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12 April 2019 THIS PROMISE OF CHANGE: ONE GIRL’S STORY IN THE FIGHT FOR SCHOOL EQUALITY by Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy, Bloomsbury, January 2019, 320p., ISBN: 978-1-68119-852-1


“You made me promises promises

Knowing I’d believe

Promises promises

You knew you’d never keep”

-- Burt Bacharach and Hal David (1968)


“Americans, and higher-income whites in particular, vastly overestimate progress toward economic equality between blacks and whites...Americans believe that blacks and whites are more equal today than they truly are on measures of income, wealth, wages and health benefits. And they believe more historical progress has occurred than is the case, suggesting ‘a profound misperception of and unfounded optimism’ regarding racial equality.

‘It seems that we’ve convinced ourselves-- and by “we” I mean Americans writ at large--that racial discrimination is a thing of the past...We’ve literally overcome it, so to speak, despite blatant evidence to the contrary.’”

-- New York Times, “Whites Have Huge Wealth Edge Over Blacks (but Don’t Know It)” (9/18/17)




Some days,

Bobby Cain and I walk home from school together

to Jarnigan Street,

437 for me, 434 for him.

We set out, talking about the day.

Was it a better day than yesterday?

Was it worse?

Either way, it’s a nice walk.


I know that Bobby wanted to keep going

to Austin High in Knoxville,

to have this year, his senior year, at a place

that was familiar and friendly to him,

even if it was a long ride away,

but the desegregation order came down,

and Clinton High became his school.

It’s hard for him,

harder for him than for me and the others,

because the people who hate

that we’re in classes with students

at Clinton High School

hate even more

the idea of a Negro student graduating

with the white students.


So Bobby gets more of the bad--

name-calling, threats, shoving, spitting.

I know he thought of quitting

during those first few days,

but if the people who attacked him

in the ruckus at the Richy Kreme

thought they would scare him away,

they were wrong.

Since then he is like a rock,

not only still here,

but solid and strong and determined,

a hero in the making,

not that I would say that to him.

He would think I was exaggerating

or teasing

or, maybe, flirting,

and I am not flirting with Bobby Cain.

I am listening to his soft talk

of his hard days

on our nice walk.”


I can’t remember anything of 1956, the year during which THIS PROMISE OF CHANGE takes place. I was a toddler in diapers. But my memories begin soon thereafter. Fifties rock and roll. Black and white TVs. Huge cushy cars with none of today’s aerodynamic styling. Yo-yos and hula hoops. The milkman delivering milk in glass bottles to a little box on the front steps.


It feels miraculous when I contemplate the technological progress that has taken place over my lifetime. I sit here with my Chromebook and iPhone, an information specialist with the world at my fingertips. I’m old enough to remember bicycling to the library, paging through the enormous Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, scribbling down citations on little pieces of paper, handing them to the reference librarian, then taking a stack of newspapers and magazines to a table and poring through them to end up with an answer or a quotation. Now I sit here with my screens and achieve better results in far less time than it took the ten year-old me just to put on my sneakers and get my blue Stingray bike out of the garage.


But not everything changes, and that’s why reading THIS PROMISE OF CHANGE, an exceptional verse novel about the desegregation of Tennessee’s Clinton High School in 1956, made me really angry. It once again reminds me that while we’ve sent people to the moon, space probes to the far reaches of the galaxy, can now live half of our lives online, and are on the verge of driverless cars, we still can’t get a grip on treating people fairly, treating everyone in the same manner as we would want to be treated. Or trying to make up a bit for how long we, and previous generations, have let this go on.


When I put myself in the shoes of today’s black Americans, knowing what I do in this era of Black Lives Matter, the American Dream still feels like an unfulfilled promise or, at best, a half-filled promise.


I wasn’t surprised by the vile words and horrific actions depicted in THIS PROMISE OF CHANGE. I’ve encountered comparable bad behavior portrayed in umpteen number of books covering the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. I still, far too often, read about the racism today.


And I’ve never forgotten about the house under construction in my LI suburban neighborhood, during my blue Stingray days, that was firebombed--twice--because of who it was being built for.


I’ve been upset for a long time about those unfulfilled promises.


And it still gets me right there, reading about the pain Jo Ann Allen and her eleven brave classmates endured in 1956 after a federal judge ruled that, as per the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, Clinton High School was to be desegregated. Jo Ann and the other eleven black children had, until then, been forced to take a long bus ride over to Knoxville to attend the nearest negro high school.


Now, in the fall of 1956, they simply had to walk down the hill from their neighborhood into town. Of course, they had to walk past swarms of adults who were cursing them out and throwing things at them in order to reach a school where, every single day, they were tripped, shoved, cursed, and told to go elsewhere. When a white minister took up their cause, that man of God was nearly killed by a vengeful white mob.


Reading about what happened in 1956 really shook me up. It’s disgusting.


It’s America.


For all that has changed since 1956, the change promised has yet to arrive.


But THIS PROMISE OF CHANGE, a riveting piece of American history that is co-written by one of the participants, and which deftly employs a variety of poetic forms, is a fantastic read.


Richie Partington, MLIS

Richie's Pickshttp://richiespicks.pbworks.com





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