective "black." Annie Mae and William substituted "colored" instead. Gloria alternated indiscriminately between the two words. No one uttered the word "black." Inspired by Matilda, the class collectively conspired to banish that word, refusing its power to define them, keeping at bay whatever demons it conjured up in their minds.
I didn't say anything about this communal act of censorship and revision until the class had finished reading the lead story. Then, I intervened. I told them we needed to talk about their reaction to the author's use of the term "black." I explained that many African Americans, including influential writers, important civil rights activists, and well-known entertainers preferred to use the word "black" to describe themselves rather than words like "Negro" and "colored." I tried to explain the thinking behind this preference. I told them about the Black Power Movement, the popular slogan "black is beautiful," and the efforts of prominent African Americans to instill racial pride in their people by embracing the word "black." And I assured them that the author of the Weekly Reader had in no way intended to insult them when he chose to refer to them as black.
My students found none of my explanations persuasive. Nothing I said altered their conviction that "black" was one of the worst things you could call somebody. Eight years later these same children would pose for their senior class photographs in magnificent Afros worthy of Bobby Seale and Angela Davis, but on this February day in 1970 they adamantly refused to be identified as black, a word they understood to be a racial epithet, a threat to their integrity, a mean-spirited charge leveled at them by white people in their hometown.
"But calling someone black is an insult," Chester insisted. "White people are always calling us black, just to make us feel like we're no good. They think they have the right to lord it over us, just because of the color of our skin. When someone calls me black, I want to fight him."
A chorus of emphatic yeahs reinforced Chester's position. "Colored," Annie Mae suggested, "is a better word for describing us. It's not upsetting to be called colored, 'cause that's what we are. We're all colored."
"But Negro is the best word to use," Reginald weighed in. "That's the proper name to describe our people. It says we're all brothers." Everyone, including the girls, nodded.
"I don't think this writer has any business calling us black," Clinton complained. "He should know that it's a put-down. He should know he's insulting the people he's writing about."
"The problem," explained Sharon with her usual thoughtfulness, "is that white people call us 'black' to make themselves feel superior. They want us to believe we're beneath them just because we're colored." Then she recounted her defiant response to a white teenager who had humiliated her by deploying the demeaning words "black girl" to enforce the custom of Jim Crow.
"When I first moved back to Louisa from New York City," she recounted, "I put a penny in a gum-ball machine downtown. A real big white boy wearing a varsity football jacket came up to me. He got in my face, and stared at me, hard. 'Black girl,' he said to me, like I was dirt, 'Black girl, you can't use this gumball machine. You're black.' I was so scared, I wanted to run. But do you know what I told him? 'You see my shoes? They're black. You see my face? It's brown. My name is Sharon, and I can buy gum from any machine I want to.' And then I got my gum and walked away. And he just stood there, staring at me."
Listening to the way my students sought to preserve their dignity by repudiating their "blackness," I began to realize how complicated and confusing—how messy—the task of defining a self was for the 37 African American children sitting in my classroom. They were only ten years old. Born in 1960, six years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, they were only three when Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, four when the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, five when the Voting Rights Act was passed, six when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panthers, eight when King was assassinated in Memphis.
Yet they still lived in a segregated town reluctant to end its enforcement of Jim Crow laws that systematically excluded, subordinated, and disenfranchised people like them, people, that is, who had even "one drop" of "black blood" in them. How, I wondered, did they manage to sustain their fierce pride in their "Negro" and "colored" identity while recoiling in horror at the thought of being "black"? Was their response to the Black Power Movement's defiant appropriation of the word "black" a reactionary one, evidence of their traditional rural upbringing, or was it a radical and heroic form of resistance to the racism they encountered daily? Could it be both? Had they unconsciously internalized white culture's color prejudice, tragically preferring brown skin to black (and white to brown), or had they penetrated the secret of America's "miscegenated heart"?
