by Glen Shuld $14.95; Amazon; 438 pages
The theory behind integration was simple. If we give Black and white students the chance to be their best selves and to become friends, racism will slowly disappear. But sometimes, things aren't that easy.
Glen Shuld's book The Color of Character is a fictional, somewhat autobiographical, illustration of the Chicago-area Hampden Junior High in the 1970s, and its integration of Black and Jewish students from the neighboring cities of Hampden and Michigami.
Throughout the book, the main character, Glen, often noted the problematic behavior of several of his Black classmates. Glen said, "They regularly knocked us around, blocked our paths, and overtly intimidated us." Even some of their Black peers were subjected to names like "Oreo" or "Uncle Tom." Such acts of violence grew much worse over time. And the white adults seemed unable, or unwilling, to address the situation. As Glen said, they "bought into, or feared opposing the trending idea that the traditional methods of teaching and controlling behavior carried with it a serious risk of damaging the fragile self-esteem of budding hooligans."
In addition, messages created with the best of intentions only seemed to make matters worse. Glen said, "They were absorbing increasingly loud and repetitive messages of Black pride, Black power, and Black identity, with little direction accompanying these messages, and no guidance on how to apply them positively in school or elsewhere."
For Glen personally, the situation was even more complex. As a gay person, Glen had always harbored guilt over his male fantasies. And, as a Jew, he had grown up discussing social justice issues and remembering the devastating events of the Holocaust. "If they had been taught these facts [about the Holocaust]" he said, "the more hostile Blacks who saw each of us as no better than an Alabama sheriff, might've realized we weren't the enemy."
In the end, the integration of Hampden Junior High seemed to cause racism rather than dissipate it. Even among Blacks, there was a general mistrust of Hampden's Black population. As Glen said, "There are a growing number of middle-class Blacks who don't want their children going to the crime ridden, city schools populated by other Blacks."
The book's constant positive is Glen's Black housekeeper Melva, who, along with his Black teacher Mr. Wendell, is held largely responsible for preventing him from being consumed by hatred and prejudice. "It wasn't the day-to-day interaction with my Black peers that kept my bigoted laughter in check" Glen said, "but rather my admiration and love for our cleaning woman."
The Color of Character greatly complicates the issue of race and isn't afraid to ask difficult or taboo questions. It makes you challenge long-held beliefs and behaviors, and keeps you thinking long after you've finished reading it. But you don't have to take my word for it.
The Color of Character is currently available for purchase on Amazon.