“Do you think he can read?”
She asked the question in all seriousness as she stood outside the door to my friend’s classroom.
The he in question was a star athlete.
She knew that.
She also knew what he looked like on the outside.
And in her mind, that meant uneducated.
This wasn’t the 1860s or even the 1960s.
It was the early 1990s and I’d started my teaching career in a district in the midst of political turmoil. I didn’t know it then, but within a handful of years we’d be facing a desegregation order courtesy of a federal judge.
It’s not that we were segregated, per se. Not Remember the Titans segregated, anyway. But my school was 90% white, and that was way off of the city’s demographics.
Welcome controlled choice. A process where students were able to choose the high school they attended, however, there were racial quotas.
The woman was visiting our school before choice went into effect, and her question was serious.
She didn’t understand why we were offended.
A handful of years later, I wrote Honor and Lies.
The woman stayed in my mind with every word I wrote.
As did some of the other conversations from my classroom.
“But, Miss, I’ve heard the stories. Lots of people were nice to their slaves. It wasn’t always a bad thing.”
Back then I was fearless in the classroom. I think I didn’t know any better. Instead of telling the kids how wrong they were, I’d ask questions and make them draw their own conclusions. I made them defend their statements. I made them debate with each other.
These kids were 16 and 17, and they were tackling huge, controversial issues, and I was encouraging them.
Often my kids explained the above sentiment this way:
“Slavery with a nice family was like being a teenager all the time. Your parents love you, and they take care of you. And you do your chores, and things work out okay.”
I don’t think my kids really believed this, but they wanted to make slavery okay. They didn’t want to face the ugliness of what slavery was. That slaves were owned. That freedom was impossible. Slaves could be, and often were, raped, sold or killed. They had no rights. They weren’t even considered whole people. It didn’t matter if owners were nice. They were owners.
By the end of class, the students realized this. They learned by reading Frederick Douglass and Mary Chesnut’s Civil War and other American Lit. stories from the time. And we talked about racism and hate and hate crime and stereotypes and tolerance and ignorance and stupidity. And when I told them about the lady asking if the student could read, they were as outraged as my friends and I were the day it happened.
Today, I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to teach English with such an in your face style. My classroom is filled with kids I know and kids who know me. Kids I spend YEARS with, not 180 days. Debating controversial subjects in the newsroom isn’t brave. It’s normal.
Honor and Lies wouldn’t have been possible without those early days. I wrote the novel when I was still that young teacher, still teaching English, angry that people in my community thought black meant you couldn’t read. Sissy and Savannah are products of that classroom. I hope you enjoy.
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