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Freedom Rider

When I was a kid in the early ’70s, I lived along the southwestern edge of South-Central — a very nice place then — and, like the vast majority of kids in America at the time, I went to my neighborhood public school. I liked Manhattan Place Elementary. I could walk there. I liked my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Dixon, who had taught both my brothers before I got there and who had high hopes for me because I was another Aubry and because I exhibited some reading and writing skills early on that she fully expected I would one day fashion into a career. Nearly everyone at Manhattan was black, but that was no more remarkable to me than the fact that most trees were green; pretty much the entire neighborhood was composed of black families less than a generation removed from Texas or Louisiana or Oklahoma, like mine. They had all come westward seeking spacious homes, meaningful jobs, fully equipped schools — in short, everything that had been routinely available back home to whites. California advertised itself after World War II as a genuine slice of American democracy, with back yards, good schools and free college instruction to boot, for anybody who paid taxes. So people came. I don’t know if they assumed they’d find real integration in California too — for black Southerners raised on Jim Crow, that might have been a bit too much to expect — but real integration wasn’t here. In 1964, when my parents bought a house on 98th Street between Western and Van Ness, whites were already fast leaving Central L.A. to its latest immigrant wave, taking to the higher and more racially pristine ground of the Westside or San Fernando Valley or, in a few adventurous cases, Orange County. I took note of none of this. I liked my school and my surroundings, the hilly street where we lived with the fire hydrant and the enormous weeping-willow tree on the corner. I was happy to stay put.

I didn’t. Though state court orders to desegregate schools were still years away, the push for a paradigm shift in public education was on. I tested gifted sometime after kindergarten and was subsequently sent to another school, 93rd Street, which had a program for gifted students that Manhattan did not. The new school wasn’t terribly far from my neighborhood, a few miles southeast, but I had to be driven there; I could no longer walk. Since 93rd Street was overwhelmingly black, it too felt familiar, and there were more teachers there who took note of my interest in writing; one progress report I brought home eagerly informed my mother that “Erin says she wants to be a poetess, like Phyllis Wheatley, when she grows up.” Then came another change, because 93rd Street School had evidently done all it could for me, and I had to upgrade again. This school, Loyola Village, was in Westchester, and to my 10-year-old way of reasoning, it was so far away I couldn’t get there by car anymore but had to take a bus, and not by myself but with about 60 other students who had mostly been at 93rd and whose parents had also elected to send their kids there.

 

It wasn’t until I actually began going to Loyola in the fall that I realized that it was a white school. I was astonished. Barring special occasions like shopping excursions or trips to the beach, I was never among white people en masse. I knew who and what they were, but they were not part of my daily business. The white students had clearly never been among us either, and they let us know; some stared with open disdain, others ignored us. The majority were actually tolerant to friendly, but even if they had all been that way, I still would have felt the burn of a scarlet letter on my forehead. I got more than my share of scrutiny because I was odd-looking, at least in the eyes of white people who deigned to know what all black people looked like — they deigned to know quite a bit, I discovered — even though they never saw any blacks on a regular basis, no more than I saw them. I was so floored by being there that I didn’t, I couldn’t, contradict their judgment. I was reeling from the fact that I was no longer the golden girl of my class, or of my people, with rare talent and aspirations of being a writer like Phyllis Wheatley; I was now simply one of those kids on the yellow bus who was sent to partake silently and gratefully of this fountain of knowledge and privilege and new tetherball courts, and then clear out at 3.

 

Loyola was not my school, it was my day job, and though I still performed well — it was ingrained in me at this point — I was half resentful that I had to perform here, like a trained monkey before a doubting audience. I succeeded, but less for my own satisfaction now than to prove the existence of the intellectual competence that I had never questioned before. I got my share of A’s, but they looked different on the page, and had a different, less generous purpose. I didn’t like them as much.

Nor was competency always enough. One Friday after school, I stuck around and went home to stay the night with a white girl I’d gotten to know. We changed into play clothes and walked down her block to visit another schoolmate of ours; the schoolmate opened the door, beckoned Lisa into the house but warned me to stay on the porch, declaring that she “didn’t let niggers come into her house.” My first reaction was to be deeply embarrassed; here was a test of some kind that I’d failed, but one that I knew I would never pass no matter how hard I tried or how high I tested. When I got back home — my home — I didn’t tell my family about it, because I instinctively knew that there was nothing they could do. This was my private, rite-of-passage nigger experience, my rude induction into the American race wars that everybody who came before me had experienced in a far worse way. Even at age 10, I knew to ask myself: Who was I to complain? This was California, and things were better; that much was still true. I had best be glad that my parents were out of Louisiana and actively trying to improve my educational lot, to secure for me the open-ended future they never had. I let it go at that.

Improbably, Loyola Village did assure my future, not by cheering me on but by never letting me forget exactly what I was being — that I’m often still being — measured against. It didn’t invite me to achieve, it dared me not to, and in doing so created what psychologists would arguably call a good tension, one that’s never gone away. But such a crucible can no longer happen in Los Angeles at all because Loyola Village, like so many other public schools in Los Angeles that were once predominantly white, is now predominantly colored; the official term is “re-segregation,” the less polite one “ghettoized.” Thanks to me and other black students who informally attempted to integrate the place more than 30 years ago, whites fled just as they had in the ’60s and left the place, again, to us. And it is no better for that: Re-segregated black schools are, when you adjust for such things as the crack epidemic and the death of the industrial economy in the inner city, much worse off than the black schools I went to that may have been limited but that nonetheless nurtured me. When I talk to students now about the racial struggles of that era, they listen as if they’re listening to fairy tales: In grade school they mixed with Latinos, who were the next big, sustained immigrant wave in Central L.A., but white students have long been ancient history. Absent even that opportunity for integration with white students — not just racially, but materially, with things like books and gifted programs — it’s often hard to recognize integration’s importance in the education wars anymore; those under 30 of all colors tend to dismiss the very word integration, which conjures up images of bullhorns and fire hoses rather than classrooms, altogether.

Which is why it’s heartening to see, in this 50th-anniversary week of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, a strain of student activism growing locally in high schools like Dorsey, Crenshaw and Washington that’s focused on establishing for good what these campuses haven’t had since they were white: books, programs, college-prep classes, less police presence, more qualified teachers. The Community Coalition, a post-riot nonprofit that started out campaigning against the overpopulation of liquor stores in South-Central, has a youth committee that staged a “separate but unequal” press conference on Monday. Black and Latino students dressed in period ’50s outfits and detailed the inequities that still exist at their campuses, as well as their own plan of attack (hey, nobody else had one) for rectifying them. What these students are being measured against may not be as close to them as it was once to me, but they know fully what they stand to lose — what they’ve lost already — by not daring to achieve. Brown isn’t dead, because it’s not done. I only hope that this generation of students can help to finish the job where they live, at home.


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