“When you look at it head on, from just the right distance, the world seems solid. The order of things presents itself as impenetrable. Yet a change in the angle of vision reveals fissures, fusions, flukes – a world of pieces shifting ceaselessly. One vision of the world promises stability and order, the other freedom and creativity. Which of these is more attractive depends on where one finds oneself: pressed upon by the weight of the world, or abraded by the shifting fragments.“
Some years ago, I’d relocated to the edge of the Tennessee valley, just over the Alabama/Tennessee state line. I was there to live the country life that I’d heard about from my parents and pined over in the writings of Henry David Thoreau. Before long my artistic acumen inspired one of the local schools to call me in for a Carreer Day presentation. I was told that the presentation time was 20 to 30 minutes. That was a piece of cake and a scoop of ice cream for me. When I walked into the classroom, children were plastered from wall to wall with waiting eyes. I began and ended my presentation in full sermonic splendor with a clap of hands and preparation to leave after questions and answers. As the room emptied, it simultaneously filled like a human water vacuum. I kept going with even more fervor since I had warmed up. This happened once more before the room was finally left with a spattering of students that teachers were pushing toward the door. That 30 minutes had turned into well over three hours. A tall dark haired man with a short beard to match, walked in with outstretched hand.
“I had to meet the man who kept my students engaged enough to skip lunch.” He said with a toothy smile.
He vigorously grasped my hand with both of his. He was the principal and had been informed that students were skipping lunch to return to my presentation. That explains the repeats and the consistent filling of the classroom. That presentation landed me with a contract with Lincoln County Schools under a grant from the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth to teach life skills while focusing on the the prevention of underage drinking. Yes, a tall order indeed. As an art equipped dreamer, I stepped up to the task and designed an arts based experience that I called P2 (Positive Images, Positive Impact). My assignment was to cover all six county schools in Lincoln County Tennessee, teaching art to students in grades 1-8 for 6 week increments. I was given office space and storage, and the journey began. I was warned by a well meaning woman at the office to be careful in Petersburg and definitely stay out of Flintville after dark. With that, I meticulously planned out my stint in Flintville for April/May, when the days were longest. In case you haven’t figured it out, It was because I’m Black. The county was mostly white and some were whiter than others with a strong predisposition toward all cream, no coffee. I’m bold but not batty, so I adjusted accordingly.
The last session came far too fast. April came in with a muggy spring way-too-early warmth. Over the course of the classes, the woman in the office had repeated her voice of alert to avoid Flintville after sunset. I do admit that her words, also echoed by others had me a bit concerned. I felt like I was about to step back into the 60s and do a segment on desegregation. Man, I just wanted to share art with these children and head on home to my Black family, unscathed.
As I walked up to the school that morning, with armloads of art supplies, alongside cars pulling up to drop off children, the icy stares coming from intentionally rolled down windows, chilled may spine. It was pretty obvious that my presence was unwanted. I scanned the children going in and the cars they left. Not one person of color in the bunch. Oh shit. Here I was, young, gifted, and very Black, replete with locks and a less than southern accent, in an area designated by proxy as white only. I feel you *Ruby Bridges! A cropped-maned brunette greeted me at the door, and led me down a maze or corridors to a well lit room filled with desks and a table up front. She gave me the general run down of daily operations then proceeded to warn me that I might have problems. Yes, challenges based on the fact of my Blackness. She did her best to say it kindly but it still bruised a bit. I took the words and tucked them in my back of my mind. I knew what I could do with the magic of art. This would be another proving ground.
The weeks went by quickly and without incident. There were two older guys who looked more like college students who were present several periods on a given day. One afternoon, as I was preparing to leave, the principal came in and inquired as to whether the two boys were giving me problems. “Not at all. Why do you ask? I inquired. He went on to say they they were trouble makers who rarely came to school. However, they had been skipping other classes to attend mine. Since I’d been there, they had perfect attendance and no write-ups. From my point of view they were a couple of well behaved guys who seemed to love art and sharing stories. He praised my efforts and left. A few days later the counselor sat in the back of my classroom during a session. Afterward she came up and apologized to me for her assumptions on the problems she thought I might have. She also informed me that the principal and office staff had shared the sentiment. I had proved them all wrong. Correction: The students and I had proved them all wrong and proved ourselves to be recipients of that miraculous power of art to elevate and unite. That classroom became a sanctuary for us and a fortress against all that would have come between us. Our daily laughter and experiences was a chorus that went beyond those walls and struck familiar chords. The time at the Flintville Elementary School was one of my best that year.
This experience, among others, consistently repositions art is the proverbial foot of the cross, the safe place of refuge and liberation from those things that set us apart. It is a soul language that runs deeper than all of those fences planted on the landscape of humanity’s refusal to see the we in all of us. The language of creative blossoming speaks from the heart with no detours or flags. It is that attainable space where anything is possible.
*Ruby Nell Bridges Hall is an American Hero. She was the first African American child to desegregate William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana. At six years old, Ruby’s bravery helped pave the way for Civil Rights action in the American South.