Create a free Diverse: Issues In Higher Education account to continue reading

River deep, mountain high: modern-day griots pass on ways to hurdle racism

I’ve Known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation, by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Penguin Books (New York), 1995, 644 pp., $14.95 (U.S.), $19.99 (Canada) softcover

There exists one book, which, to my taste, furnishes the happiest treatise of natural education. What then is this marvelous book?

–Jean Jacques Rousseau

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s “I’ve Known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation” is the 20th-century answer to Rousseau’s 18th-century question, “What is this marvelous book?” After considering the works of Aristotle, Pliny and Buffon, Rousseau wrote in “On Education” that he decided on Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe.”

A wise choice, however, for today’s readers — particularly African Americans seeking that evanescent formula for success, and others who do not shun the periphery of voyeurism to gain insight — is Lawrence-Lightfoot’s collection of case studies of six achievers who have successfully negotiated the currents and undertows of the American dream. Assuming the posture of a social scientist, she acts as a recorder of testimony about human survival and a conduit for the griot-like conveying of wisdom to forward generations.

In her lightly edited transcriptions of their stories or “lessons,” Lawrence-Lightfoot presents a nearly scientific sampling of three women and three men — all African American — who have made it, often against considerable odds. They have bared their lives, suggests Lawrence-Lightfoot, so that others might learn the strokes critical in swimming America’s turbulent tributaries of racism, self-hatred and poverty.

Several of Lawrence-Lightfoot’s modern-day griots convey their knowledge of the treacherous currents of racism through tales of tragedy and survival. Katie Cannon, a professor of theology and a Presbyterian minister, for example, provides one of the cruelest lessons learned about the vortex of racism. Through the true story of five-year-old Donnary Butler, her favorite student in a North Carolina Head Start program where she was a teacher early in her career, Cannon recounts how the youngster was enticed into a lake “for whites only” by older, white boys who let him drown because they thought it was fun. According to Cannon, “Nobody did a thing because Black people knew nothing would be done [by the authorities]”.

The griot’s (Cannon’s) admonition is that, even at the age of five, Donnary should have known better. In a society where African Americans are “not counted or treasured in the same way as white lives,” parents are obligated to pass on a healthy suspicion requisite for survival, a “jungle posture” that will empower their offspring to navigate America’s minefields. A dictum worthy of Aesop’s pen is Cannon’s overriding message that “[n]aivete has never been our privilege.”

`Healthy Paranoia’ Needed

Griot Orlando Bagwell, filmmaker of such documentaries as “Eyes on the Prize” and “Make it Plain,” relates a personal tale of survival in an unprovoked attack by whites in South Boston, and of the courage that he eventually summoned to testify against his attackers. As a substitute history and political science teacher, who had temporarily let down his “jungle posture” while walking from his assigned school, Bagwell was pummeled, kicked and stomped by a mob of white men and boys who fully intended to kill him. Passing cars stopped during his ordeal, not to help but to watch. A city bus driver, forced to Bagwell’s rescue, drove a bus into the crowd, moved the people back and called to Bagwell to “Grab on!” Bagwell’s experience made him recognize for the first time in his life a disturbing reality: “[Racist] people will kill you for no reason.”

Bagwell’s memoirs about the virulence of color prejudice also include classroom experiences. He recalls, in particular, his seventh-grade teacher who was both crude and insensitive in presenting a lesson plan designed to “miseducate” him: “Not only would she denigrate Orlando’s efforts in the classroom; she would use stereotypical images and humiliating caricatures when she talked about history or culture or politics.” When the teacher engaged the class in singing slave songs, such as “Old Black Joe” or “Swanee River,” she would break into discourse about “darkies” and emotionally bait the 12-year-old Bagwell to choose between silence and rage. In tacit agreement with Bagwell, griots Cheryle Wills, the entrepreneur, and Tony Earls, a Harvard professor and psychiatrist, also emphasize the “awareness, preparedness, skepticism and `healthy paranoia’ that Blacks need to develop in order to survive” encounters with racism.

