Transcript for Season 9, Episode 15 of the SHCY Podcast: Fictions of Integration with Naomi Lesley
Listen to this episode of the SHCY Podcast, here.
Martinez [00:00 - 00:20]:
- I'm Vanessa Martinez, I'm a professor of anthropology and the honors program coordinator at Holyoke Community College and I am here interviewing Naomi Lesley, author of Fictions of Integration: American children's literature and the legacies of Brown versus the Board of Education.
Lesley [00:23 - 00:23]:
- Thank you
Martinez [00:25 - 00:25]:
- I guess first thing, I'd love to hear a little bit about your intellectual journey or inspiration that led you to write this book.
Lesley [00:39 - 00:45]:
- So it was sort of a long journey and it came out of a few different strands of questioning coming together. It actually in some ways came first out of my interest in utopian education which I was researching and pursuing as I was doing my PhD for one of my field exams, and you know of course in Utopian education philosophy and criticism, especially in the United States, there's a lot of material about a lot of critique of racial disparities and disparities based on disability.
- And as a teacher, as a former middle school teacher, I was interested in that but I was also interested as a children's literature scholar. I wasn't necessarily seeing a lot of that critique reflected in the way that I would expect so in other words I would watch popular movies, popular kids' movies like Sky High and High School Musical, for example, where there's definitely criticism of issues in American schools going on but not racial issues, not--there's there's no like everything's very sort of happy post-racial, and then conversely in popular kids' movies like Remember the Titans, which is a desegregation story with Denzel Washington, very, you know- very popular movie, there is obviously critique of racism in the process of desegregation but it's all extracurricular. You never see inside the school, you never see what's going on at school. And when I thought back to my own childhood growing up and learning about the Brown V Board of Education decision and its aftermath, you know, I remember pictures--I would remember you know clearly, like pictures of Ruby Bridges flanked by marshals and the picture of Elizabeth Eckford being screamed at, the National Guard in front of Central High in Little Rock Arkansas, but the stories for me growing up, they always ended there. They always ended with the kids walking in the door.
They didn't try to follow up with what happened in the school, and as a former middle school teacher and as a former person who, you know went through middle and high school, I wanted to know what was happening in the school. And those stories are out there. They've always been out there. The Little Rock Nine, many of them, wrote about the intense harassment and lynching
threats they endured. There were other contemporary accounts of what happens in the schools but they're not, I don't- I don't think they're as popularized, as well known as they really need to be. And then as I researched more and certainly as I thought about the issue of disability segregation end in terms of what I saw in my own teaching in terms of resegregation based on tracking, I wasn't seeing that at all in children's books and I wanted to. And so I started asking myself, "Okay why am I not seeing what I think I should be seeing? And why as a kid growing up was I not told"-- I mean I grew up in a pretty segregated school system. It was largely white and yet we were being taught in school that desegregation happened but it's not like I was seeing it. So for me as a children's literature scholar coming back I started thinking do we think they won't notice what they learn about in history is not being reflected in, you know, the media that they're watching and in their experience? So I wanted to dig into that more and that's really
how this book started to develop.
Martinez [04:59 - 05:44]:
- Great. Actually, since you mentioned sort of the idea of you noticing and you know other people--are people not noticing? I found it really interesting in the introduction that you talk about sort of having a conversation with your roommate regarding the institutional racism and imbalances that you were seeing at this charter school that you were working at and you sort of pose the question, you know, after telling the story about you know the student who sort of informs you that you and other teachers were called out as racist by a student in conversation amongst themselves. You know you mentioned this idea of like you're noticing and obviously the students were also noticing. Why, given that your your classroom was covering issues of segregation and other content that includes race and racism, why is it that those conversations weren't happening in the classroom in the way that you and the students seem to be observing--
- can you speak to that a little bit, why maybe you know teachers weren't
making those conversations, this contemporary conversation happen in the
Lesley [06:34 - 06:35]:
- I think
- I think there's a lot of terror and just huge discomfort about talking about racism among adults and certainly with kids - it - there's sort of a fear. I mean I see it with my students, right, even when you know when I assign articles or readings now that deal with racism, when we talk about, you know, the racism in the publishing industry, students don't, you know, in their responses, they don't want to say the word African-American because that seems, or Latinx, like that seems racist. "I can't even name you know the group." And so, it's there's this huge taboo. At the time that that incident took place I was in my mid-twenties. I was not a completely novice teacher but neither was I a horrendously experienced teacher, obviously, I was only in my mid-twenties, and I wasn't trained enough. Many of my colleagues were not trained enough, and not just that we weren't trained enough in pedagogy which I don't think we were, most of us--I certainly was not—but we also didn't have practice- just having conversations about race and what we saw and overcoming that taboo and handling the discomfort. Both with ourselves,
cause we had not yet learned to (I had not personally, and it's entirely possible the other teachers that I talked with had, but I don't think my roommate had and certainly with our students) we had not learned to overcome that taboo and that all takes practice. And it takes being able to name things that make people really uncomfortable.
