“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
— Charles Dickens
When one thinks of Little Rock Central High School, one invariably and subconsciously thinks back to events that took place 50 years ago. Then, the world watched nine African-American students make history by desegregating the state’s premier high school in the face of open hostility — even from the governor. Escorted by the National Guard, these students walked the halls of what is now a national historic site and endured hardships that I can only begin to imagine.
Today, I walk the same halls walked by the Little Rock Nine. Oddly enough, in a school that was the first to desegregate and now boasts vast diversity, injustice reigns. After almost 50 years of struggle and confusion, my school has yet to integrate.
There is, of course, the Central that everyone hears about: the Central that is ranked 20th in the nation by Newsweek, the Central that annually produces more Advanced Placement Scholars and National Merit Semi-Finalists than any other state institution, the Central that is believed to have won more state championships than any other school nationwide, and the Central that is “the most beautiful high school in America.”
But there is another Central to which many are blind: the Central that is filled with gang activity, the Central with obvious racism, and the Central divided by an imaginary line better known as Advanced Placement. As an African-American and the student body president, I have encountered A Tale of Two Centrals.
The greater part of my world consists of a predominately white Central pervaded by prejudice and stereotypes. As the only African-American in most of my classes, I experience firsthand what some dismiss as “subtle” racism.
When food is the subject, my schoolmates stereotypically assume that my favorites include fried chicken, watermelon and Kool-Aid. When the classroom lights dim in advance of a film, somebody always feels compelled to say, “Where’d Brandon go?” as if my skin caused me to blend with the now dark room. To these white students, black is also synonymous with being afraid of dogs, not knowing how to swim and wearing clothes that are too big. Stereotypes rule. As a result, for costume day at Central, white students dress in sagging pants and wear hats turned to the side pretending to be black. When a vote is taken in class, someone always seems to interject a historical note — that my vote should only count as three-fifths of a vote because I am black. White students seem perplexed that I want to attend Vanderbilt University, not Grambling, Arkansas at Pine Bluff, or some other historically black college or university.
Then, there is the other Central I have come to know. At this Central, I am surrounded by students who look like me and talk like me. The majority of my lifelong friends at this Central are now affiliated with gangs. Most students at this Central couldn’t care less about completing homework assignments, let alone attending college. If a fight breaks out at school, the “natural assumption” is that one or more of these Central students had some involvement. These Central students are encouraged to work hard but are discouraged from crossing that imaginary line into Advanced Placement. For my friends at this Central, the term Advanced Placement is synonymous with white. To these students, enrolling in Advanced Placement courses makes you a sellout. You might as well don Abercrombie and Fitch clothes and thong sandals like all of the other whites.
That imaginary line — Advanced Placement — has negative implications that extend well beyond the classroom. Advanced Placement has driven a deep wedge between black and white. For instance, if a homecoming queen is black one year, the next year she has to be white or vice versa. During lunch, blacks eat inside the cafeteria and nothing short of a downpour causes the whites to leave their tables outside to come in.
In the past two years, I have taken 11 Advanced Placement courses. In these 11 classes combined, I have had a total of only 20 black classmates. Do counselors discourage blacks from taking these demanding courses? Do black students feel that they are not up for the challenge? Maybe whites have the first choice when it comes to course selection, filling all of the classes before blacks have a chance to try to enroll.
Either way, this is unacceptable. Central remains a great place to receive a high school education. Sadly, the opportunities it offers are vast for some but limited for others.
I, like the Little Rock Nine, have worked tirelessly inside and outside of the classroom to help create the Central that so many people envisioned so long ago — a unified Central. I work to bridge racial gaps and break racial barriers that linger from the past and, in some cases, have sprung anew.
I consider myself lucky. Lucky because instead of being confined to either the black or white Central, I walk the halls of both Centrals daily and with relative ease. Perhaps it is my personality. Perhaps it is my determination. Perhaps it is sheer luck. Perhaps it is a mix of all of them. I only know that despite the odds, I have been able to achieve while encountering A Tale of Two Centrals. I can honestly say, “It [is] the best of times, it [is] the worst of times.”