Intra-racial Stratifications

Another treacherous tributary about which several of Lawrence-Lightfoot’s griots caution readers is the self-hatred that stems from the turbulence of American racism. The narrators delineate intraracial color bias as an undertow which disables creative talent and potential in ways parallel to interracial prejudice. Cannon, for example, recalls childhood experiences which clearly signaled that the “hierarchies of color were everywhere: in the ability grouping of children for reading and math in grading patterns … in assumptions about intellectual abilities and achievement potential … in the images the Black school tried to convey to the white community.” Cannon recalls that when a white visitor came to her school, only the light-skinned children would be paraded and allowed in their company, while the darker ones “would be kept safely out of view.”

With wise deliberation. Lawrence-Lightfoot allows her narrators to show that the damage of self-hatred is pervasive in the African-American struggle toward “the dream.” Former nun, research chemist and university dean, Toni Schiesler seems the most “damaged” by intra-racial stratifications Throughout Schiesler’s narrative, deliberate color distinctions in her descriptions of beautiful women pervade and are so consistent that even Lawrence-Lightfoot, the objective scientist at inquiry, is struck that Schiesler’s aesthetics for beauty are “often linked with their fairness.” Particularly ripe with the current of intra-racial bias is Schiesler’s experiences as a cloistered nun in the Oblate community.

Although the cloistered life shielded her from some of the racial warfare in the real world, it did not protect Schiesler from the color castes within the convent … the hierarchies of color were rigorously drawn and rarely challenged. Light-skinned nuns dominated the elite positions, while dark-skinned sisters had to be extraordinarily talented to counteract their assumed low status. Even though their hair was always cropped and their heads covered, everyone knew who was blessed with “good hair” and who was cursed with thick “nappy hair.”

Despite the fact that Schiesler has subliminally absorbed the aesthetics of America, she is keenly aware of the contradictions of self-hatred and is saddened by the creative talent she has seen undermined and throttled because of it. Her history unveils the “insidious hierarchies of color within the convent” which prevented more talented nuns opportunities because they were dark, and encouraged those obviously less talented to greater opportunities because they were light. Both Cannon’s and Schiesler’s narratives deftly weave the message that the African American’s greatest obstacle toward achievement is often himself, like a “transplant” re-rooted and misled into embracing and feeding on the lethal “values” of the limed soil into which it has been thrust.

The contradictions of self-hatred are both hysterical and heart-rending as they weave and wind through observations like those of Cheryle Wills who believed that her brother, Eddie, was a Black Panther but knew that Black women were “definitely not his type,” or of Tony Earls, who at a particular interim, dated several single, Black women but chose to marry a white divorcee with a child from her previous marriage.

In her successfully pragmatic integration of memory and life, Lawrence-Lightfoot’s I’ve Known Rivers is the kind of work that grabs one by the collar and jerks the reader forward. Her “griot’s compendium” teaches not only how to achieve the American dream, but also the responsibility inherent in passing the baton forward. Its truths reveal that education can be asylum or abyss, talent credited or crushed, aesthetics self-defined or mimicked and confidence cultivated or crippled. Its accumulated experiences provide, like American slave narratives, instructive tales of cunning and survival. As their expressed desire at middle age to “pass the baton on,” these achievers’ 20th-century narratives are revealed from the heart and gut to further “individual empowerment, community building and cultural transmission” of a people’s underlying legacy.

The book is definitely a good read, but at more than 600 pages, better editing would render it more palatable. In an effort to cull narratives by which she could establish and discuss parallels, the author wears her reader down with jarring repetitions. The circular structure she uses for the narrative flow is effective for several of the accounts in bringing the “social scientist” back to the point where she began the interview, but a clean cut of at least 30 pages of rehashed, narrative segments — as well as attention to disconcerting errors such as surname misspellings of well-known individuals — would render the edition better chiseled. Still, despite superfluous summations at the end and infrequent inattention to detail, the reader will find the wade through Lawrence-Lightfoot’s Rivers warm and worthy.

Dr. Linda Quillan is Professor of English at the University of the District of Columbia.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

© Copyright 2005 by

A New Track: Fostering Diversity and Equity in Athletics
American sport has always served as a platform for resistance and has been measured and critiqued by how it responds in critical moments of racial and social crises.
Read More
A New Track: Fostering Diversity and Equity in Athletics