- So I think, you know, if it's such a taboo to observe racial disparities in society, right, that like me even admitting that is thought of where there's the fear of, "Oh my God that means I'm not colorblind- that means I'm racist!" And I know that you and I have taught together, and we
taught this wonderful excerpt, The Emperor's New Clothes, about the myth of colorblindness. Well, I hadn't read that article and so, now.. that taboo is now something that I try to consciously counter, both within myself, and it continues to be hard, but also with my students. And to say out loud, like "Look, I get that you're feeling really uncomfortable. It's okay to feel uncomfortable."
Martinez [10:04 - 10:56]:
- Yeah, I mean you know we--like you mentioned--we've taught together, so you know, sort of getting students understand that change is uncomfortable, right? That discomfort doesn't mean that they're not safe, that you know discomfort is, it's uncomfortable for everybody when something's new, but that we can learn from it. And I think you know speaking to you, reading about your story and that experience, I think it was very brave to speak about those moments of
discomfort where, maybe you would if you could go back to that time and do things a little bit differently. You can't, but what you can do is learn from them, so I just want to let you know that I just really thought that was very powerful.
Lesley [11:06 - 11:07]:
- Thank you.
Martinez [11:08 - 11:37]:
- If you could create a children's book about Brown versus the Board of Ed's historic legacy, challenges and all, for an audience your son's age, how would you go about it? The other way I could frame this question is if I was to ask your son about this particular piece of history, what would he tell me? What do you think he would tell me?
Lesley [11:37 - 12:00]:
- I wish I knew! I have no idea--I do not have an answer to this question and of course the older he gets the less I am, you know, the primary voice in his education. And it constantly frustrates me that in the - you know, nominally at least very liberal and progressive and very predominantly white town where I live, that you know every single year, the only black history he seems to learn is Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. And so you know I'm constantly going on benders, like where is W.E.B. Dubois, you know he's local to this area, and trying to find other ways in, trying to open other conversations and find other resources. And the reason I don't know what he would say is half the time he just brushes me off like - "Oh, that's just Mommy."
Martinez [12:54 - 13:02]:
- You might want to tell the story with Legos! Because I already figured out that your kid loves Legos. I personally think you should tell the story through some Legos.
Lesley [13:02 - 13:11]:
- Oh hey, okay that's that's a great idea!
- One of the things that we have talked about--and again, like I have no idea what kind of sticks, but we have talked about the issue of residential segregation through redlining and housing laws.
Martinez [13:41 - 13:47]:
- And does he notice how white the town is? Does he notice how white the town is?
Lesley [13:47 - 14:09]:
- You know, I would think he would because when we moved from North Carolina -- in North Carolina where we lived before this, he went to a predominantly Black pre-school. All of his teachers were African-American, most of his friends were were Black and then you know there's this big change.
- So I think he has but sometimes it's hard to pull out of him what he what he notices and what he doesn't notice.
Martinez [14:22 - 15:10]:
- Thank you.
Lesley [15:11 - 15:50]:
One you of the things, especially as his friends acquire diagnosis of disabilities, is we talked about how there's disparities in diagnosis and sometimes you know two kids of different races who behave the same way will get different diagnoses and therefore different treatment. And I
would say part of your question was if I were to create a children's book about the legacies of Brown V Board of Education-- which, first of all, I would not want to be the person creating because the publishing world is white enough already--but I think, you know, there are lots of really really great books about the initial backlash against Brown V Board of Education, and there are fantastic counter-narratives from African-American authors about the loss of Black schools and the firing of Black teachers and the sort of ethos of love and support and nurturing that was lost. What I think--the legacies that I would love to see more represented in children's literature is the resegregation by disability, right, and tracking. I think, you know, that's one of the things that kids see really clearly. I think it's pretty clear and from my teaching days I think they see it clearly but it's not represented.
Martinez [15:50 - 16:06]:
-Okay, great. So as you know, I have a two-and-a-half-year-old, and I'm always looking for books that provide a diverse and anti oppressive lens, along with books that are bilingual. Is there a favorite toddlers' book about Brown V Board of Ed or racism that you could share with us, and why?
