Thinking about the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education is like watching a kaleidoscope of scenes from my personal history.
I grew up in the '50s and '60s in rural Arkansas, about 60 miles from Little Rock — not exactly ground zero for the world changes wrought by the civil rights movement, but quite close enough for the fallout.
I'm not an expert on memory, or anything for that matter, so I don't really know why some scenes remain so vividly alive but I have a theory that it's because they illuminated something I knew had been there but hadn't seen clearly before.
Brown was handed down in May, 1954, a little too early for my conscious memory. But I do remember a moment that could only have arisen out of the troubled conversations over dinner tables as people waited to see what Brown would mean in their lives.
I didn't go to public school. I attended a tiny Catholic school in my hometown, built along with the church on land the railroad gave to Catholic immigrants from Germany, Poland and Switzerland along its route in the Arkansas River Valley. (My mom's family settled there. My Italian name comes from my father, whom my mother met while both served in the Navy in World War II.) There were two classrooms for eight grades in our school. My class peaked at five but for most of my elementary years there were only three of us.
One day on the playground, this must have been in the late '50s, another child was talking about what her parents planned to do if a black Catholic family moved into Atkins and tried to enroll children in our school. I was young but I'd seen enough to know that not many people moved to our little town, that it was almost unheard of that a Catholic family would move there and that I'd never been in the presence of a black Catholic.
It made an impression on me that this event with triple-negative likelihood of ever happening —a black Catholic family moving to Atkins, Ark. — even rose to the level of a topic of conversation.
We lived in town but my dad ran a grocery store, so we eventually came into contact with almost everyone in the community, those who lived on the mountain or near the river bottoms, both black and white. It was an indication of living way, way out in the country if you were a white kid who rode the bus with blacks. They rode the same bus into town, where the black kids were dropped off to board the more rickety bus that took them to their school, which I had never seen. It was sort of like the black kids came from nowhere and went to nowhere.
I remember being both sad and puzzled about this. I know I asked my parents about these things. My recollection is that they never pretended this was OK but also kept their answers as brief as possible. Now a parent myself, I understand that there are some things in the adult world that have no satisfactory explanation.
Years later, after the Little Rock school desegregation crisis and after the Supreme Court struck down "with all deliberate speed," and ordered true integration, private, purportedly religious academies were the answer for white Arkansans who didn't want their kids to go to school with blacks.
This was another puzzler for me when religious schools became synonymous with segregation, because I'd gone to Catholic high schools, which were integrated long before public high schools in Arkansas.
As a young adult, I was on a business trip in Eastern Arkansas when in mid-afternoon one gray fall day I saw a farmer parked in his truck on a remote, rural highway by a private school bus stop. He was clearly waiting to pick up his kids returning from the white academy they attended.
Like the school buses in my tiny town 20 years earlier and anxiety over black Catholics, this elaborate system — inflexible and largely unacknowledged — had been constructed to enforce a host of cultural myths, to keep the terrifying unknown at bay.
What have I learned from all this?
Fear is a tricky and powerful emotion. When it rules our lives and communities, things get twisted, people disappear and parents can't answer their kids' questions.