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Writers Against Racism: Edith Campbell

Edith Campbell began her career as a Social Studies Teacher and moved 
DSCN2924 Writers Against Racism: Edith Campbell

to the Media Center five years ago when her district offered IMATES, a “grow your own media specialist” fellowship.  


Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.

 

I think having to answer this question has stalled me from this entire process. I grew up in what quickly became an all Black neighborhood in Toledo, Ohio. My mother insisted we attend Catholic schools, so my brother, sister and I went to the school in our neighborhood parish. There were well over 900 students in the school, and there were 4 blacks, no Asians, and Latinos (4) began attending after a few years. I was the first person of color to attend this school for grades 1 through 8.

 

Sure, I knew the ‘n’ word was wrong, but I didn’t hear it in school (my brother did, and was often tormented with it). I didn’t have a lot of friends, but never attributed that to race. At parent/teacher conferences, my parents would hear comments like “I can’t believe she can be that smart,” but they never told me these things until much, much later. I remember my 4th grade teacher, the most racist person I’ve encountered in education, decided she was going to teach me how to speak properly. She had me work on reading “The Swing” by Robert Louis Stevenson. I had no idea why she was doing this. Well, I memorized that poem and delivered it with such expression, the entire class applauded! She simply asked me to sit down. We were part of the parish so long, that we got along with most of the students. At the same time, I know we were denied opportunities, such as my brother never being allowed to serve as an altar boy.

 

High school offered me room to grow. Within various class projects, I freely explored contributions by Blacks in history and literature. In my graduating class of 126 (all-girl Catholic high school), there were 5 Blacks, and perhaps 30 of us in the entire school. We created Black History month plays, had a gospel choir (which I wasn’t in because I cannot sing!), and used other avenues to express our culture. I think being with these young women helped nurture the Black pride I was just beginning to feel.

 

In high school, one thing that happened that really gave me a different perspective on racism was that my parents let me go to France for a summer. I became very interested in global issues and from that nugget, have grown to see racism as more than a Black and white issue. I see people all over the globe being oppressed simply because they are of color.

 

Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer/educator?

 

I work in an urban school system that I probably would have left years ago if Black educators were hired in the little communities around here. I work in what is probably the lowest performing school in the state, and we’re 98% African American.

 

Racism. Can you imagine hearing Black children say that all Asian children look alike? Imagine what it feels like to see one oppressed group of children do what they can to oppress another. How sick is that? There is much work to be done in our schools!

 

I try to teach students more than the lesson on the page. I want them to find and maintain their place in the world. I try to teach the hidden messages in the media, to give them books and stories they can relate to. One student said it wasn’t that I was a tough teacher, I just made her think.

 

I keep learning, I don’t think my students deserve mediocre educators. I’ve taken them to China and to Japan. I guess I want them to see beyond the confines their school environment tries to place on them, kind of like I did. Americans have such a limited view of the world; I don’t think many Black children understand that Blacks have a presence in every country on the globe. The world is their oyster and they are pearls.

 

In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?

 

