I’ve never before tried to participate in a book club with strangers, but this book really caught my attention, so I decided to join a book club. The Office of Institutional Diversity at the college where I work hosts a diversity-related book club twice per year. This semester, they timed the book club meetings to coincide with Black History Month and selected this fascinating book that discusses the lives of the women pictured–what’s happened to them over the past fifty-five years?–within the context of race relations in America. I’m about three-quarters of the way through the book, and I think it’s an amazing read.
In my last post, I mentioned all the photos I had on my wall when I was a teenager, including a photo of Elizabeth and Hazel taken on September 4, 1957. David Margolick’s book focuses on a view of that moment captured by photographer Will Counts. The photo I had on my wall was by Johnny Jenkins, and it showed the same scene from a different perspective about a second or two before Will Counts snapped his famous photo.
This is the photo I had pinned to my wall (above). In it, Hazel Bryan is just another member of the crowd of angry white people. Now check out Will Counts’ version of the photo.
In Will Counts’ version, Hazel Bryan is the central figure, and she seems to be the only member of the crowd around Elizabeth Eckford who is angry about Elizabeth’s attempt at integration. From this angle, the leering lady that I mentioned in my last post is completely blocked from view by Elizabeth. There’s no one to distract the viewer from Hazel’s expression of distaste and hatred. It isn’t accurate, really, to say that Hazel became the accidental villain. After all, she was present among the mob that day, and she did shout rather horrible things at Elizabeth. But a picture only tells a certain story, locked in time, unchanging, and this picture tells a very different story from the other image (Jenkins’) shown above.
We all do plenty of stupid things when we are young. Most of the pictures I have of myself from the time just show an extremely awkward child who is uncomfortable in her own skin, but there are moments of my life that, if captured by photo, could haunt me more powerfully than they currently do, muffled as they are by those distorters: time and memory. What if there had been a photographer to catch that moment in eighth grade when twenty (or forty?) girls surrounded me and threatened me because I was wearing a pale blue denim dress and pigtail braids–a very Little House on the Prairie homage. The only girl from that crowd that I can remember with any sort of distinctness was dressed in white leggings and a black t-shirt. Normally I might not recollect someone’s sartorial choices, but under those white leggings the girl was wearing bright green underpants, and they showed. The idea that someone whose own clothing choice was so awful would shout at and threaten me for my own, admittedly odd, clothing choice always struck me as being an important point to remember. In my life, that moment stands out as memorable because it demonstrates that people really do fear those who are different and that a mob mentality can break out no matter how apparently innocuous the cause. A photo of that moment might not tell the same story. It just so happens that I am white and that all the girls who stood in that crowd are black. Maybe none of the undercurrents, the bits that seem so important to me because I was there and am aware of them, would show in the photograph. Maybe for the rest of my life I would be that girl in the photo, unable to change or grow, when, in reality, I am so much more.
I suppose I identify with both Elizabeth and Hazel because they have at least one thing in common: they are both forever stuck in that photograph, in that moment in time when they were fifteen, in that image that only tells one tiny part of the whole story of that day.
Regarding the book club, it is so odd to me to actively participate in a discussion with a bunch of people that I don’t know. I have grown accustomed to stifling my personality and remaining silent when among strangers for fear that they would misunderstand me (Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood) and take offense where none was meant or belittle me for being different. I am still that girl who stood in the middle of that crowd and didn’t back down, but I have learned to be wary. I am so sick of that wariness, so sick of being afraid of people, of being unable to trust that adults don’t act like twelve-year-olds. The book club is a challenge, but so far it’s going OK. There are definitely a few women in that room who have taken a dislike to me, but there are also a few women (and one man) who feel positively towards me, despite my opinions and decisive manner of speaking.
I was trying to make this post less of a downer than the previous one, but I’m not quite sure that I succeeded.