Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Tale of Elizabeth and Hazel -- and America

As a student of Twentieth Century history, I know the story of the integration of Little Rock's Central High School very well, of course -- I've even taught it to my history classes including, yes, what happened after the cameras stopped rolling and the nation's attention moved on. If you don't know the story, you should: not only is it a central event in recent American history, it's a gripping tale, and the heroism of the young protagonists is really quite inspiring.

But I didn't know the story of what happened to the students after they graduated (save for the bare fact of their later public recognition). It's quite extraordinary: and this article from Vanity Fair (via Kevin Drum), which tells the story of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock nine, and Hazel Bryan, a white student from Little Rock that year, is quite extraordinary: I think Kevin quite undersells it. It's superb.

If you look that that famous photo above, Elizabeth is the African American girl, being screamed at by the mob for trying to go to high school. Hazel Bryan is the girl on the left of the photo, screaming at Elizabeth.

The story the article tells begins as a feel-good racial reconciliation story: Hazel seeks out Elizabeth, and apologizes; then, later, they meet again, and become friends. They write a book together; and they go on Oprah, of whom the article says, "Reconciliation and redemption are her things, but this one was too much even for her." Elizabeth, who suffers for a long time from depression, revives. A feel good-story for our time...

Except, it's not, and the writer doesn't let us loose sight of that even at the story's height. None of the other people in the photo apologized; there remains a lot of racism in the area; and the others of the Little Rock nine are suspicious of Hazel's motives. And then things fall apart: the two women, having become unlikely friends, drift apart: Hazel's apologies, so often made, seem to have gaps in them, areas she is unwilling to go. Eventually she drops out of public life.

And while Little Rock's Central High School now has a student body that is half-black, half-white, David Margolick reminds us of the reality behind that facade:
Central High School looks as imposing as ever, but over the past 50 years, its innards have changed unimaginably: the school is now more than half black. It's all misleading, of course, because Central is really two different schools, separate and unequal, under one roof. The blacks go to different classes, sit on separate sides of the cafeteria, have different, and far lower, levels of performance and expectations.

The whole article is tinged with a bitter realism, recognition of progress paired with a strong sense of the complexity and ambivalence of reality. Through all this runs the voice of Elizabeth Eckford, a formidable character in her own right. (One of the other of the Little Rock nine, asked if she knows Elizabeth well, replies: "Well enough to leave her alone.") Elizabeth Eckford's life can be seen as a triumphal story of personal will pulling her up by the bootstraps... but only if you don't really listen to it, only if you ignore the terrible parts, like her son Erin's fate (read it and see); only if you ignore the poverty and difficulty of her current life. Her attitude -- tough, working to make things better, but realist in a way that seems cynical against our favored stories about our own progress -- seems powerfully right.

It's a story with a lot of happiness, but a lot of pain, and ultimately a lot of complexity too: it's not a tale with a happy ending. And it shouldn't be.

Everyone is talking these days about race again (update: Digby too), in the context of yet another racist story in yet another American high school. And there's a lot of surprise, as people think (the cliche goes) that this is a story that should be from long ago, not from the Twenty-First Century. But the long ago wasn't all that long ago: its protagonists are still alive, and the grand tale of national redemption and reconciliation that the Civil Rights Movement is dressed up as has a far less triumphant, a far more ambivalent, ending than we like to pretend. If we understood that better, then the events in Jena would not surprise us so much; and the necessity to grapple with the reality of race in our country would be far clearer than it ever can be when it is buried under platitudes about how we all loved Dr. King (just so long as he's safely dead for most of the white folks, of course: far more palatable that way).

Of nothing is it less true than the ugly history of America and race that "the past isn't dead; it isn't even past", as Faulkner famously put it. It's right there, we're still living it, and it's not a fairy tale that ends with flowers and democracy and everyone holding hands. But it's not that nothing's changed either. It's complicated. We have to see that. Reading David Margolick's article is a good place to start.

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