My senior year of high school, a really popular classmate of mine, Jeremy, got into a fight. Jeremy was unique, in that, he couldn’t be lumped into one category like the rest of us trapped in that traditional high-school social hierarchy. He was a weirdo, who would show up to school from time to time tripping balls (acid, mushrooms, you name it), and he was smart, and he was an athlete. Plus, he was hot hot hot, part-Cherokee, with wide-set eyes and a beautiful swimmer’s build. Everyone loved him–the cheerleaders, the Goths, the band fags, the drill team, the varsity athletes, the stoners, and the burnouts.
The fight happened one morning before first period, in “The Mall,” the main artery of school where everyone congregated before class. Walking through the Mall was something like running the gauntlet. It’s where mean girls held their bakesales, and cheerleaders fluffed their pom-poms for impromptu spirit outbreaks, and where football players were given lockers, prodigiously decorated on Fridays by the drill team with glitter, bubble letters, Mylar balloons, and stuffed animals, for all the school to ooh and aah over.
I never witnessed the fight, because, by my senior year, I was oversleeping, stressed about killing the SATs, and plotting my escape from Texas. By the time I finally made it to first period, however, the story of the fight had already taken shape. Jeremy, our beloved class vice-president, who was to all intents and purposes white, had been “jumped by two black guys.”
The school bristled that day with hate. Guys who didn’t even know Jeremy were cracking their knuckles in English class, spoiling for a payback. But it wasn’t the fight or what happened that day that really rocked the school, it was what took place the day after.
By the next morning, water fountains throughout the school, which occurred in pairs, had been labeled “WHITE” and “BLACK.” An anonymous flyer landed in upperclassmen lockers, a picture most likely torn from the pages of National Geographic of an African man in some kind of traditional tribal garb, with the words “SLAVERY’S BACK” scrawled underneath it. African-American students, who were a minority in number, were pulled from class by their parents for several days out of a legitimate concern for their safety. After a few weeks, the tension died down and the school went back to “normal,” that is to say, the white students and the black students stayed away from one another for the remainder of the year.
I was reminded of this sad, repugnant memory when we, along with the rest of the country, learned about the Jena 6. The judicial charade that has played out down in Louisiana regarding the fate of these six black teenagers has left me with many many questions.
1) Why is there even a “white tree” at Jena High School, a public campus, that black students have to ask their principal for permission to sit under?
2) How is the action of white students hanging nooses from a Whites-Only tree not considered a hate crime, in a state that was third behind Mississippi and Georgia in the greatest numbers of black lynchings by racist white mobs during the “Lynching Era” of 1882-1930?
3) What fucking moron charged five of the Jena 6 with attempted second-degree murder initially, when Justin Barker, the white kid who was knocked unconscious and almost “murdered,” was able to attend a school function the night of the fight?
Oh wait, I know the answer to that question. Local District Attorney Reed Walters, who, after a group of black students protested peaceably against those nooses being hung from the “white tree,” reportedly told them, “With a stroke of this pen, I can make your life disappear.”
4) Why won’t you fuckers release Mychal Bell?
The powers-that-be at Jena High School are a disgrace. D.A. Reed Walters is a shameful motherfucking sumbitch. Everyone in Jena, Louisiana, which is 85 percent white, needs to take a long look at themselves and their disgracism in the mirror.
The coda to my high school story is that my friend Paul, behind whom I sat in Calculus, talking sine, cosine, and what out-of-state colleges we were going to apply to Early Admissions, started a group called “A World of Difference” after the fight. The handful of bleeding-heart liberals like Paul stranded in our staunchly-conservative school joined (myself included) and put up giant signs all over the Mall, in rainbow colors, with sayings like “People Are People” and “We Can Live in a World of Difference.”
Those signs were usually ripped in half and trashed by lunchtime. Even so, there were a few whose corners would stubbornly cling to the walls, by just a whisper of tape. Seeing that always gave me a tiny shred of hope.
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