After reading Carolyn B. Helsel’s book Anxious to Talk About It, my thoughts returned to the newly integrated neighborhood and newly integrated school in which I grew up. The time was the 1960s and my family had joined the ranks of many upwardly mobile black families in their move to the suburbs.
My sister and I were accepted readily into the neighborhood public school. The teachers proudly shared our grades from our previous Brooklyn schools, and we were placed in accelerated groupings. We remained the only Negro children in the elementary school for at least two years.
By the time the high school years rolled around, more blacks entered the neighborhood; it was the beginning of “white flight.” The new kids were not as readily accepted as we had been.
In the eighth grade, we had a major spelling bee, and I won. I beat out Joyce Tracy! The following day, the teacher announced that the spelling bee would have to be redone. It was and Joyce won. The word that determined the winner that day, oddly enough, was chicanery! Joyce would go to Washington, D.C., to compete in the national contest. Tears still well up in my eyes when I relive those moments.
My father insisted that the teachers were not prejudiced. However, I knew otherwise.
There were other incidents that I consider racist/prejudicial. Some were definitely deliberate but looking back through my adult eyes, I know that many of those things were done purely out of ignorance.
The many regulations, boycotts, integration and desegregation efforts, the anti-poverty programs—all were well-meaning attempts made by legislators, freedom fighters and individuals to right some of the wrongs of racism.
Helsel’s Anxious to Talk About It was a few decades late for me. The exercises she illustrated would have proved an excellent text during my college years.
Jo-Ann Estella is a member of the Racial Equity Committee of the Churchwide Board of Directors of Presbyterian Women, Inc. She lives in Rochdale Village, New York.