Sharon's anecdote opened a floodgate, and the stories spilled out. Ramonia told how her father routinely encountered discrimination at a PX store on the Air Force base where he was stationed. Annie Mae told how once, at a store counter, some white kids had intentionally knocked the candy she had selected onto the floor. "I just don't understand why they are so mean to us," she confided quietly. "Do you think," she asked, her dark eyes solemn, "there will ever be a war between white people and colored people?"
Confiding in me about the many times they had been wounded by the hateful or demeaning actions of white people, my students seemed, for a moment, to forget that I was white. Then Lonnie, who sat in the very back of the class, suddenly shot up his hand. "What color do you think I am?" he asked.
His was no curious or casual query. It was a challenge, and I could feel all eyes watching me to see if I would pick up the gauntlet. I looked carefully at Lonnie before answering. I studied the color of his face, his neck, his arms. I compared the color of his skin to the children sitting near him, noting in a way I hadn't really registered before, the wide range of skin tones, the multiple shades of brown and black among the students.
"Lonnie," I said at last, "I'd say you're a very light brown—tan maybe, or beige."
Lonnie nodded his head in satisfaction. "Right," he declared. I could tell that he was proud of his light skin, that he wanted me to acknowledge that he was not, in any literal sense of the word, black. But my interrogation was not over.
"And what color do you think you are?" he asked, challenging me again.
I was surprised by Lonnie's question, surprised and disconcerted, for it forced me to examine the set of neat racial categories I had always taken for granted. I realized that I had never really thought about being any color at all, had always simply accepted the premise that I was white. I realized too, with a sharp stab of shame, that I had allowed the racial categories of white and black to separate me from my students by unthinkingly accepting them as valid and natural. Unconsciously, I'd based my identity on being "white." Worse, I had enjoyed the power and status my whiteness conferred upon me without ever questioning their legitimacy. I began to see that this persistent little boy questioning me from the back of the room understood far better than I how the privilege I enjoyed as a "white" person derived from an utterly absurd set of assumptions.
I held out my arm and observed it closely. Although my ancestors were German and Scotch-Irish, I am not fair-skinned. During the summers of my childhood, I used to get so dark from long days in the sun that my grandfather affectionately called me his little brown bear. As a teenager, I sported a fashionable, bronze suntan. Looking down at my arm that day, I realized what Lonnie had obviously known all along: my skin was not much lighter than his light brown skin. Indeed, after a week or so in the summer sun, it would surely darken into a deeper shade of brown.
"I'm tan, too, Lonnie," I told him. "I'm almost exactly the same color as you."
Lonnie smiled broadly at my admission. I hadn't fully understood how much status he derived from his light skin or considered the implications of that status for his darker-skinned classmates. Then, noticing the veins on the underside of my forearm, I added as a playful afterthought, "And I'm even a little bit blue, too."
Lonnie bolted out of his seat. Charging up to the front of the room, he grabbed my right hand and inspected it carefully, staring with a scientist's interest at the blue veins running in distinct lines from my palm to my wrist, the streaks of blue crisscrossing the back of my hand. Then he turned around to face the class and announced theatrically, "She's blue."
The class went wild. "She's blue! She's blue!" my students shouted triumphantly. Pounding their fists on the desks, stomping their feet, they joined together in a gleeful chant: "Mrs. Hallahan's blue!"
I can't explain the giddiness of that moment. Did my students want to bring me inside their colored world, claim me as their own? Or did the prominence of my blue veins somehow mark my "white" body as aberrant, monstrous even, ridiculous and strange? Did they need some release from the seriousness of our discussion, the weight of the insults and color prejudices that the Weekly Reader had dredged up from their past? Or did they seek to express the absurdity of their society's racial classifications by embracing an upside-down world—the teacher is not white but blue, and her "black" students have the power to make her so?
I joined in their giddy laughter. I did not mind at all being colored blue that Friday afternoon. Released from the tidy binary of white and black, I reveled in my messy, multicolored, mongrel self.