Lesley [16:37 - 16:43]:
- Perhaps not toddler, but preschool yeah. I think Ruby Bridges' own story, her own photojournalism book of her experiences, called Through My Eyes, is fantastic and good for sort of many ages of children. And I think it's really incredibly valuable to have her story as opposed to the stories told about her.
- Doreen Rappaport, The School Is Not White, is a good one that offers a little bit of a counter-narrative, like it doesn't sort of just have a simplistic happy ending. And a newer one by Duncan Tonatiuh is, I don't remember the title, but it's about Sylvia Mendez, that's the case that preceded Brown V Board of Education
- and that's incredibly valuable as sort of a precursor to Brown v. Board of Ed
- and also because it sort of invites in the conversation that lots of other racial groups in the United States have also historically and continue to be segregated.
Martinez [18:10 - 18:11]:
- Thank you.
- So you brought up that there are, you know, other groups, whether it's Latinx or Asian American or Native American groups that, you know, would complicate the integration narratives. Do you have any interest, is that sort of future research that you're thinking about for yourself? Are you collaborating with others on that as potential future research?
Lesley [18:44 - 19:19]:
- Not currently as as a publishing research project, but because we teach together-- I am also teaching with another of our colleagues, and we recently taught a course on experiences of bilingual education and in life. And so as part of preparing for that course, I did some really fascinating reading and research on the ongoing experience of language segregation, which overlaps with race and is also not the same as race and I think that's a huge topic that I'm increasingly very interested in even though I'm not ready to pursue it for publishing.
Martinez [19:37 - 19:45]:-
Right, no rush, no rush! I'm just interested-- so you mentioned this in your book, and I was wondering if you could share using an example. So you talk a little bit about children's literature, like other media and art, both reproducing sort of racist and oppressive ideologies and also countering, re-creating counter-narratives. And I was wondering if there is an example that you could share where a book might do one or both of these things? For example, I feel like sometimes, when we you know are watching--I was just having a conversation, cause Hamilton is now on Disney Plus--and so having a conversation with a few people about Hamilton and its potential impacts, right? That there are a lot of people who really love Hamilton and are really interested in the way that hip hop and you know this music genre which is new to Broadway, right, and is in use-- but that it reproduces a lot of the myths of the Founding Fathers as these you know amazing dudes. So I'm interested if you have sort of an example that you can share with us about how you can see in children's lit, in one book, maybe you see both of those pieces.
Lesley [21:33 - 22:22]:
- I think in many of the books that that I talked about in this book, you can definitely see those pieces. And two of my personal favorites I think do both of those, and one of them, when I've spoken to other people about the book --the started for my dissertation--so when somebody in my dissertation committee talked to me about this she was incredibly upset by this one example of Dorothy Sterling's novel Mary Jane, which was very well loved. People you know decades after this book was featured in the Scholastic Book Club said that it really like influenced, they loved it. They loved, you know, that she made sure an African American artist created the cover with this girl with a ponytail with her schoolbooks. This book not a lot to them, and Dorothy Sterling herself--so this is a wonderful publication history, and by "wonderful" I mean "really screwed up." That I talked about in chapter one where the year before Mary Jane was published Dorothy Sterling and a photographer friend did a tour of the United--the Southern United States in schools and spoke to a lot of students. They did a photo journalism and recorded interviews, when students were talking about being threatened with ice picks and having acid thrown on their clothing in school and they published it. And it went out of print within a year because it was refused for-- it wasn't directly censored, like nobody openly said "This makes the US look
bad," but it was refused for the Informational Media Guarantee Program, which was a program that would basically allow allow books to be sold overseas in a way that wouldn't cost the publishers too much money. And so it was basically, when the the export of that book was named not lucrative, it went out of print.
- So she took a lot of the material--how Mary Jane came about is she took a lot of material from those interviews and she crafted this novel, but you know all of the direct violence--I think the worst thing that happens directly physically to Mary Jane is she gets tripped in the that aisle and there's a bully who says--you know, I mean Mary Jane clearly goes through a lot of pain in this novel, but it also very clearly is cleaned up from the interviews. And it sort of follows this classic school story narrative, where she makes friends with one sympathetic white girl, who then sort of like in an extracurricular activity, brings her into the fold of the school, where she you know joins the science club and then potentially has some other friends besides this little girl Sally.
- Sterling herself, years after this was published, in this speech, said that she had super mixed feelings about what she'd done with Mary Jane. That she did, you know, she felt on the one hand that kids needed to read the story and if that's what it took to get it published that's what she was going to do. And on the other hand, she's like "I knew this was completely unrealistic, I gave it this kind of happy ending where she gets to make friends with a white girl and maybe integrate into the life of the school," she's like, "It was a total cop out," - and she knew it.
