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The hues of struggle for equal education

By Trudy C. Palmer / June 3, 1999



WHITE IS A STATE OF MIND By Melba Pattillo Beals Penguin 338 pp. $23.95

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A speedy spiritual journey" - that's how Grandma India describes Melba Beals's 1957 experience integrating Central High in Little Rock, Ark. "At Central you've learned that you can turn the other cheek and survive," she goes on. "You've learned to trust God and yourself, and child, this experience has put a core of steel in your spine that will make you strong forever."

It's true. Risking her life for an education equal to that which her white peers take for granted has, indeed, steeled Beals for whatever trouble lies ahead. How well it has prepared her for freedom is another question altogether.

Following her critically successful memoir, "Warriors Don't Cry" (1994), "White Is a State of Mind" provides another autobiographical look at the struggle to integrate education in the United States. It is more of a personal journey than a social documentary. Beals chronicles her mental adjustments as she moves from danger to safety, from narrowness to breadth, from fear to freedom. The account could benefit from pruning. Nevertheless, some readers will find edification in the text; others, validation.

The book opens in August 1958 as Beals awaits word whether the government will afford her yet another "speedy spiritual journey" in the upcoming school year. The answer is no. Instead, after a year-long wait during which Beals is out of school and her grandmother dies, Beals's mother learns of threats on her daughter's life - threats backed by a $10,000 reward.

Forty-eight hours later, Beals is on a plane to Santa Rosa, Calif., a world as different in many ways from Little Rock as is the color white from black.

Eventually, with the help of the all-white Santa Rosa NAACP, Beals moves in with the only family who will house her, the McCabes. There she is accepted as one of them and learns not only that there are more varieties of white than those who hated her in Little Rock, but also that there is more to life than struggle.

One of the more poignant life-lessons Beals learns is that fun doesn't just happen. She observes that her white peers "were very serious about making sure their lives were entertaining." The idea of arranging to have fun is a new concept for Beals. As she explains, "I had never observed my group of relatives planning fun."

Of course, it's not easy to have fun when you're the new kid in school, 3,000 miles from home, black in a sea of whiteness, and unfamiliar with the pastimes and privileges of your peer group. As a result, Beals doesn't, in fact, have much fun in Santa Rosa. But she does have a chance to relax, to stop fearing for her life. Equally important, she has a chance to observe freedom in action - the freedom to plan fun, for instance.

As Beals moves from the McCabes's on to college and through a brief marriage, her acquaintance with freedom grows. She comes to recognize and desire, even demand, it. Beals points out one day, "You don't have to be white to be free.... White is a state of mind." Truer words were never spoken - maybe.

You don't have to be white to be free. And, certainly, being white is no guarantee of freedom. One wonders, though, about Beals's shorthand. By choosing white to symbolize freedom, she leaves its opposite, black, to represent oppression. For my taste, Grandma India's color-free phrasing states the case more accurately. "Freedom is a state of mind, girl," she had told Beals. "It's your God-given right."

*Trudy C. Palmer taught African-American literature at Tufts University.