Scholar Beverly Guy-Sheftall on Jim Crow Era, Progression of White Supremacy Behavior, and Education

ATM: Express the strong dynamics seen in the segregated schools during your time.

BS: When growing up in the Jim Crow South as I did during the 40s and 50s, we did not think so much on the fact that schools were segregated. This is the world you grew up in. I was in Memphis, Tennessee in an urban space. We had very good teachers and very good schools as supposed to be in the rural South. For me, the segregated school was nurturing. We did not have to experience racism. It was normal for us. I know for other folks they got hand me down books and inadequate resources. I did not think so much on the fact that there were no white teachers.

ATM: How do you believe there are similar factors in segregated schools vs. predominately black schools and predominately white schools of today?

BS: Segregated schools now are very different. We had excellent black teachers because these were the jobs black people could have. I am not saying this was all the characteristics of the segregated schools in the South. I mentioned I am only talking about Memphis. Black men and women could not get jobs in other places. So, we ended up with good teachers. This is not the case now. Black people have a broader range of career options. I am not making this claim, but since black folk has a broader range of career option, teaching in the public schools – particularly given all the issues in the public school like disciplinary issues, maybe many of them would not choose to teach in the public schools. So, it would be very hard for me to compare what it was like going to school in the 50s and 60s with how schools are like now.  

ATM: Why do you believe there is a higher dropout rate with black males?

BS: One of the significant variables is getting into trouble with the criminal justice system. It has to do with peer influence. “The neighborhood that I am growing up in and the people I am growing up with makes me more vulnerable into getting in trouble. This leads me to getting in trouble with the criminal justice system. It leads me to having an early record.” The dropout rates of black boys are involved with the criminal justice system. They can be getting involved in drugs, class issues. “I am not growing up in a family where I have sufficient economic resources.” This is a significant variable. There is racism in this.

White boys frequently get in trouble, but they do not get involved with the criminal justice system to this extent as black boys. They are not given prison or jail records for bad results when going to court. Some middle-class white boys for example will do things in private systems and public schools. The private schools do not report it to the police. They handle it internally, so they do not get a police record.  

The system protects them. The private schools protect them. The parents have resources to hire lawyers and protect them in the schools. They experience white privilege and class privilege. When the police encounter them, they do not presume they should be in jail. This does not happen to the same extent with black boys. The research shows black boys are perceived to be older than they are. A black boy might be 12. The criminal justice system will treat him like he is 16 or 17. This is another big problem. When I say a black boy, I assume he is older. I presume that he is more criminal and dangerous. I associate this with older folks. I also assume he is somewhere where he has no business being. We have seen all these cases. He could be home, getting trash out of his own yard. The assumption is “I do not belong here. I am somewhere I should not be.” This is racism. There is never a presumption of innocence even if I am 12 years old. There is a presumption I am doing something I should not be doing.  White boys do not experience the same assumptions. White boys do not perceive to be dangerous, especially if they are young.

ATM: What is a modern perspective of W. E. B. Du Bois theory of double consciousness, which was created in his book Souls of Black Folk in 1903 and the relevance of it today?

BS: Racism is still alive and well. The conditions are still there that Du Bois described in the early 1900s. I would say there are more regional differences than age differences. It is not necessary of all black people living in the U.S. and of a certain age to experience double consciousness. I have experienced young black people who would say, “I have not experienced racism.” So, they do not have the double consciousness that Du Bois described. The situation is much more complexed over 100 years later.

Most black folks grew up in segregated religious societies mostly in the South when Du Bois was talking. This is a much more complex situation if you take into consideration age. I have students for example between the ages of 18-22 who do not have the same perspective of race as I do at age 72. His generic point about white supremacy and institutional racism is still prevalent. So, large numbers of black people would still have a double consciousness. Age would have a significant impact on the degree to which one has a double consciousness. Black feminists have said if he would have a gender lens saying triple consciousness, which is black women also have the consciousness that they are also women. We would need to broaden his theory.  

ATM: Discuss the progression of triple consciousness seen around black women.

BS: Black women wrote about this in being a race and a gender. Of course, people paid more attention to what black men were saying than what black women would say. This is still the case. This is because of something called a male dominant society or patriarchal society. Societies pay more attention to what men say. Look at the Supreme Court. We have had two black men on the Supreme Court. Look at who our mostly ministers and black college presidents are. Even in the racial context black women are secondary to men. Black men make more money. They occupy the most significant leadership positions in the large society and in the black community. Principals, Congress people, Supreme Court nominees. Just name it.

ATM: Where have you traveled outside of our country gaining the knowledge that racism was treated differently?

