The Climbing of White Walls
by Blaine North

From the student: The words of the assignment began as simple instructions to write a paper on the meaning of education for your family. These words quickly formed into a ball of complex histories, meanings, and lineages that became more than just a story of my family and our pursuit of the DuBoisian "higher civilization," but one of African Americans and higher education. For one truth has remained throughout African American history: Education keeps our hands firm as we push farther up the steep white walls of American privilege.

From the teacher: In Writing Studio One, after my students read essays by educational theorists-bell hooks, Daniel Bell, Louis Menand, Allan Bloom, Dinesh D'Souza-and short fiction by Alice Walker and Toni Morrison; I asked them to metaphorically open their family albums and locate their literacy inheritance. Students were to examine the ways in which their increased literacy would reconnect or estrange them from their family, friends, race, gender, class or community. Students traced their literacy genealogy as a preliminary step in answering the larger question, "What's college for?"

From the editors: North's use of descriptive language places her reader among the sounds, smells, and sights of her family's history. She uses a personal story of the struggles of her family in their quest for higher education. Even though it is subjective, the common theme of family ties and history allows the reader to relate to the essence of the paper.

Grammy Edith sways hard in the polished wood of her rocking chair, setting the rhythm of the chair to the beat of her heart. She holds her head toward the sky as she sings the soft words "precious Lord take my hand." Her leathery hands quiver with the weight of her 87 years within the deep pocket of her lap. She slows and listens to the hard crush of tires on the dirt of her long driveway. The smell of wild roses and the faint signs of wind is all that is around. She is framed there in the center of her pillared porch, the brown circle in a square of aged whites and grays.

She rises and yells, "Well, it sure took you long enough to get here, huh? I was just about to give up on you! Wait a minute now. Daphne is in the house; she'll help you with your bags. Daphne! Come out here! Daphne is the girl who is living with me now. Your Aunt Barbara brought her here in the fall to help me around the house. I told her I didn't need any help, but you know how that Barbara is such a worrier. Even as a child I remember that girl worrying. Well, Precious, aren't you going to give me some sugar?"

I kiss her lightly, and her smell of sharp perfume, rising dough, and decaying memories makes me fall into the past years of her embrace. The hair of her salt-and-pepper wig caresses my forehead and makes it so much easier to stay quietly in her arms.

Daphne's West Indian flavored voice cuts through the embrace and forces me to let go. Daphne, a round woman with flashing eyes, picks up my bags and calls me to follow her into the house.

"Daphne, you go and put those bags in the house. Blaine, you sit right here next to me." I pulled up next to her in my thin metal-framed chair. Her eyes are blue clouds of cataract. She has hard features loosely covered by her hanging dark brown skin. She wears a blue dress with blue flowers that lies obediently against her thin frame. A too big wedding band inscribed with the words "My Love Edith" hangs from a thin chain that runs around the base of her neck. The tight fold of her hand comes over mine and speaks of her happiness. We sit there, my hand in hers, as the air slowly stills and brings the moon.

Corn bread bakes in the oven as we clean the chitterlings for boiling, shuck the corn for roasting, mash the sweet potatoes for baking, cut the collards for boiling, and season the chicken for frying. The smells dance around me and loosen my tight resolve. The fast walking, quick talking person of the city settles down into large smiles and warm embraces. The strictness with which I rule my tongue is gone and warm brown conversations and familiar caresses replace the Anglo staunchness of outside. We move into the living room where the light from the television flickers off of the furniture. Grammy Edith sits close to the low humming of the nightly news that pours through the screen. I sink low into the leather cushions of the brown couch. Glass frames holding the college degrees of my family wink at me from across the room. They are a browning collection of parchment and thick stock paper; red strands like veins run in and out of the inked squares.

At the top is the college degree of my great grandfather from Tuskeegee University. It is encased in a hand-carved wooden frame, made from a branch of the oak tree that still stands on the road outside of the house. In the next row are those of my grandfather and grandmother. Elaborately carved wooden frames hold the two tightly next to each other. Fisk is etched into the center of my grandmother's and Tuskeegee on my grandfather's. Two generations after slavery, the carvings on this wood encase their achievements. A space below hangs the undergraduate degrees of my father and his sister. Dark green marble around black ink spelling out Middlebury and Yale. Graduate degrees from NYU School of Dentistry and Columbia School of Law are secured in marble fringed with gold.

Grammy Edith has told me that each frame marks a different point in our family history and each row a different level of success. The frame that holds my great grandfather's degree represents a time when the question asked of eighteen year old black males in my family went from "Could you go you college?" to "Would you go to college?" My grandfather's degree took the question from "Would you go to college?" to "Where would you go to college?" My grandmother's degree made the question one asked of both boys and girls. The six or so frames of this wall show the change in my family from head bowed workers to question asking professionals.

The living collection of these memories is my grandmother. She tells us all of our history. Her father-in-law, Joseph North Sr., my great grandfather, was a carpenter by trade. He made enough money to put my grandfather through private boarding school and Tuskeegee University. His grandparents were slaves and his own parent's sharecroppers. Joseph North Jr. was an accountant. He and Gram Edith met while she was a chemistry teacher, and he was a secretary at a small college in North Carolina. They married and moved to New York to raise their family. She became a police officer with the New York City Police Department and Grampy Joe became an accountant for the city. They earned enough to send their children to private schools. They were even able to build a summer home in Sag Harbor, New York.

These framed papers climbing the great white wall are the importance of universities to the free men in the 1860's; to the "talented tenth" of the 1920's; to the freedom fighters of the 1950's, 1960's, and 1970's; and to the Buppies of the 1980's. In essence, college increases a person's potential exponentially in only four years. My great grandfather entered college with the potential of being a sharecropper like his father and came out with the potential of being the owner of his own business. It is the American loophole; no matter how low on the ladders of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, income, religion, or nationality you are; college brings you closer to the greatness of the American dream.

"I see you looking at that wall. Precious, this family is always on the rise. That wall shows how we went from slaves to dentists and lawyers. That is strength. That is tenacity. That is the legacy left to you of a family that brought itself from the level of an animal to being able to send its children to schools. There, they, as equals, are able to sit with the people who made them out to be inhuman. Four generations ago your great grandfather entered into Tuskeegee and put us on that track. In those four years, he made the difference between poverty and prosperity for this family. When your grandfather and I entered into Tuskeegee and Fisk, it meant the difference between just being in the middle class and flourishing in the middle class. Those degrees are something that no one can take away from us. It is the most tangible proof that we have something near to equal rights. Your grandfather used to tell that to your father all of the time, 'Robert, you better not try to do as well as me, you better try to do better.' You see, that is what college is. That is what you are there for: to do better than your parents; better than what is expected of you."

The greatness of it all tugged at my eyes and brought the tears down my cheeks. We sat in that room, wrapped in the gleam of those six glassy frames, with the hum of silence, and the words just spoken, between us.

Home Preface Table of Contents Contributors Editors Teacher's Guide

Copyright © 1999 Intertext