When I was in sixth grade, two black kids got bused into Alki Elementary School in West Seattle. One was in sixth grade, and got assigned to the same class that I was in.
Looking back on it after so many years and all of the experiences I’ve had, I wonder what on earth the Seattle School District thought it was doing, busing just two black kids into an elementary school that held about 420 kids, all white. Did anyone prepare them for what they’d experience?
I know no one prepared us, the kids already there, to understand those two kids, each of them being the only black kid in the class among 29 white kids who had no idea we were white. We had no understanding of what it was like to be a minority (to use the term we used then) in this country.
West Seattle was the kind of place where no one would say they were “white.” They’d say they were “German, Austrian, and English” (me), “part Indian” (my friend Jeannie, we didn’t say Native American then), or the kid whose last name was Mercado and we teased by calling him “supermarket” and might have been part Chicano.
West Seattle was also the kind of place where, when my Chinese friend Lily moved there with her family at the start of seventh grade, they had to get an unlisted phone number because they got so many nasty calls from people who didn’t want a Chinese family living on the block.
Black people lived in the Central District, and I never ever went there. Asians lived in Chinatown or on Beacon Hill. If I saw any people who weren’t white, they were janitors, garbage collectors, and the homeless alcoholics on First Avenue and in Pioneer Square. The homeless alcoholics, or “winos” as we used to say then, were all Native American; when I moved to Chicago for graduate school years later, I was surprised that the dominant minority was African-American and not Native American.
I don’t remember the name of the African American kid who was in my class at Alki Elementary, so I’ll just call him Richard.
I remember him, Richard as I’m calling him, sitting in the front left part of the class. I sat in the back right, and I have a mental picture of his turning over his shoulder to look at the rest of the class, smiling, tipping his head back and laughing. I remember his being the class clown.
I remember him, I’m sorry to say, as being a “jolly Negro.” I don’t know if I knew the term then, but if I did, that’s what I would’ve seen him as.
I used to think that the stereotype of the “jolly Negro” came from how their teeth contrast with their skin color, so their smiles look more broad and sparkling than white people’s smiles.
Now I know – or I think I know – that being “jolly” was a way that African-Americans could keep themselves safe around white people. White people in general, especially in the South, had the power to get them fired from their job, refused credit at a store, evicted from their house or apartment, arrested, beaten, raped, lynched, driven out of town. Acting happy and smiling a lot were ways of placating and managing white people.
Years later, not long before I started working on this memoir, I’d go to a reading of a play by Cheryl L West, called Pullman Porter Blues. An elderly man who’d been a Pullman porter all his adult life was strict, forthright, and no-nonsense to his teenage grandson. But when the white conductor came along, he changed: smiling, reassuring, ingratiating. I got really uncomfortable, watching it, knowing that it represented a truth about how African-Americans, and people of color in general, have to behave towards white people in this country.
Did Richard’s parents talk to him about what to expect in a room full of white kids? The unconscious superiority and discrimination we might have learned from our possibly equally unconscious parents? Did they say anything to him at all?
When Rod, my husband’s older brother, was sent to an all-white grade school in fourth grade – this in small-town southern Virginia – his parents sat him down and told him, “They’re kids just like you. Treat them right and they’ll treat you right.”
Rod’s parents, my in-laws, were remarkably generous in what they said to Rod. As Rod told me:
“The way my parents handled the situation of me being the only black in my class shaped the way I handled it. Given how race relations shaped this country, shape this country even today, that may have been their greatest gift to me. In 1970, only 2 years after Dr. King’s assassination, racial unrest throughout the country, certainly in the south, and given what they went through growing up, it would have been easy for them to put fear in me about facing a bunch of white kids. Or have me watching my back with a chip on my shoulder.
“So to me my first day in an all white school in 4th grade was no different than my first day in an all black school in 1st grade. Maybe for me ignorance was bliss, but it worked.”
I said that no one prepared us, the white kids at Alki Elementary, for two black kids being bused in. But there was something that might have been by way of preparation. In my class, we saw a film strip, called Anthony Lives in Watts. It showed a young black man, about our age, with a father who went to work every day, a mother who kept the house and raised Anthony and his little brother or sister, I can’t remember which. There was a companion film strip, called Jerry Lives in Harlem. Jerry and his friends played in the water from a fire hydrant during the hot New York summer.
I remember being interested at the time. Now I wonder, did those film strips really depict African-Americans truthfully? Was that middle-class life accurate, or just trying to show a bunch of sixth graders that “colored people,” as we would have said then, were happy and content with their lives?
And I wonder what Richard thought of those filmstrips, seeing something that purported to depict his life. Was it accurate, or was it yet another white presentation of African-American life?
The Library of Congress has those two filmstrips. When I lived in Baltimore, I got a reader’s card for the library of Congress (of course anyone can get a reader’s card). Perhaps I can go back there and watch those filmstrips. Maybe, by the time you read this, I already have.
I don’t remember much about my sixth grade year, at least, not much that has to do with Richard. Maybe nothing remarkable happened, maybe we all got along as kids get along, without any fights or anyone being racist.
I never saw Richard after that year. He didn’t attend the junior high school that Alki Elementary fed into. I suppose he must have attended his local school.
Like Richard, my brother-in-law Rod went to the white school for only one year (though that was because his family moved out of that school district). And like my not seeing Richard again, Rod never saw his white classmates again, except in their high school graduation class photo years later.
I don’t think that Richard being in my sixth grade class helped me better understand people of color. I don’t think it taught me whatever the school district was trying to teach me and the rest of the white kids. I don’t think it made me more open, self-aware, or tolerant.
But… what if it did? What if his being in my class, all those years ago, helped prepare me to fall in love with and marry an African-American man? If his being in the class helped me, maybe it helped other kids, too.
As for Richard himself, I’ve always assumed that he didn’t need any of the benefit that being an all-white school for a year might give him. I assumed he just got through the year and was glad when it was over.
But Rod said that of his 16 years of schooling, the year he spent in the all-white school was his favorite. As he told me:
“If I do as Dr. King dreamt, ‘judge people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin,’ that year was a positive reason why.”
I still think of Richard as a sixth grader, 11 or 12 years old. I forget that he’s my age, that he probably has a family, a career, a church he goes to, kids, even grandkids, gray hair. He’s lived a lot of life since then. I wonder what he told the kids in his neighborhood about his experience at Alki? I wonder if he’d remember me. Probably not. I wish I could find him, and ask what he remembers of his year among the white kids at Alki Elementary School.