July 22, 2007

Unlearning Racism in Newark in the '60s

[This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the Newark Rebellion, one of the most powerful of the so-called "riots" that shook cities across the US that summer. My friend Joy has written up this recollection of being a white girl in the Newark public schools during the Sixties.

Set four years before the actual rebellion, this story highlights some of the conditions that led up to it: white flight and the conscious abandonment of the school system in Newark by the local and state power structure as the student body became Black. It also reminds us that decades of students since then have suffered from this same educational abandonment and been made to feel unworthy in the same ways Joy's memoir details.

It is also the moving story of one thirteen-year-old white girl suddenly becoming aware of how white people make Black people invisible. I gladly take this opportunity to plug Chip Smith's splendid new book, The Cost of Privilege, which sets this phenomenon in a social and historical context--it's a must-read for anyone seeking to break down the system of white supremacy in this country. --Napolitana Piemontese]

Newark, New Jersey, 1963

It’s the first day of 8th grade for me and there’s complete chaos in the halls of the Hawthorne Avenue School. Hawthorne is the school I have gone to since I was in kindergarten, but everyone seems so unfamiliar.

It’s Newark, New Jersey, 1963 and white flight is in full throttle. And the hallway looks like a place that people are fleeing from. Classes and teachers have not been assigned. No directions for where to report have come in the mail over the summer. So hundreds of Black students and dozens of white teachers occupy the hall. Many students are new to the school and look nervous. No teacher or administrator is rushing over to welcome us back to school. We are just waiting, waiting for our class assignments, getting tired in our new shoes.

Last year the school only went up through 7th grade. This is the first year it is going through 8th grade. This change is instituted so we can avoid the infamous Clinton Place Junior High which draws students from even rougher neighborhoods. Clinton Place is a 7th through 9th grade school, so we would not get to enter Weeequahic High School until 10th grade. None of the parents want that year’s delay. Weequahic has a good reputation. It’s where the whiter, more affluent population of Newark goes. So this is the first year of 8th grade for Hawthorne, and no one seems to know what to do with us.

I am a good student. I have always gotten straight A’s in school. In 7th grade I was in a special class that covered a year and a half of instruction in just a year. The year started with the second half of 6th grade and when it was over you were ready for 8th grade. This was needed to get everyone on a September start schedule. When I and others had started kindergarten, eight years earlier, if you turned five after November you started in February. A placement test was given and either you got to skip a half -year, or you were forced to stay back a half-year. The special class was for those of us who were skipping. The students in the class were two-thirds white, which I am, and one-third Black. But now in the hall, I do not see any of the kids who were in the special class with me. They have all moved over the summer. I start to cry.

I am almost thirteen, and crying like a kindergartner just starting school. But no one even notices me. Finally we are lined up to get class assignments. I notice one girl who lives down the block from me. Dori is her name. She is chubby, white and loud—not school-smart like me but kinda fun. Now they are assigning classes---very clearly tracked. 8-1 is the top, smartest class and 8-4 is the bottom. The principal comes up to me and greets me somberly. “What are you doing here? How come you didn’t move over the summer?” I do not know what to say. I feel humiliated, and poor. Then he tells me that there is a policy that if you were allowed to skip the year before, you cannot be in the top class, because you might still be a little behind. He tells me he knows that is not true of me and shakes his head in pity for me.

The class assignments begin. Almost all the white kids are being assigned to 8-1. I realize the significance of what the principal told me five minutes earlier. I am being made a token white kid in 8-2. That is not totally accurate---there are other white kids, but they are notoriously bad students. I am really crying now. Dori, who was a September starter and so did not need to skip, is of course assigned to 8-1. My one hope of a friend is gone. I continue to cry.

Darlene, a very quiet Black girl, comes over to me. I remember when she was the only Black girl in first grade. I remember that her mom died when we were in 6th grade, and I went over to her house to tell her I was sorry. She was so happy to see me, and her father seemed amazed that I had come. Darlene asks me why I’m crying. I reply, “Because I don’t have any friends in my class.” She asks me what class I was assigned to. I tell her 8-2. She gets really excited and tells me she’s in 8-2 too, and we’re friends!

It suddenly hits that I’m crying because I don’t know any white kids in my class. I do know many of the Black kids, including the few like Darlene who had scored high enough on the test that they, like me, had been allowed to skip half a year. I am totally ashamed of myself.

I hadn’t even noticed Darlene’s class assignment, but now her welcome lifts me and makes me resolve to see her as my friend. Then all the other Black kids, who I have known for years but only in school, not outside, start crowding around me, happy to be with me again. And I’m reciprocating, even as I conceal my shame that they have been invisible to me the whole morning.

The Year That Changed My Life

As the 1963-64 school year unfolded, all the views that I had unconsciously internalized from the culture, about Black kids (then Negroes) misbehaving in schools, dissolved. I experienced firsthand, with my classmates, the fact that no one cared about our education. There were days when we had no paper and not enough workbooks. The classroom contained 35 seats nailed into the floor, but there were 40 students. Instead of bringing five additional desks into the room, it was just assumed that five kids would be absent every day.

The generosity of my Black classmates continued to educate me.
I was never excluded from the teams or from socializing. If anyone put me down, or threatened me on the way home, a classmate always magically rose to my defense. Some of my fellow students looked to me for help with homework; and my classmates ultimately elected me class president.

For the first time in my life, I had Black friends over to my house after school; and my out –of-school reading became fiction and non-fiction about heroic fights against discrimination. A book called The Barred Road, about a girl excluded from nursing because she is Black, is still vivid in my memory.

At first, the principal’s remarks had made me feel that my parents did not care about me enough to move, or finagle me into a better school district, and I was angry at them. What really happened that year, though not by design, was that I was educated to the reality of racism, and my own internalization of that bias. That 8th grade year has changed the rest of my life.


Puneet said...

A good read. I realize now how certain schools were at that time, and how easily anyone can be misguided from education. It was extremely touching. Thank you for sharing such a sweet story.

-A random blog-wanderer

Anonymous said...

This was a powerful story.It is remarkable that the story teller was able to reflect on what was happening as it unfolded. Many would not have had those insights even 40 years later.

As I reached the end of the post I was bracing myself for the disappointment of not knowing how that school year changed her life. The story leaves you wanting to know who and what she has become. A member of SDS? A Social Worker? A Hair Dresser that married a brother from the Caribbean? Or a low key member of a community that
builds relationships with all of her neighbors? Maybe it's not possible to know much or anything about her. Nonetheless, this moving narrative leaves you wanting to know.


Anonymous said...

Here's Joy's response to Ajamu's comment:

What a lovely comment. Thank you. Yes, I was active in SDS, etc. Thousands of people--white and Black--have been involved, as I have been, in the struggles that defined the 1960s and 1970s.
Where I think this 8th grade year made my participation different than other white people, was that I understand in my gut how racism demeans everyone. So that directed me toward a politics, and personal relationships, that acknowledge this crucial fact. It was wonderful for me to be able to share that defining memory. I suspect that most of us who have remained politically active over the last 35 years draw on something in our past that keeps us going. Joy

Anonymous said...

I see woman who says she is professional nurse but makes racial insult about asian and native american on forum often times. She states to be nurse professional!

I am to think this is not acceptable for nurses.

Is there someone I can mail letter to. I think that if patient is asian or native american she will be danger to them.