Culture clashes at integrated school
Love argues that integration plans did not account for aesthetics, such as the appearance of invitations to school events or the kind of band selected for a school dance. When students discussed these choices, they often disagreed along racial lines and African American students found themselves defending the legitimacy of their cultural traditions. That West Charlotte was historically an all-black school strengthened black students' hand in those conversations.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with John Love, February 17, 1999. Interview K-0172. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Full Text of the Excerpt
PG: Well, as president of the student council when you were, were there issues that you had to resolve? Were there situations that came up that you were challenged to find solutions to?
JL: Yeah. My whole way of looking at it was, because, of course, I alone never made any decisions, and nobody in government does, but in terms of sort of being a leader in that particular situation, my whole thing was to lay everything out and assess what’s fair and what’s right given my own paradigm that I’m living in and existing in at the time. And then being brave enough to do what you think is right or fair. And sometimes people liked it, and sometimes people didn’t, but I always knew that people enjoyed it when you tried to please them, but that was never the first and foremost thing, or first and foremost part of my agenda was to try to please everybody. Yeah, so there were things that happened, but in terms of policies that govern how the school is run, usually students are put in a very reactionary position because nobody really consults us about those things. Now and then we would act, especially as seniors, our senior year there were things little things, like how the invitations would look, and the design of them. Things like that, which is back to students trying to have a voice, and teachers saying, “Well, it’s been done like this before, and we’re going to do it like this now.” Now what does come in is that when you come from different cultures, there are different aesthetics that you respond to. So I do remember conversations or voting things that would happen, and most of the white kids would vote for one thing and most of the black kids would vote for another thing, so it was very clear to me and to everybody else that that rift or disagreement or separation of the ways was just about coming from different cultures.
PG: What would be an example of something?
JL: I think there was one thing that happened even with the invitations. It came up about the invitations and how they looked, and one of the Caucasian students said, “Well, I just think we should go with something more traditional.” My response was, “In whose tradition?” because there was that whole thing about the assumptions that this white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant aesthetic is the tradition for all. And so we were sort of ( on it enough), and savvy enough to say no, no, no, no, no. There are other traditions. What are you talking about? And so things like that would happen, and then everybody would take a vote, and then we’d see what it was that we wanted. But that kind of battle was something that I knew would be going on for a long time when you talk about validating or invalidating cultures, or where people come from. So, yeah, those were actually, I think, the manifestation of a lot of the struggles. Whenever you start talking about the beauty aesthetic, from fashion to the way people wear their hair, to the way that people speak or talk or raise their hand in class, or communicate with somebody else, you’re talking about cultures, and how people were raised, and what they latch onto. And then you get into people being sensitive about, “Are you implying that what I do is wrong and has always been wrong?” And those are usually kind of core, hot bed issues when you start talking about any kind of difference. And when the whole desegregation/integration thing started, when you talk about the school arena, those issues never really had to be dealt with face to face in things that you take for granted, like how are the invitations going to look or who’s going to be the band at the dance? But then when you have these people from these kind of polar cultures being in the same place, and then you want everybody to feel like they belong, or everybody wants to feel like they belong and that they participate. But at the core it’s about being validated.
PG: You said you knew this was going to be a long battle, did you feel that this was in some ways a kind of battle to in a way educate people? Were you educating people, white students about things they didn’t know?
JL: Hum. I don’t know if I was that presumptuous. [JL laughs.] I don’t know if any of us were that presumptuous. It was more than us feeling like we were educating. I think, for me, it was feeling like fighting for recognition that this is valid. But also, people would say when you’re part of the dominant culture, or the culture that is considered dominant, then you often times don’t necessarily have to understand what is happening with the culture that is not dominant. But, when you’re a part of the oppressed culture in whatever way, as a matter of survival a) you learn to understand and figure out what is going on with the dominant culture, and then you also have no choice because the dominant culture mores and ways of being and thinking and doing are pretty much crammed down your throat twenty-four/seven. So, when you’ve got this integration process happening and you’ve got the ratio basically being fifty-fifty, the paradigm has shifted. So sometimes if things were a little more benevolent it may have been education and trying to teach and facilitate someone’s learning about our culture. But often times it was a bit of a battle. And it was about standing up for what your culture is, or what it is that you believe, or your way of doing things, or you and your friends’ way of doing things without apology.
PG: Do you think that in those battles or whatever you want to call them, that it was helpful to you to be at West Charlotte High School where your tradition was in a way the dominant tradition?
JL: Oh yeah. Very much so. Very, very much so. Because for a school like West Charlotte--say you take the band uniforms. You see any uniform that comes from any school and it says so much about the school to a community way beyond what the school is. But say you look at those band uniforms, and the present design of the band uniforms was based on the design of the uniforms that came before, which was based on the design of the uniforms that came before that, which was based on the design of the uniforms that came before that. Well, if you’re a part of that culture then you have an understanding of the history of those uniforms and what it means, and your attachment to it is different. You see what I’m saying? So, you have a different kind of power. And you certainly have more of a leg to stand on just psychologically and emotionally if some debate happens about what the uniform should be. And if someone says, “Well, in the tradition of _____.” Well, this particular tradition was not a white tradition. It didn’t spring from that. It sprang from something different. And so usually people in our culture who open up their mouths and say that phrase, “Well, in the tradition of _____,” it’s not usually African Americans. So being at West Charlotte and the paradigm shifting in that way was certainly special.