Edith Campbell began her career as a Social Studies Teacher and moved
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.