BS: If you go to the continent of Africa, then you do not see white supremacy. White Supremacy is not in your face if you go to African societies. In Brazil, there is racism, but there was not something called Jim Crow. Even the way racism operates around the world is not the same in the U.S. If you go to the Caribbean, then you do not visually see what is seen in the U.S. You will see mostly black people in charge. If you go to Haiti, then you will see unspeakable poverty. If you go to China, then you hardly see any black people. You will experience Chinese people staring at black people because they do not see them very much. You can go all over the world where you do not have a lot of black people and have a different situation. Light skin black people can go all over the world and not get read as a black person. They will associate race with skin color. For example, as a light skin black person in Europe, a person did not think I was black. Then when I said I was black – they asked, “Is one of your parents white?” I said no. This is a good example of how people read what they see differently based on their cultural experiences.

ATM: Give a perspective on the progression of white supremacy behavior and education.

BS: White supremacy is alive and well despite the eradication of Jim Crow. In other words, black people do not have to sit in the back of the bus anymore. It does not mean racism has gone away. Manifestations of white supremacy are not as visible. They are more subtle and less in your face. I do not drink out of colored water fountains. I do not have to go to the Zoo on Thursday. We see manifestations of white supremacy in the police treatment of black folk. We see it in the type of loans that black people can get. We see it still strongly in residential neighborhoods. Most public schools in the South are still segregated. White racism is still present, but even though things I experience, a young person would not have. They could still experience racism, including in the education system. They could have fewer resources going to segregated black public schools.

ATM: Black people were once considered “Colored,” “Negro,” and now “African American,” so express your observation on how times have changed with the terms on black people.

BS: The terms of “Colored” and “Negro” were not the terms black people came up with. These were terms white people came up with. Because of the 60s, a movement, and because we were people of African Descent – black people decided to move away from these racist terms. We started calling ourselves African American or black. This came from a result of struggle and a movement. These were racist terms that we rejected.  

ATM: Take me back to a moment of drinking from a colored water fountain and sitting in the back of the bus.

BS: If you get on the bus with your mother at five years old and you go to the back, then you do not notice that you are sitting on the back of the bus because you are black. You are going to sit with your mother. It may be on this particular day you go to sit on the bus that there are not white people on the bus. You do not necessarily know what it is you are being subjected to. Remember this is your entire life growing up as a little person. You might not notice it on the bus, but if you are going to a department store and you notice there is a water fountain that says “Colored,” then you might ask your parent, “Why do they have separate water fountains?” Then the parent starts to answer the question usually if you were young throwing out an answer with white supremacy or something called white racism.

It was a complicated situation. But when you get a little bit older, passed 4-6 years old, you begin to be more aware and have more of an analysis. Maybe say to yourself how horrendous this is. This happens over time. I do not think when you are very young you notice these things. The same way girls do not notice most things about sexism. I did not notice for example growing up that there were no men in the kitchen cooking. So, what do you see? You see women in the kitchen cooking. This is normal to you and you do not think, “Why are there no men cooking?” It is only later that you begin to understand this has to do with gender construct. It is not like women like to cook and men do not like to cook. It happens this way with race as well. I did not know if I noticed that all the principals of the schools, I went to were male. I did not notice this. I did not think I noticed the women were not the ministers in the church I went to. It is just normal. You just move around in the world. This is what you experience. It is later when you have some concepts that you get to revisit what you experience. Then you can analyze it differently. What people notice that there are women who take care of children in the world. Or for marriage ceremonies who notices or thinks it is weird that the father gives you away . . .

ATM: And why can’t the mother give you away

BS: Exactly. Why can’t both of them?

ATM: This should be modified.

BS: But how many people notice this. They would not notice it because all of the weddings they go to, this is what it is. It does not occur to you to say, “Oh,” Racism operated like this, except for the horrendous parts of it.

ATM: How many people notice in marriages the man does not take the woman’s last name?

BS: Exactly. But you drop your family name and take on his name. How many people do not do this now?

ATM: Some women do not do this. They go by their last name.

BS: Or they do the hyphen. It is very rare. I only know a few that do. The husband took on both names and the wife take on both names.  

ATM: How many people notice there are no baby changing rooms in men’s bathrooms. How many people notice females in America do not go by Jr, Sr, or the Roman numerals with names, but only males.

BS: All of these norms are not noticed.

ATM: It makes you think what else is not noticed. We have touched on a few, but there could be 100s of norms. We are so desensitized, and things are so embedded and systematic in our society, we do not notice it. Other people see it.  

BS: Right. Most people do not think it was a problem being called “Colored” or “Negro” growing up because this was what you were called. “Negro” was an improvement over “Colored.”
 So it went from “Color” to “Negro” to “African American.” Think about the National Association of Colored People. These were not considered to be negative until there was a movement that said these terms were problematic. They did not appear to be problematic then.

ATM: Take me back to the moment you saw black people being sprayed with water holes by white police men on T.V.

