Everyone knows the story. They've heard it again and again. They've heard it enough times to tell it themselves.
They can easily describe the insuppressible courage that those nine black students possessed. They can recount, from memory, the racist taunts that filled the tense air 50 years ago. One thing they may tell you, however, is the interracial harmony at Central is beginning to sound way off key.
The hallways at Central represent a plethora of different nationalities and races. Walking to class is like simmering in the melting pot that this country prides itself in being. Every student, regardless of race, is equal in the chaos that consumes the six-minute break between classes.
When those six minutes end, however, the students file into their respective classrooms and, to an outsider, it could appear as if they are being divided by race. White students go to their classrooms and black students to theirs. This unfortunate reality is the dark underbelly of the glowing reputation that Central has achieved as a truly multicultural institution.
Brandon Love, the 2006-2007 student body president, wrote his college application essay about how Advanced Placement classes have become a divider of races. This, unfortunately, is accurate. I took six AP classes my senior year at Central. I had a grand total of 15 black classmates. If you factor in my other two non-AP classes, newspaper and debate, I had 21 black classmates my senior year.
It is hard to say why this happens. There is no deliberate, institutional segregation that occurs. There is no one spitting at black students as they attempt to enter AP Economics.
It has become a different kind of racism, a subtle racism that can be just as harmful and just as humiliating. And the scary part is most white students don't even realize when what they are saying or doing is offensive.
During spirit week, there is a “tall-T” day. This school-sanctioned dress-up day is a mockery of black culture disguised as a way to show school spirit. White students run around the hallways in over-sized T-shirts, speaking in slang often used exclusively by black students. Whether they realize it or not, they are blatantly making fun of a culture that is very real to many of the students at Central.
This, among many other light-hearted yet dark-natured pokes and prods at black culture, contributes to a rift between races that, although not completely unavoidable, could be lessened with a little more intelligence and a lot less ignorance.
Still, as the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine approaches, Central boasts a unified educational environment. It passes out pens that read “Many Cultures, One World.” To claim any sort of unity among cultures here at Central is to deny the reality of a potentially dangerous situation.
There is an advantage in being in proximity to a culture very different from your own, but if there is no interaction, no sense of intercultural community, what lessons can we learn?
Instead of lessons, we learn stereotypes. If we do not know another culture, only see it, then we judge that culture solely on appearance.
Just because someone is wearing an over-sized T-shirt and baggy jeans doesn't mean that he is in a gang, just as someone who is wearing a tight polo shirt and khaki pants isn't necessarily a pretentious, snobby rich boy. The danger in fostering these stereotypes is that these are the only things we will take away from the amazing opportunity to learn from those who are different.
The legend of the Little Rock Nine deserves to be told over and over again. It deserves to be celebrated on its 50th anniversary. The courage and perseverance that those students displayed so long ago are lessons that need to be taught to the world just as it has been taught to the students at Central. Presidents and celebrities are coming because this was an event that shaped the world. And when they come, they will be greeted by a group of well-prepared, smart, well-rounded students whom Central is responsible for molding.
Make no mistake, Central is a great school. It is one of the top 20 in the country for a good reason. I graduated Central ready to succeed in the world, and the administration and faculty deserve appreciation for their outstanding work. I am afraid, however, that I missed an all-important opportunity to learn valuable lessons from people who are different.
If we celebrate the courage of the Little Rock Nine, we must celebrate the current black students enrolled in upper-level courses at Central. These students, too, are involved in the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School, just not the one that most of the world will hear about this September.
Daniel Ford, a 2006 graduate of Central High School, is a student at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.