Part I: Narrative
On August 7, 1994, five years before I was born, my town’s high school burned to the ground– angry flames on a white-hot night that blazed well into the red-hot dawn. My town, Wedowee Alabama, is a quiet rural community situated at the base of the Appalachian mountains. The one consisting mainly of one traffic light, a small town square, a smattering of churches, a courthouse, a jail, a cemetery. Here, boys come in to class with their camo gear smeared with deer blood from that morning’s hunt. Platinum-blonde girls sit in the passenger seats of the boys’ jacked-up trucks as they race down dirt roads together, drinking RC colas, blaring country music, going somewhere, going nowhere in particular. On Sunday afternoons people sit out on their porches after their nap or visit someone else sitting on their own porch. They watch the sun sink behind the mountains, swirl the melting ice around in their glasses. This is a tranquil place, a friendly place, no place for an arsonist to be. But my town is surrounded by a pine forest that stretches farther than many of its residents have traveled, a forest that insulated it from the activism in Birmingham and Selma that took place several hours away, several decades ago.
A few weeks before the school burns down, the white principal of the school calls for a mandatory student assembly in the auditorium. He begins to talk about logistics for prom, the time and place and the code of conduct expected of everyone planning to attend. The students, despite him speaking at the podium, are chatting amongst themselves excitedly, the anticipation for the dance and the year’s end electric in the air. After reminding everyone about the strict no-alcohol policy, he announces another policy: there are to be no interracial couples at the dance. The chatter is swiftly replaced by a stunned silence. Before anyone can react, a mixed-race girl shoots up out of her seat and asks him who she is allowed to take. He looks down and replies, “Well, that’s not my problem. That’s your parents’ problem for making the mistake of having a mixed-race child.”
The silence in the auditorium erupts into chaos. And it races out of the school and spreads through the town, ominously, like wildfire. The supposed tranquility (or was it complacency?) is upended by an angry cauldron of years of pent-up racism that doesn’t take long to reach its boiling point. There is name-calling, lying, accusing, and it is ugly. The NAACP, Southern Poverty Law Center, SCLC, and countless federal officials begin to swarm into the town’s main street, launching an investigation, assessing with dismay the deplorable state of race relations. Many have to park their cars in the cemetery, because the town isn’t built for such numbers, for such disruption. The thriving KKK chapter from the next town over comes in and begins staging demonstrations to rally white support for the principal. Just before the federal investigation can come to a conclusion about the allegations against the principal, the school burns down. Accusations on every side raging like the fire that sparked them. A multitude of questions swirling in the air like smoke, but one at the forefront: Who did it?
To this day, nobody knows.
On another sweltering August day, twenty years later, I am speeding down a country road with my granddad in his 1994 Buick LeSabre. He’s wearing his brown felt fedora and nylon suspenders, and the sleeves of his white button-up are cuffed neatly below his elbows. Horse pastures and hardwood thickets thick with the greenness of summer whiz by. Cotton fields, which seem to go on forever, are immaculately white in the late-morning sun. A gentle breeze blows my hair from the cracked window. The whole scene has a surreal, movie-like quality to it. He is saying to me, “…well, black people ain’t the prettiest things God ever created, but somebody’s got to be the one to serve us our food at restaurants and scrub the kitchen floor…” I disagree with him politely, say that God made us all equal and that brown skin is beautiful too, and that he ought to know it by now, being on this earth for almost 90 years. He chuckles and pats my arm, tells me I’m a smart girl and will go far in school.
He doesn’t say anything about black people being beautiful, too.
On November 4, 2008, Obama is elected as the first black president of the United States. The next morning, on the way to middle school, the bus is completely silent, full of white kids that can normally never talk enough. They are all sullen, ashen, withdrawn. Dropping off kids at the high school, our bus pulls up next to a bus full of black kids from the all-black neighborhood. They are wild with elation, singing with joy, pressing up signs to the window that say things like “FINALLY” and “OBAMA MY PRESIDENT”. I smile at them through the window, glad for their happiness, but haunted by the foreboding silence that surrounds me on my bus, the white bus.
The high-schoolers file off the bus silently, one by one. Some travel in packs, whispering to each other the exact same things that their parents and grandparents say about black people, but veiled with softer and more politically correct language. I lock eyes with one of my friends on the black bus. She smiles at me but I can tell that their silence disturbs her. The quiet high-schoolers continue to walk toward their first class in a school that is identical to the one before it– down to the shade of paint on the auditorium walls.
I feel as though I am suffocating even with all the windows open on the bus.
In the afternoon the jacked-up trucks of high-school boys will pass through the narrow main street, past the courthouse where the KKK rallied support fourteen years before, past the cemetery that can lay people but never ideas to rest. And although it’s a cool November day, the town is sweltering, burning with the kind of heat that only August in Alabama can bring: white-hot.
