IN 1965 when the Watts riots erupted in Los Angeles, Henry Louis Gates Jr. was a teenager at a racially mixed Episcopal church summer camp in West Virginia. Suddenly the ease he had known in growing up with white children and teenagers in Piedmont, a West Virginia hill town, went thunk when news of the rioting reached the camp.
Gates writes that for everybody there, ``we had suddenly to remember that our roles were scripted by that larger context.''
This larger context of black and white relations in the United States is not so much the subject of ``Colored People,'' an engaging, down-home memoir by Gates, who is the author of three other books and the chairman of the Afro-American studies department at Harvard University. Rather, Gates is writing with infectious love and humor about his childhood in the heart of a big family in a town where the civil-rights movement ``was almost like a war being fought overseas,'' he says.
It is a marvelous, rhythmic, and warm memoir, full of wonderful people, family customs, anecdotes, and foibles as Gates reveals his childhood with candor and a retrospection that says he knows how good it was even if the town wasn't ``integrated.'' Gates offers a celebration of a small-town black family, a culture curiously self-contained, and proud of it. While the black economic system kept blacks in the shadow of whites, the social context in which they lived was not nearly as severe as in other southern towns.
But it is the ``script'' of racial segregation that Melba Pattillo Beals courageously challenged head-on in a harrowing year as a 15-year-old girl, one of nine black teenagers who tried to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.
Beals's story, ``Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High,'' is a powerful, chilling account of what it was like to endure howling, redneck mobs, to be attacked physically and verbally, to be shot at, and to be continually hated and threatened. With an anchoring belief in God, and a rocklike grandmother and mother who kept Beals aware of the spiritual reasons she was enduring the trial by fire, Beals and her family endured.
Her grandmother, ``Grandma India,'' had a shotgun named ``Mr. Higgenbottom,'' which she held on her lap persuasively at home when key moments arose, and fired twice in retaliation when Beals's house was fired upon one evening.
``God's warriors don't cry,'' Grandma said at one point to the young girl who later told her diary in frustration, ``Please God, let me learn how to stop being a warrior. Sometimes I just need to be a girl.''
Without question, it is Beals's inner strength, determination, and intelligence that allowed her to stay cool under attack every day. The young girl knew how to effectively absorb the strong support of her family.
Unknown to her family, Beals had signed an application saying she wanted to attend all-white Central High. With the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Thurgood Marshall (then a civil-rights lawyer), and President Eisenhower calling in several thousand soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division to protect the black students, Beals got her wish in the early days of the civil-rights movement.
Segregationists, from Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus on down, hounded, pummeled, threatened, spit on, stabbed, threw acid at, slapped, and punched Beals and the other black students on a daily basis. Many of the incidents occurred while members of the Arkansas National Guard looked on in the halls of the high school and did nothing, as did most teachers.
The first day was a foretaste of what was to come. Outside the school, a mob had gathered, shouting racial slurs. Inside was chaos. ``[T]he niggers are in here,'' one girl shouted. With tacit National Guard protection, students easily hit and spit on Beals.
Later in the day she and the other black students had to be spirited away in cars as the mobs broke through barricades, and policemen removed their badges in support. The mob turned on white reporters from the North and beat them.
Because Beals's experience was physically dangerous and always threatening, in retrospect it is a wonder that the black adults allowed their children to face the mob. Beals writes that had she been an adult that first day when a howling mob at the high school greeted the black teenagers in a car, she would have driven away.
But all were on an inexorable path of the ``larger context'' that pushed the civil-rights movement forward. Beals's mother, despite her concern, later talked about the ``tug to go forward from some divine source.'' Beals writes, ``we kept thinking each moment, each hour, each day, that things would get better, that these people would come to their senses and behave.'' They didn't.
The following year Gov. Faubus shut down the high school. Not until 1960 did it reopen with two blacks in attendance.