Literature helps us understand who we are and to find our place in the world. Literature makes sense of history, psychology, sociology and more. Everything that humans have done or will do can be laid out in a good story and if we are wise enough to be open to the message, we can learn without the pain and suffering found in the real world. Literature (fiction or non-fiction) can also help us understand our commonalities and differences.

~~~~
Edith maintains the blog Crazy Quilts in an effort to improve the literacy of students of color. She has lived in Toledo, OH, Indianapolis, IN and Pingtung, Taiwan. She’s the proud mother of three wonderful young adults.

Comments

  1. George Edward Stanley says:

    Edith, your story needs to be read by EVERY prospective teacher candidate in this country (and around the world). You truly should be where you are – in the classroom shaping young minds. I am going to send your story to the dean of our School of Education for what I hope will be wide dissemination. Thank you for explaining so eloquently that racism is much more complicated than most people realize and that the only way to eradicate it (we’ll start in this country) is for state departments of education to insist that only teachers with your passion and understanding and dedication are hired. Thank you for telling your story. I truly hope I have the honor of meeting you one of these days.

  2. B Herrera says:

    Edith, I love the way your family just ignored people who tried to make you feel inferior. There will always be people who put others down out of fear, ignorance or prejudice. These people can only succeed if we let them. By doing your best and caring about others you have made giant steps to toward eliminating descrimination of all kinds. Descrimination is not stopped by laws, but by individual citizens who promote acceptance and excellence among all people, no matter the color, religion or background.

  3. Jo Ann Hernandez says:

    Edi, thank you for sharing. You and I have the same experience growing up in Catholic schools. That’s an “ism” all in of itself. lol
    Thank you for reminding us that we have to work to learn who we are in this world.
    Jo Ann Hernandez
    BronzeWord Latino Authors
    authorslatino.com/wordpress

  4. George Edward Stanley says:

    Edith, I was delighted to see this comment by Beverly Herrera, who, I am proud to say, is a former student of mine at Cameron University. She is now the President of The Food for Thought Foundation in Laredo, Texas, which combats hunger and promotes literacy. She is also one of the dedicated WRITERS AGAINST RACISM. I hope you will go online to see what this incredible organization is doing. When I read your comment earlier about the teacher who did her best to show you how stupid you were only to have you show her how incredibly brilliant you were, I was reminded of when I was in the second half of the sixth grade in Canyon, Texas (the reason for that half-year move from Memphis, Texas, is complicated and beside the point). Anyway, I had always loved the CHILDHOOD OF FAMOUS AMERICANS series, published then by Bobbs-Merrill, and even though they were about third-grade reading level, I still read them, because of how they spoke to me about American history. So when I went to check out several titles from the library in that elementary school in Canyon, Texas, the librarian said, with a smirk on her face, and in front of other members of my class, “Don’t you think you should try reading at a higher level?” I was so embarrassed. I’ve often wished I could have seen into the future, so I could have said, “Well, you see, I plan to write these when I grow up!” Not only do I already have several of the COFA titles (now published by Simon & Schuster) to my credit, I’m still writing them. Teachers should never do things like this which, I’m sure they know, will humiliate and embarrass their students. You would never do anything like that, and that’s why we need more Edith Campbells in America’s classrooms.

  5. B Herrera says:

    Thank you, George, for those wonderful words. Although I have been a writer all my life, I have never written a book. I have thought about it many times, and now I am going to commit. I signed up for the Nationial Novel Writing Month, which I saw on the school library journal website. My son notices what I was doing and said “November is a good month to write. I think I’ll do it too.” So, I guess we’ll both be writing a book in November and see which one is better. My bet is on his because he already has a better command of dialogue than I could ever hope to achieve. I only have one message – any two people can get along with each other if they both want to and are willing to give it a try. The problem is that we often are so focused on the wrongs done to ourselves that we don’t see the wrongs we are doing to others. Thanks, Amy, for this blog because it has given me a place to discuss issues without being condemned. This is the only place I have never seen one person insult another for his or her post. It creates such a safe atmosphere for exploring the problems of racism and all those other isms.

  6. Laura Atkins says:

    Thanks, Edith, for your thoughtful post. Your efforts to work with kids, to get them to travel and see themselves in a larger, global context, are inspiring. I can only imagine how many lives you have changed through your efforts.

  7. Edi Campbell says:

    Beverly, you said that we’ll stop this injustice not “by laws, but by individual citizens who promote acceptance and excellence among all people, no matter the color, religion or background.” I think that is part of what makes this series so compelling. People aren’t caught up in the powerlessness caused by racism, rather finding ways around and over it. I think these successes breakdown the barriers more than direct confrontation. Well, I thought that until this weekend and the horrendous battles we’re witnessing over school children receiving an encouraging message from our President.

    I am not a writer either, but through my blog and in my library I promote authors. I’m humbled to have been able to share this and I hope it reaches someone who needs to hear it. We have to teach our children to want more and to expect more and not to let the discouraging voices have any power over them. And yes, George, we have to remember the power of our own voice, no matter how simple it may seem to us! One of my other sons stated “if you let it get to you a fly will ruin your day. It’s all on your outlook on the world around you”. I think my parents did more for me than I’ve given them credit in expecting more of us regardless of the situation and not letting us give in.

    George, Amy and Zetta I have found this an amazing and inspiring project and I thank you for letting me take part in it. I look forward to meeting each of you in person!

    There is so much work to do!

  8. BTRND says:

    Beautiful. This was well worth the wait. The day I discovered Crazy Quilts I was very happy.

    A Black children’s librarian who blogs about books featuring people of color. She also shares of the opportunities available for students and educators.

    BTW, Edi I love the mural you are standing in front of, kudos to the artist.

  9. Zetta says:

    I love the point Edi makes about the importance of travel and expanding one’s horizons…what did Mark Twain say about travel? “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry. and narrow-mindedness…”

  10. The Brain Lair says:

    Edi,
    Great post. As always I find myself wanting to do more as I read what you are doing. Thanks for being an inspiration to all media specialist but me especially.

  11. Andromeda Jazmon says:

    Edi I love your blog Crazy Quilts and I’d love to visit your library! Thanks for sharing your inspirations here with us.

  12. tanita says:

    Finally a face to match the blog!
    And can I just say, “the world is their oyster and they are pearls” gave me goosebumps. I wish every child could realize that they are represented around the globe and that their culture isn’t just one of misery, slavery and loss, but of invention and evolution as well. Kudos to you for shining that light for others.

  13. B Herrera says:

    Edi, thanks for your encouragement. I have spent my entire life being told by someone else that I wouldn’t be able to do what I wanted to do, yet my parents knew no boundaries for us. My mother always asked me, “Why can’t you?” Since I didn’t have a good answer, I usually did it. As a teacher I’m counstantly hearing, “That’s impossible.” from administrators. We have a joke in my foundation, “The impossible takes 20 minutes.” As for the President’s speech, remember that fear of the unknown is the greatest barrier and that trust is slow in developing. The problem with trust in government is that divisive politics has invaded almost every aspect of it, taking away faith and leaving fear. Very few places exist where discussions can be had without fear of rejection or ridicule. This blog is one of the few I’ve ever found.

  14. Dina Williams says:

    Mrs. Campbell,
    I absolutely loved your story. These personal experiences do shape us as readers and as teachers. I appreciate your writing and am pleased to know that you do not allow your race to define you. Keep writing, it is really inspirational!
    dina