- At the same time, you know, there's a lot of sort of subtle countering of a racist ideology where Mary Jane, despite wanting to desegregate, also talks to her grandfather who's a prominent scientist, who tells her, "You know I got a really great education at the at the all-black school. I'm a scientist too," like that, "You don't have to go to the white world, like by all means go to the white community, we support you, we love you, you should be able to do this--but we have resources in the Black community." So those you know she she built in this counter-narrative as well into this heavily censored book.
Martinez [26:40 - 26:48]:
- Do you still question-- the question that popped into my head as as you were sharing a little bit about Mary Jane is-- is the subtle counter narrative too subtle for most people? You know what I mean, so like the question becomes, you know, we are as scholars, we are taught to dig into a
text. I can't watch a TV program without asking about all these issues, right, and I'm trying to teach my kids how to do that and she's two and a half. I can't watch Ariel the mermaid, oh princess, without being terrified. And she loves--thanks to my brother showed me and wanted to show it to her and I was like, "Oh, that was his favorite musical when he was little story when
he was little," but it's--- I guess the question is how do we better ensure that when kids are reading they're really reading between the lines which I think is what you're hinting at, right? That there's things in here that she weaved in to tell a different story, right? While at the same time doing the reproducing of some of the stereotypical white dominant, and a white savior--cause you could call that little kid that saved her, right, as a little white savior, right-- so we even are having the white savior mentality in these books--and so you know I guess it just bears the question, like, is the counter narrative sometimes too subtle?
Lesley [28:39 - 28:49]:
- Yes. my answer is unequivocally yes it is, and sometimes even when it's not, what I find is you know when I teach a text it gets ignored, so yeah, not only is it too subtle in Mary Jane, and that's definitely the case, but I know as an English teacher, I'm constantly--and not just with English teachers, I know, because we've taught together, you know, I'm always fighting confirmation bias. Right? That if you know in the United States our kids are really thrilled with this ideology of happy endings, of rising above a certain obstacle, of--of overcoming, you know, through
friendship, of racism being in the past but--
Martinez [29:59 - 30:01]:
- yep to keep going with a lot of these
Lesley [30:08 - 30:10]:
- right and if that's what you want to see and what you expect to see- you'll see it.
Martinez [30:10 - 30:14]:
- Thank you, so- as a Latina mom, as I mentioned I have a two and a half year old daughter, who's also light skinned. I've struggled to ensure that she has a diverse range of stories in English and in Spanish that I want her to have, and you have been extremely helpful with, and you know my own research, making sure that she sort of sees a diverse range when it comes to gender and you know, is starting to understand things like "love is love," and that you can have two daddies or two mommies or you know someone who may be identified as a parent instead of a mommy or daddy. So I'm just curious, how has this research and writing this book influenced you as a white woman and as a white mom to a white little boy?
Lesley [31:20 - 31:30]:
- Certainly it's influenced me as a white woman to read- revise, revisit mentally and really deeply question my past learning for school, my past behavior, both as a student and as a teacher, my current--you know, the things that I thought that I knew about my country's history, about my childhood, about my educational experiences.
- I absolutely have have had to relearn and continue to relearn, you know. I didn't
-- it was really not until college that I learned about redlining, and it was not until I started doing research with this book that I learned about in Brown v. Board of Education, the incredible strength and fantastic teaching that was coming out of segregated black schools in the South that was deliberately squashed by white communities.
- And as a white mom, I think, for me one of the things that this research really brings home... well, there's a few things that this working on this book has brought home. And one of them is that books are not enough.
- They're not. I mean they're a starting place, and they are important--obviously I'm an English teacher--but I am very wary, becoming increasingly wary of a phenomenon that Hazel Carby talks about, of desegregation happening through literature instead of human beings. That like we can't sort of go out and research and have a rainbow of representation in our literature and not do anything in real life to correct those structural oppressions, not do anything to correct residential segregation or police violence, economic disparities, disability disparities, like...
- because it's too easy to separate those and put the book in one category with all of our confirmation biases. And so I, you know, I think it's hard you know, as my son gets older and I I have less influence over him, I think about modeling for him-- like "Hey, do you want to come to this protest with me? Do you want to help make a sign? You want to like help me write some of these postcards?"
- But I also you know - I am aware that he also at a certain point is going to have to come to it himself. I can't like force him into it. And one of the things that this research also emphasized for me is the simultaneous contradiction. Not only is media not enough but school is not enough, right? Like we can't like just sort of solve desegregation in the schools and culturally relevant pedagogy in the schools and make the school perfect and that will like make all of racism and injustice go away. Like that is just not enough and I think it was incredibly powerful for me in this research to keep on reading and learn that really Brown v. Board of Education was just a
strategy to a larger goal.
