Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My take on: Elizabeth and Hazel

"In May 1957 school administrators set out to find the black trailblazers: children who were simultaneously old enough to attend  to cut it Central, close enough to get there easily, smart enough to cut it academically, strong enough to survive the ordeal, mild enough to make no waves, and stoic enough not to fight back. And, collectively, scarce enough to minimize white objections." Pg. 26

On Sept. 4, 1957 nine black teenagers tried to enter Central High School, an all-white school that had been ordered to integrate following the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case. But it would be an exercise in futility. For one of those teenagers in particular, Elizabeth Eckford, it would be an extremely emotional day. Hazel Bryan made sure Elizabeth knew she wasn't wanted at Central. That moment is forever immortalized in a photograph by Will Counts. A photo that Hazel has worked her entire life to move away from. For Elizabeth, that day and all of her experiences at Central would be much harder to move on from.

Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock by David Margolick not only breaks down that iconic photo, it also examines the culture of Little Rock, Arkansas, before and after that day.

Elizabeth always had her nose in a book. At the time, segregation was still in full-swing and Elizabeth longed to a person who was more than her circumstances. There were dreams of going college. But those dreams were derailed by her experiences at Central.

Hazel was very outgoing as a child. She liked to perform. She even played with black children as a child. Which makes me believe her behavior on Sept. 4 1957 was learned. I don't believe people just wake up one day and decide they're a racist or have some racist beliefs. It's a learned behavior. Her family didn't believe in integration. To them, white people should stay with white people. Black people should stay with black people.

Sept. 4 1957 was a special day for both girls. Elizabeth and her sister labored over her dress. She wanted to look good. Hazel also wanted to look good, she wore a rather tight and "classy" dress.

On that day, Elizabeth had to walk alone. The intention of organizers was to have all nine walk together, but Elizabeth's family didn't have a telephone, so she didn't get the message. Despite all the hateful words, Elizabeth showed extreme grace on that day. Hazel did not, forgetting about that day soon after. At the time, Hazel didn't believe she did anything wrong. It was just another day to Hazel.

Denied entry on that day, Elizabeth and the eight other students were eventually allowed in months later. All of them were subjected too hateful taunts and violence. But the worst treatment was saved for Elizabeth. If they could break the strongest of the bunch, then the rest would leave with her. Elizabeth came close to her breaking point several times, but continued to attend Central. Many prominent black figures, including Jackie Robinson, were in awe of these students.

It's hard to wrap my brain around this era. How can you treat another human being with such hate? Why? What do you gain from it? Hazel Bryan came to question her own past. She didn't want to be known as that girl in the photograph? A few years later, she sought out Elizabeth and apologized -- something the media overlooked for decades. Why? It was probably easier to have a hateful image of Hazel than a redemptive one.

While, Hazel eventually found happiness as a wife and mother, Elizabeth's life took a different turn. She struggled with post traumatic stress disorder and with being a single parent. All of it can be traced to her experiences at Central. There is so much detail in this book. I could go on and on, it's very well researched. What struck me the most is that decades later Hazel and Elizabeth were able to form a friendship. A friendship that both questioned. Is Hazel doing it to look good in the media? Why does it seem Hazel is only around at media events? Has Elizabeth truly forgiven Hazel? Even the media questioned the friendship. Given their history, how can they possible be friends?

This book paints a full picture of a pretty awful part of history. But it's a part of history that everyone should read. Please, please, please read this book!!

Rating: O.M.G. !!!


Note: I received a copy of the book from Authors on the Web in exchange for an honest review.



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