Daily Archives: October 14, 2009

Dave Burk’s alleged prejudice, Terrence Roberts’ memoir


Terrence Roberts' memoir sheds lights on current issues of race and homphobia.

Terrence Roberts' memoir sheds lights on current issues of race and homphobia.

President Obama’s election last year elicited many assertions that we are now a ‘post-racial’ society.

Would that it were so.

As the flap about Geneva High School teacher Dave Burk’s alleged comment to a class about ‘black fags’ shows, racism and homophobia are far from vanquished in American society.

Student Jordan Hunter, who came out last year, has filed a complaint against Burk, whose lawyer says he is cooperating fully with authorities. 

In some ways, the incident illustrates both how far our nation has come and how much work on these issues yet remains to be done. 

Terrence Roberts’ recently published memoir, Lessons from Little Rock, provides valuable perspective on our nation’s tortured and fitfully forward moving path on race and other issues of diversity as well as riveting detail about the courage he and other members of the Little Rock Nine displayed in their successful effort to desegregate Central High School more than 50 years ago.

Much love and gratitude to Dunreith for getting me a copy of the book.  

At this point, the experiences of the Little Rock Nine have been widely chronicled.  Starting with Melba Pattillo Beals’ Warriors Don’t Cry, several of the nine black students have written memoirs.  Elizabeth Jacoway has written Turn Away Thy Son, a scholarly and personal account of the year.  And many civil rights histories describe the horrific and daily abuse to which Roberts and the other eight students were subjected.  

With such an already crowded field, it might appear that there is little to add to the conversation, but Roberts finds plenty.

His work is distinctive for several features.  To begin, he has a lengthy description of his life and family before his junior year at Central High, painting a loving portrait of his mother and six siblings.  This is an important section because it reminds the reader both of the sources of his strength of character and of the importance of not defining his childhood solely by this single year, as significant as it was.

Roberts also continues the story after the 1957 school year, when Gov. Orval Faubus made the decision to close all Little Rock high schools rather than permit continued integration.  The book contains a depiction of his work 40 years later as a desegregation for the Little Rock public schools, an opinion piece he wrote for a local newspaper in 1997, the text of a speech he gave introducing then-President Clinton and brief descriptions of the other members of the nine.  

I’ve had the privilege and honor of meeting Roberts through Dunreith’s work at Facing History, and he writes very much like he talks, with insight, attention to detail, humor and vision.  He relates in the book anecdotes of survival, non-violence and self defense that inspire, and even awe, the reader. 

Roberts closes the book with the following statement,

“We must continue to find ways to extricate ourselves from the bondage of racism and our tendency to discriminate based on race.  Successful eradication of all vestiges of this cancerous growth on our society will not be easy, nor will there always be obvious road signs on our journey … Do we have the motivation or desire to accomplish this feat?  This is the first question, and it must be answered in the affirmative if we are to realize even one fraction of the goal before us.  Certainly it will not be an assignment for the weak of heart or those with doubt-filled minds.  But if the true visionaries up take up the challenge, we can find a way to make it happen.”

Roberts’ stirring words bring us back to Burk and Geneva High School and Jordan Hunter.  As a former adviser to Longmeadow High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance, I know how much courage it takes for a young person to come out to his peers, let alone take the stand that Hunter is taking in calling for Burk’s removal.

Roberts’ memoir reminds us of America’s dark racial past and fitful progress, while his closing question gives us a way to understand the current situation and Hunter’s courageous action.