It’s 65 years after Brown v. Board, the legendary court case that “outlawed” segregation. Looking at schools across the country you would hardly know it. As a living artifact of “integration” I can attest to the good, the bad, and the ugly, the costs and the value, and hopefully reflect on a better way.
I have been that 1 Black person most of my life, sometimes 1 of 2 or 1 of 3. Think there were 8 Black kids in my elementary school, a couple dozen in high school. My parents made the choice, to be the first in the neighborhood, because of the schools. A suburb of Albany, NY. They broke our widows out one Halloween, cops came and said it was a “prank” I didn’t get why my mom was so upset. I do now.
It was a district where I got a high-quality academic miseducation. Schools where I had to put on the mask each day as a tradeoff for high quality academics. The same struggle that many of our children are still facing. Schools where you have to check your identity at the schoolhouse door, and where you still get second class treatment.
Sometimes it was subtle and sometimes it was blatant. But there were lower expectations, and harsher punishments. Some years I would start on a lower track and earn my way up, which I guess is better than friends who were just put in special ed. I remember a teacher telling me I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was and kids in the lower tracks asking me why I was there becasue I was smart. I remember a teacher that hit me in class, two open hands to the chest that sent me backward in my chair. Other times he would have me leave class, “Take a walk Tillotson!!!” presumably, so that he wouldn’t hit me. He also hit one of the other darkies, only us two. Or Colonial Day, where the teacher had me just sit it out. I remember her saying something about my nails being dirty. Kids would say things like “you would be a slave.” Or world history where we spent so much time on China that the teacher decided to skip Africa.
Or the many times I heard the N word, from a teachers’ kid, the counselor’s kid, the judge’s kid, my favorite coach’s kid, from friends, from enemies, from people who just stopped by—or as a cheer to violence said somewhat jokingly.
“Fight fight a N word and a white.”
There were also all the times I didn’t hear the N-word, because, we were a liberal bunch, but felt its unspoken specter.
Seldom were the barbs thrown at me directly, but if you Black and you hear that word, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes its fighting words, and sometimes, its just saddening, because you know many of your “friends” are racists. And every time the word comes out, a curtain closes that separates you from most everyone else, that you can fight through, or just accept the reality that you have resisted.
And no White person ever objected to the N-word, not one.
I had great times too, good friends, some good classes. It wasn’t always strife, in fact, it wasn’t usually blatantly whack, but it pretty much always was subtly.
That was integration. A tradeoff full of sacrifice. From what I hear about our recent colonial days, even in Oakland—it still is. You get into that Hills school, and your child is fighting for her cultural life on the daily. But she can read, unlike most of those kids in the Flats.
A precious few of us are allowed to come to the dance, not too many. And the playlist is set, so get ready to polka, and the DJ ain’t taking requests. Authenticity is discouraged and may be punished. Put on the mask and get your lessons.
Those lessons, the resources, and the high level instruction, were largely missing in the Albany City schools. And it was that level of instruction that allowed me to get out, and flourish in college, law school and grad school. Those experiences freed me from many of the constraints I had, and I could go and do what I wanted to. I also am a fluent code switcher and can move in multiple worlds, usually without discomfort. But I should not have had to go through all that discomfort to get here.
I am a pragmatist. We always have tradeoffs. But 65 years after Brown, we still have an educational caste system. 1% of Black kids in Oakland attend a school performing above the state average and making progress and roughly 1 in 7 of our Black elementary schoolers is reading on grade level district or charter.
I wanted to end on a hopeful note. The best I can do as a Black man, is say that we are still fighting for better, and I do think that our allies are greater in number and relatively more conscious. I also see real integration taking place with our youth, who are more comfortable and culturally fluent across cultures than we were.
But damn, 65 years and this is what has happened and this is where we are.