Part II: Research and Discussion
Mr. Hulond Humphries, the principal of the high school at the time of the incident, had a reputation. He was a fixture of the town, a good ole’ boy, a hog farmer, a handyman, a former football coach. At first glance, he appeared to be an old-school educator– tough on rule-breakers but fair nonetheless. However, ten years before the prom incident, the NAACP filed 22 charges of discrimination against both the school board and Humphries. Among these charges were allegations that the school under Humphries’ supervision was operating racially segregated school buses, discriminating against prospective black employees in the hiring process, and disciplining black students more harshly and more frequently than white students. These charges were based on the experiences of many black students and parents alike. After the U.S. Deptartment of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) had investigated, they enforced desegregation of the buses and demanded that Humphries show more respect to the black community (Jacobs).
The buses were eventually desegregated, but how can anyone, even the best federal investigators, measure respect? Even if Humphries made surface-level efforts to demonstrate these sentiments to black people, would it really change anything? Today, in 2018, are things really different in schools across America than they were in the past? It is incredibly difficult, as a human being, to harbor personal prejudices and not let them affect actions and decisions, as demonstrated by Humphries’ prom incident a decade after he received orders from the U.S. government to end his racial discrimination.
According to a recent study conducted by the OCR, preschools are 3.6 times more likely to suspend a black child than a white one, and that number only climbs in grade school (U.S. Dept. of Education). However, does this mean that every educator that expels more black than white students is a Hulond Humphries? Many racial biases are so thoroughly ingrained into the American psyche that oftentimes a person can be totally unaware they possess them. Throughout all of elementary, middle and high school I witnessed black students have a disproportionate number of disciplinary run-ins with teachers and administration. Oftentimes my black classmates were vaguely accused of being “disruptive” and then forced to go to detention. If they protested, they were sent straight to ISS or suspended altogether.
I believe they really were being disruptive– disruptive to traditional white standards of etiquette that are considered to be “universal” by many. Especially in areas like the one I grew up in, the black and the white experiences tend to be wildly different, thanks to centuries of black marginalization and oppression by whites. (Don’t get me wrong. I deeply admire the black traditions, art, and culture that have flourished in the midst of this adversity.) Different standards of etiquette are certainly a part of these respective experiences. In black churches, for example, an integral part of worshipping is shouting out affirmations to the preacher as they’re speaking and singing as loud as one possibly can. If anyone did this in a traditional white church, it would be considered disrespectful and disruptive to the people trying to worship around them. The classroom is no different than church. When a teacher punishes a black student for being more expressive than their fellow white classmates, or discussing what the teacher is saying with a friend, what message are they sending them? On the surface, it appears to be an attempt to teach them how to behave appropriately in the classroom, and, on a larger scale, in society. Beneath it all, however, is a rigid standard of etiquette– a white standard. It should come as no surprise, then, that black students are 2.3 times more likely to be arrested or referred to an on-campus police officer than a white student (Pew Research Center 4).
Other disciplinary instances I’ve witnessed with black classmates have been different, especially in high school. They were more serious things, like bringing drugs to school or getting into fights with other students: things that cannot and should not be attributed to cultural differences. The lower the socioeconomic position of an individual, the more susceptible they are to a life of crime. There is an undeniable correlation between race and socioeconomic status in the US: blacks are twice as likely to live under the poverty line as whites (Gablich). Singling out black students from an early age for being “disruptive” reinforces the notion likely to already be in their heads that they are worse than their non-black classmates, which can build up, little by little, to serious infractions such as the ones above. We desperately need conciliatory attitudes and understanding in the educational system, not the often-combative and accusatory ones commonly used to deal with “problem children” (who are disproportionately black).
Hulond Humphries allegedly once confided to the parent of a student “that the black girls had the filthiest mouths in school, that the black kids are loud and unruly, and they are the worst students in the school.” (Jacobs). By traditional white standards, this may be the case. The lie that they are often told from the very beginning– that they are bad– encourages truly bad behavior later on, such as violence and drug usage, which then serves to perpetuate the racial stereotypes that were borne out of intolerance for a group of people that has always been classified as other.
Other, whether it is acknowledged or not, is a welcome disruption, a challenge to the stagnant status quo, a potential source of insight and new ideas. Other can be beautiful, too. If only my town, the school system, its principal had been able to overcome their prejudices and embrace this other, the flames of the school wouldn’t have blazed well into that white-hot August morning.
Jacobs, Sally. “When an Alabama Principal Said No to Interracial Dating, a Small Community was Forced to Confront its Racist Heritage.” Rolling Stone, May 18, 1995, http://www.maryellenmark.com/text/magazines/rolling%20stone/920S-000-010.html.
Pew Research Center. On Views of Race and Inequality, Blacks and Whites are Worlds Apart. Pew Research Center, 2016.
Sablich, Liz. “7 Findings that Illustrate Racial Disparities in Education.” Brookings, June 6, 2016.
U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. 2013-2014 CIVIL RIGHTS DATA COLLECTION; United States Department of Education, Washington, DC, 2016.