BS: And also the German Shepherd dogs on T.V. It was horrendous, but it was not surprising to me. I grew up in the Jim Crow South. So, the behavior of white people was not surprising to me. I know about lynchings. I know how violent white people have been to black people. I grew up with it and also hearing about it from my grandparents.

ATM: Were there any slave stories?

BS: My grandfather was born in 1890, but he had stories of slavery. He grew up in rural Mississippi. Most of the stories were of how badly white people treated black people. Since slavery as well. Share cropping and so forth. They did not need to talk about just slavery.  

ATM: Take me back to the moments of how riots changed society as you saw on television.

BS: Visible evidence of how horrible white racism is and that it goes unpunished. It is knowing about the murder of Medgar Evans. People know who the murders are. They go to court, and they are innocent. You see this over and over again. There are very low consequences. We are not talking about police brutality. We are talking about just regular people in the community committing felonies, murders, and being acquitted in front of the court. This is not surprising.

ATM: What is your assessment on how the media has awareness for historical black people?

BS: There has been a huge improvement. I grew up with textbooks that had no black people in them. I grew up where there was no such thing as African American Studies. Today, Black History Month is more visible. You see more black people on T.V and newspapers. You have African American Studies in the schools. The textbooks are different. There has been a big improvement in the way of which Black History is acknowledged than during the time I grew up. It is not the case that things have not improved in this regard. You have black people on the Supreme Court. This would have been unimaginable when growing up. The fact that you had a black president would have been unimaginable. Nobody my age would have said anything has happened.

ATM: Black History Month has gotten better because in the beginning it was called Negro History Week.

BS: Right.

ATM: This started in 1926. This was a time before we saw the primal events of black history. I am not disregarding any black history before this time. This was even before Zora Neale Hurston wrote her book Their Eyes Are Watching God. We were not even open to what black excellence looked like. This was even before the New York Renaissance era.

So, I am curious to know what was being shown during Negro History Week if America was not in the era of expressing black excellence, which came after this date.

BS: In 1926 when this started there was a huge amount of black history that was omitted. You had a lot of things you could do. It was mostly focused on individuals. You could go back to slavery. You had over 100 years of black history you celebrate during Negro History Week. You have all of the stuff that happened during Reconstruction. You had black folk in the state legislation. This is going to increase overtime. The biggest difference is that early on in Negro history or black history there was a preponderance of males in this lineup. Over time it is more balanced. We have more women included. We have more professions. You have black astronauts. You have more black scientists and inventors over time. This is what shifted about what black people were doing, and not just black men were doing after the 20s.

ATM: How did James Baldwin’s literature shape other writers that were to come after him?

BS: It had a huge impact because James Baldwin was the most prolific and influential black writer that people had access to because he was published. So other writers are impacted by his novels and essays. He was extremely knowledgeable and brilliant about his analysis of race. I do not know if it affected their writing, but it probably affects their thinking.

ATM: And for Toni Morrison?

BS: The only thing I would say about Toni Morrison is that she became a part of the raw American literature canon. People were teaching Toni Morrison in high school whether the schools were black or not. This has a lot to do with her getting a Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. I would say Toni Morrison even more so than James Baldwin became a major American Literary figure. This means she would be taught in high schools and colleges. Much more so than with Baldwin. While living, he did not have the kind of prominence that Toni Morrison did. Toni Morrison had a huge amount of “crossover.” There were not just black people reading her.

ATM: So, what was being taught to you about white people if your textbooks had no black people in them?

BS: You did not notice it. Did I even notice when I was at Spelman College as a student taking literature that I was mostly reading male writers? I did not notice this. It is quite likely that when something is normal, you do not notice what is absent. European and white American history was being taught. It was nothing about black people or Native Americans or Africa. Everything I read was about white people. White people discovered everything. White people invented everything. It was Euro American History. It also focused on men. The world starts in 1492 when Columbus comes. What happened in the Americas before then was not in the books. I did not know there had been a genocide of Native Americans.

This is just one example. I did not know anything about the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. So, Euro American male history is what we learned. We learned something about Egypt, but Egypt was not even taught as a place in Africa. This was the norm. If you learned anything in Africa, then it was that these are primitive people who had to be converted to Christianity because they were Hebrew. It was very racist, narrow, and stereotypical things about people other than Europeans.  

ATM: Take me to an observation when you saw a Black Panther Party member’s passion.

BS: I am growing up with SNCC and the Black Panther Party. All of them were committed in their passionate ways. One of the persons that I think about was someone I was in the six-grade with. We came to Spelman together. She joined SNCC. I have been around her all my life. Angela Davis has been known. I cannot remember when I met Angela. Someone like Kathleen Cleaver not just when she was in the Black Panther Party, but her also teaching at Yale. Some of these people have been with me since I was an adult. They have been around me most since out of the organization. The organization is gone. I was around them when I was younger. The organizations shutdown and I am still around them as an activist.  

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