by Shanta Nurullah
Looking at high school yearbooks, Shanta reflects on the “change” in her neighborhood from mostly white to all black. As a child, Shanta could not understand when the adults told her “the white people are running away from us”. Even as an adult with a larger understanding of the times – blockbusting and other societal and economic pressures – the sting of being “the other” remains.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Looking-at-My-Yearbooks
- What stories can photo albums or school yearbooks tell you about the people in your family or neighborhood?
- How do you feel when you realize that someone doesn’t like you?
- What keeps you strong when you’re in uncomfortable situations?
- How does your family influence your ideas and feelings about people from different backgrounds or cultures?
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- The Bluest Eye by Tony Morrison
- Seed Folks by Paul Fleischman
- African American/Black History
- Crossing Cultures
- Education and Life Lessons
- European American/Whites
- Family and Childhood
- Stereotypes and Discrimination
As a child, I was fascinated with high school yearbooks. I would study my mother’s yearbooks from the 1940s, the Inglewood High School books. I really enjoyed seeing how she and her friends looked when they were teenagers. And I would also become real familiar with the most popular, best dressed, the cheerleaders, the guys on the TV. I mean, you would have thought they were personal friends of mine. So when we moved in our new house and Frank, next door, was going to high school and he brought his yearbook home, I couldn’t wait to see it. Now, his sister, Marcia was my friend and she would have to sneak the book out of the house and then we would spend hours looking at it noticing that Frank was one of the few black students at Hirsche. But we also took time to learn the cheerleaders, the guys on the team, the captain of the debate team.
Now, race consciousness was not so unusual for eight-year-olds at that time. I mean, we moved into this new neighborhood. There were lots of white people on the block. But the very next year, they were all gone. And the adult conversations, I mean we couldn’t help but hear, the tones when people would talk about how when they moved into the new house, so many things were broken or destroyed. And that had been done by the previous owners who just had some kind of resentment or something about these people who were moving in. And then there were the warnings to not let yourself get caught at night or by whites, passed Ashland and then passed Damen and then passed Western. They would talk about how white people kept running away from us. Why would they run away from us? We were good people. We went to church. We mowed our grass. Why would they run away?
Two years after we moved, my brother went to Hirsch. And when I saw his yearbooks, there were, lots more white…, lots more black kids in the books and fewer whites. That meant that there were fewer white kids who were studying with and playing alongside my brother. And by the time I got to Hirsch, there were only three white faces that peered out of those pages. And those three kids were all from the same family. My child mind wondered what was wrong with us? Why were people running away from us?
I now know that it was fear. People were scared, not necessarily just because we were who we were, but they were getting phone calls late at night by realtors and insurance agents warning them that they had to get out of the neighborhood. I now know that there was nothing wrong with us. That there is nothing wrong with us. But…that little girl, she felt the sting. She felt the hurt of people running away. And even now when I travel around the country to places near and far, tell these stories… if I mention that I’m from the South Side of Chicago, invariably some well-meaning person will come up to me and say I’m from the south side too. And as I ask why and where, while they’re telling me how they lived in and moved away from the South Shore, Roselyn, or Chadham, in my mind, I can’t help but think. Yeah, yours was one of those families that ran away from us. And the child who still lives inside of me, she’s still hurt.