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This morning I found a newspaper clipping and a picture that took me back to my childhood, growing up in DC.
The clipping dated 1966 shows my kindergarten class at St. Peter’s School on an excursion to visit an actor, the father of one of my classmates, who was appearing in Macbeth at the local theater. Our school teachers at St. Peter’s tried hard to get us to read books and go to the theater, with mixed success. Anyway, this kindergarten field trip got everyone’s attention.
King Duncan’s Transformation
Robert Prosky, who plays Duncan, King of Scots, in the current Arena Stage production of Macbeth, shows kindergarten youngsters how he makes up for the role. Prosky gave the young Shakespearean fans some idea why the show, scheduled to run through next Sunday, has excited theater-goers. His crown in place, the king applies touch of makeup to Sandy Wallace of St. Peter’s School where Prosky’s son, Stefan, is member of the class. In addition to the makeup art, the actor demonstrated some of the tricks and weapons used in the Arena Stage production. Sandy Wallace, Ann Hodgson and Sidney Barkla are entranced.”
Sandy, the blond white girl next to me, was my best friend, and Carlton, the black boy closest to the actor, was my neighbor.
The photo below shows another friend, Minnette, Carlton and me in my backyard, playing “statues”, where you whirl around until someone yells “stop!” and you have to say “what you are” – a game that I loved.
These were the mid ’60s, and we were, of course, an integrated Catholic school with kids from Capitol Hill and what was known as “the projects”, social housing further south, where poor black families lived. Our teachers were nuns in short habits who brought guitars into class, singing “Yes, Jesus loves me ’cause the bible tells me so” with us. But I didn’t like St. Peter’s. I remember being beaten up and having toys stolen and being afraid of some of the bullies there. Plus, the nuns were so busy integrating us that we didn’t do much except reading and writing. There was no math to speak of. My dad was not pleased.
So since my family spoke German at home, he and my mom decided to send me to the German School, a private school for German expats, in 3rd grade. At the time that was an affordable option, more reasonable than the private schools around D.C. . My education there was a lot better, and I liked school more, but my life became much more segregated. I was in “Little Germany” all day, and that had nothing at all to do with the realities of Capitol Hill. It wasn’t intentional, but I lost touch with my old classmates and only met the neighbors at St. Peter’s church. When our neighborhood got more expensive, Carlton’s family moved away because they couldn’t afford the rent, so I lost my black playmates and babysitter.
So here I was, living in what is sometimes known as “Chocolate City“, with no black friends. My family did “white middle-class things”, the kind of stuff exposed so mercilessly by the satirical and totally accurate blog, http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com, so apart from church on Sundays, our family life didn’t include blacks. When I struck out on my own as a teenager, I preferred soul music, but I got that from the radio I heard around town, not from friends. At my first dance party I played Stevie Wonder, Aretha, James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone, music my classmates didn’t really know. I felt so superior, an arrogant 12-year-old!
How successful has school integration been? It all depends on who you talk to. You’ve probably heard that the USA is a melting pot of cultures, right? Well, a lot of people say it isn’t, that we’re a mixed salad culture. With more people acknowledging their mixed genetic heritage, you can choose to identify as white or black or something else. But in many ways the country is still segregated.
Many schools have become charter schools, setting up their own rules (or “charters”) to create a learning environment they consider most productive for their students. St. Peters has turned into a charter school, too. Last year, in Parents v. Seattle Schools, the Supreme Court decided that public schools should be free to choose their own policies regarding integration. I found a thought-provoking article by Elatia Harris, entitled White Girl in the Promised Land. She writes:
“To make no legal distinctions between black children who grow up with the stresses of poverty and white children who live in privilege is to make the law a guarantor of that privilege. Trust me on this one, for I can remember when the law was exactly that.”
First Lady Michelle Obama held a speech at the University of South Carolina a while ago about us being too comfortable about living separate lives in that mixed salad bowl:
“We don’t like being pushed outside of our comfort zones. You know it right here on this campus. Y’all folks are sittin’ at different tables, y’all livin’ in different dorms. I was there. You’re not talking to each other, taking advantage of the fact that you’re in this diverse community. Because sometimes it’s easier to hold on to your own stereotypes and misconceptions, it makes you feel justified in your ignorance. That’s America. So the challenge for us is, are we ready for change?”
Parts of the public have reacted very strongly. I’m very curious to see where this will go.
Learning the ropes – Wortschatz bauen
newspaper clipping – Zeitungsausschnitt
field trip – Ausflug
backyard – Garten
whirl – wirbeln
social housing – sozialer Wohnungsbau
nun’s habit – Ordenskleid einer Nonne
to be beaten up – verprügelt werden
no math to speak of – keine Mathe die den Namen verdient hätte
expats – Landsleute im Ausland
lose touch with – Kontakt zu … verlieren
afford the rent – sich die Miete leisten können
mercilessly – gnadenlos
community action – Nachbarschaftshilfe
to strike out on your own – selbstständig werden
infinitely superior – unendlich überlegen
to acknowledge – anerkennen
mixed genetic heritage – gemischte genetische Abstammung
melting pot – Schmelztiegel
mixed salad – gemischter Salat
I would tend to agree – ich würde dem zuzustimmen
charter – staatliche Gemeindeschule mit einer eigenen Charta
public schools (USA) – öffentliche Schulen (D)
policy – Politik
thought-provoking – zum Nachdenken anregend
the Promised Land – das Gelobte Land
legal distinction – rechtliche Unterscheidung
stress of poverty – Druck der Armut
guarantor – Bürge
bowl – Schüssel
y’all – you all, all of you (southern & black English)
feel justified in your own ignorance – sich in seiner Ignoranz gerechtfertigt fühlen
Learning English tip of the week
If you want to read “Stuff White People Like“, you can start by looking at the list. This blog (now also a book) is giving whites and blacks and Asians and Latinos and whoever else a chance to talk about all of the comfortable lies we have come to accept as social dogma. It’s a process that exposes both class and race taboos, but laughing helps. The language isn’t too difficult.
I’m finding it hard to read this post I wrote 14 years ago without cringing. The last few years have been incredibly awareness-raising for me. Having grown up benefiting from gentrification on Capitol Hill, and getting an almost free ticket to move to Germany, I essentially ran away from racial injustice. When I arrived in Germany, the main issue of cultural exclusion – “Ausländerfeindlichkeit”, hostility toward foreigners – seemed less fraught in my generation due to the overall degree of awareness about the Holocaust and our responsibility to stop xenophobia. As a friend to other first and second-generation migrants, I felt I could mitigate discrimination as an ally. As discourse has now turned to European colonialism and racism, I see a much deeper cultural rift in our diverse heritages. It’s not enough to support the protection of human rights, we need to hand over part of our wealth to those born into poverty or insecurity as a result of colonialism and post-colonial upheaval.