Monthly Archives: November 2010

mega-minnijean

I didn’t get a lunch break today, but I didn’t mind. Instead of spacing out in the staffroom, I ate my quinoa while listening to Minnijean Brown-Trickey speak, and left feeling grateful that in my life, school has always been a safe place.

Minnijean is one of the “Little Rock Nine” – the first black students to enroll in Little Rock Central High School. Yes, the ones that were escorted by the US Army to a school whose gates were blockaded by the Arkansas National Guard.

Little Rock Nine

One of our students met Minnijean over the summer and invited her to address our community. She told us that they went to the school simply because it was there, and that she was expelled because she did not fit the docile stereotype that her white classmates expected of a black person – she spilled chilli on a boy in the cafeteria and once called a girl “white trash” after the girl threw a purse full of six combination locks at her head one day.

She passed around a picture of herself as a teenager – she was tall, beautiful and proud, and had “a smile to die for. I had no sense of inferiority, and that confused people.” Minnijean explained to a rapt audience of students and staff that people, like herself, who are deemed to be “others” are expected to be docile – that’s how social control works. On a particularly poignant note for my colleagues and me, she recalled that her teachers “never saw” any of the harassment that she suffered on a daily basis. The card below was handed out by segregationists after her expulsion in 1957:

Card given out by anti-integration movement after Minnijean was expelled

Minnijean is a true survivor, and her pride remains unshaken. This attitude was demonstrated in what I found to be the most moving quote of the day. It was something she said about the people who made the lives of the black students and their families miserable:

“They threw away their dignity and it landed on us”

Minnijean condemned the institutionalized racism that is still prevalent in America today, over 50 years after her first day at Little Rock Central HS. She said that she is not proud to be American – and said of her country that, “If you’re always told that you’re the best, you roll over and play dead.” Minnijean lived in Canada for years, working as an anti-racism trainer and advocate for First Nations rights.

I feel privileged to have met this remarkable woman, who as a girl lived through a daily hell just to go to school. I end this post with a poem she read, by Cyrus Cassells:

Soul Make A Path Through Shouting
for Elizabeth Eckford
Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957

Thick at the schoolgate are the ones
Rage has twisted
Into minotaurs, harpies
Relentlessly swift;
So you must walk past the pincers,
The swaying horns,
Sister, sister,
Straight through the gusts
Of fear and fury,
Straight through:
Where are you going?

I’m just going to school.
Here we go to meet
The hydra-headed day,
Here we go to meet
The maelstrom —

Can my voice be an angel-on-the-spot,
An amen corner?
Can my voice take you there,
Gallant girl with a notebook,
Up, up from the shadows of gallows trees
To the other shore:
A globe bathed in light,
A chalkboard blooming with equations —

I have never seen the likes of you,
Pioneer in dark glasses:
You won’t show the mob your eyes,
But I know your gaze,
Steady-on-the-North-Star, burning —

With their jerry-rigged faith,
Their spear on the American flag,
How could they dare to believe
You’re someone sacred?:
Nigger, burr-headed girl,
Where are you going?

I’m just going to school.

— by Cyrus Cassells

from Soul Make A Path Through Shouting by Cyrus Cassells, published by Copper Canyon Press. Copyright © 1994

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