When we learned about the Civil Rights movement in grade school, we watched videos of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches and some of the protests. I remember being horrified at the racist, white people screaming with all the righteous indignation their stupidity could muster. I figured they must be so ashamed of themselves now–having been caught on the wrong side of history with their violent ignorance. As much as those videos affected me, I still did not understand the reality of living in the South as a person of color in the 1960’s. And I’m sure I still don’t, but after reading Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves (2014), I have a much more personal, visceral idea of the fear that comes when the people in power, the ones in charge of the laws and rules of civilization, are more than willing to hurt you for your perceived differences.
Robin Talley begins her book with Sarah Dunbar, her sister, and a small group of Black high school children on their first day integrating the local, white high school after a prolonged legal battle. The parking lot is full of angry, white people screaming at them and Sarah is legitimately afraid that they will be attacked and possibly killed before they even make it into the school. The all-white police force is standing by, but there is no doubt where their loyalties lie. The small group sticks together with the older kids trying to protect the younger ones as they make their way through a gauntlet of screaming insults, taunts, and petty assaults.
It doesn’t get any better once they get inside the school. The physical danger is always there, and the isolation and demeaning insults continue. Most of the teachers contribute to–rather than help diffuse–the hostile environment. Sarah Dunbar, an honors student at her old school, finds herself in remedial classes for no reason, and she cannot participate in any extracurricular activities. The Black students are under a tremendous amount of pressure to make this integration “experiment” work. The civil rights leaders and their parents are counting on them to be the beginning of meaningful change.
The constant threat of physical harm combined with the knowledge that they have no recourse for harm done to them reminded me of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and how Black people have communicated terror down to their children. “Nothing is mine anymore. Even my own body isn’t mine.” (Talley 85) I kept thinking of the long-term damage this continued fear would wreak on Sarah. I don’t know how she could have lived through those experiences without developing PTSD. This book clearly paints a picture of where some of that terror Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about came from. I would definitely recommend reading both.
If Sarah Dunbar’s personal story of integration were the entire novel, this would be a fascinating story, but Sarah has even more to deal with. She has discovered that she is attracted to women. Not even knowing what that means, she instinctively knows she should be ashamed. But she can’t help her attraction to Linda Hairston, the daughter of one of the town’s most influential and vocal opponents of integration. Forced together on a school project, Linda comes to know and sometimes understand Sarah in a believable way.
This book came highly recommended from a Cannonball review, and it lived up to the hype. Perhaps my only complaint is that Talley tied things up a little too neatly in the end, especially considering the challenges Sarah was facing.
You can find more of my reviews on my blog.