Monday’s New York Times carried a story of epochal significance: the town pool of Stonewall, Mississippi, which had been filled with dirt to avoid integrating it in the 1970s, is being excavated and reopened for the benefit of the entire community, black and white.
More than 20 years ago, my partner and I were hired by a state arts agency in the deep South to work with arts centers and other cultural groups in small towns. The problem was presented was “burn-out.” Although the state made funds available for public-spirited citizens who wanted to offer concerts or workshops or exhibitions to the residents of their rural communities, it was tough for them to persist, let alone succeed. Most of those who took on the job gave up after a year or two, citing frustration and fatigue.
From our past experience in other parts of the country, we formed hunches about the nature of the problem—too much work, too few workers, mistaken ideas about how to interest people, misguided snobbery and so on. But every community is different, so before we visited, we learned as much about each one as could be known at a distance, reading histories and guidebooks, compiling an archive of the arts organizers’ work, obtaining packets from local chambers of commerce and consulting demographic information from the census bureau.
This is all surface stuff, what Isaiah Berlin has termed the “clear layer” of human experience. But as everyone knows, you can’t tell a book by its cover. When we visited, we tried to read between the lines, beginning with a series of confidential interviews. We sought individuals who were active in the arts group; those they identified as key to what happens in the community, whose participation influenced others; and those who caused their biggest headaches with the loudest and most insistent criticism.
Interviews started with innocuous questions. What do you like about living here? What do you like to do with your free time? When interviewees relaxed, we tried to engage their imaginations: if you could change one thing about this town, what would it be? If money were no object, what kind of program would you love to see? Finally we asked about problems. Who doesn’t take part? Why? The people who aren’t involved in the arts group, what do you think they might say about it? Piece by piece, we were able to construct what anthropologist Clifford Geertz dubbed a “thick description” of community cultural life, a mosaic or collage of diverse accounts informed by the individual and social contexts of their authors.
We learned as much from what people didn’t say as from what they did. In one small town, the most frequent answer to “What do people like to do around here?” was “Nothing.” “What about going to the movies?” we asked. “What about swimming in summertime?” The movie theater stood vacant on Main Street, its facade boarded-up. As for the swimming pool, we were told, “They had to cement it over.”
Racism caused the end of these public amenities. Integration had come very late to parts of the South, many years after the Supreme Court decisions that heralded the end of official segregation. In this town, when the final integration order came, the movie theater had been shut down to prevent blacks and whites from sitting side-by-side. When we asked why “they had to” fill in the municipal pool, we learned the reason was the same—to obliterate the possibility of black and white bodies gliding through the water side-by-side.
Responding to our questions about where concerts and the like were held, someone slipped and said “At the black…I mean the public high school.” When integration came, most white parents withdrew their children, creating jerry-rigged schools known as “Christian academies.” These shoestring schools were practically amenity-free: no sports, no band, no foreign language instruction, no art classes. Some of the local Christian academy’s high school seniors confided worries about competing in college with students who’d had the benefit of public schooling with its electives and extracurricular activities. The clash of values seemed stark: for their parents, preventing their kids from interacting with African Americans took precedence over the quality of education.
Active members of the African-American community were perpetually frustrated that resources were controlled so tightly by the largely white power-structure. The added irony was that with integration, public school budgets had been cut: many black teachers and administrators lost their jobs, while black students lost access to the culture of mutual support that had marked their segregated education, even while their texts, buildings and opportunities had been inferior to those provided to white students.
We were impressed by how strongly racial prejudice had shaped this small town’s reality. Most white residents seemed unable to apprehend the reality of their communities, blinded by a veil of baseless hatred; most black residents seemed to internalize the powerless view of their community held by town leaders. How deep did the distortion go? We started asking our interviewees about the population breakdown, black and white. We knew from census figures that at least 70 percent of that county’s population was African American. Occasionally, someone who worked in a population-based program (such as an economic development agency) would approximate an accurate reading. But the vast majority of people, black and white alike, skewed population figures toward an imagined white majority. In fact, most of the white people turned the actual figures on their head, estimating the county’s population as 70 percent white, papering an ideologically constructed reality over the too-threatening facts.
We returned to the state capital, reporting to the state arts agency that the diagnosis of “burn-out” had been notably incomplete, that racial politics played a huge role in the failure of their small-town arts programs. Local arts organizers could put out flyers all day every day, but they had no impact on segregationist decisions that virtually obliterated the public square—the open, inviting, universal cultural space—in which people could come together to participate in the community’s cultural life. It was a tough conversation, the first of many, exposing prejudices and barriers within the agency that had blinded its leaders to the cultural cost of racism.
The town described in the Times‘ story is different in some ways, but the underlying failures of social imagination and empathy are the same. Obviously—surreally—keeping the pool closed for thirty years was thirty years too long. But opening it at all is a story worth telling.