- It was never really just about the schools, it was supposed to be--it was just one step toward wider racial equality that never happened.
- And the other side of it
- this is the contradiction is that at the same time School matters a lot to kids, right? They are there for 30 hours a week. My kid spends more time in that school building--
- when there's not covid-19 that is--- absent a pandemic--
- so what happens in the school matters. What he sees in terms of policies—in terms of disciplinary policies, in terms of disability disparities, in terms of economic disparities in the school, and the pedagogy he sees in his school, that matters!
Martinez [36:56 - 36:56]:
- So what challenges did you encounter in doing this research, if any?
Lesley [37:14 - 37:18]:
- Of course I encountered challenges!
Martinez [37:21 - 37:26]:
- I always encountered challenge.
Lesley [37:29 - 37:40]:
- I think some of the challenge is methodology because you know as I mentioned before, some of the - some of the questions that I had about were about things that I was not seeing. Why--you know, not seeing representations of contemporary racism? And this example of historical racism--we'll just push that into historical fiction, fine, but not contemporary racism--it was hard to find books that dealt with racially-based disparities and disability. It was hard to find books on issues-- not hard to find books on issues of achievement gap necessarily but hard to find books that sort of directly link those two issues of residential segregation and represent a longer legacy of Brown. So then the question is, if you don't find something- how do you research that? And there are a lot of really groundbreaking scholars who have done work and written about issues on the publishing industry--the children's literature publishing industry--issues of whiteness and racism, and subtle censorship, and I absolutely built on the work of those scholars, but in the end there's a lot of unanswerable questions.
Martinez [39:08 - 39:10]:
Lesley [39:12 - 39:52]:
- So I you know, I do the best I can with finding books that hint obliquely and then pairing that with you know what Zetta Elliot and Joel Taxel and Phil Nel talk about in the publishing, what they found in the system. And then the other issue, when I do find something like a really special book about contemporary racism, like Milded Pitts Walter's Because We Are, which--she was like my hero and I love this book-- it's out of print—you know, I wanted to talk about it because it was so unusual. Really one-of-a-kind in terms of how it really addressed bluntly the issues of racism that she was seeing in the 1980s from kids in desegregation programs. I
Martinez [40:12 - 40:19]:
Lesley [40:20 - 40:48]:
- know it's not representative and so one of the things we talked about in research in terms of tracing legacies in children's literature is what stories are being told to children about the legacies of Brown V Board of Education? And this is an outlier. I know it's an outlier. How do I how do I
justify talking about it, right, when I know it's not representative of the stories that kids hear, but I still feel it's important and want it to get some air time too.
Martinez [40:48 - 40:49]:
- So tell us something about the contribution that you hope this book will make to children's literature, to overall scholarship, you know what do you want the legacy of this to be?
Lesley [41:17 - 41:32]:
- Well, there's so much that has been written from so many different perspectives about Brown v. Board of Education. It is a very covered topic from the perspective of law and history and education. But I hope that adults who are writing about Brown v. Board of Education and researching it will also come to regard children's literature as an archive that they can go to learn because I do think it's --that it's a lot of adults talking to other adults in working with the writing
of other adults, right? That what children-- even though these adults have paid attention to the experiences of children, they haven't paid attention necessarily to the media that is being given, the messages that are being given to children and so I think that's an important archive that's highlighted in this book. And I also hope that this book helps us to think about the ways that
pedagogy is entwined with the success of desegregation.
- Because again, we do tend to separate those things. We tend to say, like "okay well we have to improve pedagogy, and then we also have to look at desegregation," but again you know the kids spend 30 hours a week in the school building. Even though the school is not enough- if you don't make pedagogy work and you don't make desegregation work through the school experience, then also desegregation will not work. And no that will not solve racial Justice-- it won't--but kids do not only care about whether they're experiencing racism from the teacher-- obviously they also care! But they care if the work is worthwhile to them or not, they
Martinez [43:44 - 43:56]:
Lesley [43:58 - 44:18]:
care if they're, they feel that school is a place where they can pursue their intellectual interests and have those values or not. And so I think that what I try to do--one of the things I try to do in this book--is to look at school desegregation along with what actually is going on in the school and what children really sort of want to get out of school because I don't think we should ignore that.
Martinez [44:22 - 44:37]:
- I have thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. I want to thank you for talking with me and also for writing this influential book.
Lesley [44:37 - 44:39]:
- Thank you very much. Thank you so much for your time.