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Confronting a painful legacy of racism

On biennial Alabama Odyssey, Hilltop students learn about the Civil Rights era in the places where the history was made

BRATTLEBORO—The entire student body of Hilltop Montessori’s Middle School went on a week-long “Alabama Odyssey” from March 29 through April 5.

The journey takes 25 students and their teachers through some of the most important locations of the 1960s-era civil rights movement.

Every other year, Hilltop students meet with movement leaders, participants in past marches and actions, and pastors, artists, and young people in and around Birmingham, Selma, and Gee’s Bend, Ala., to learn of the horrors and achievements experienced by black Americans from their arrival here as slaves, through the civil rights era, and to the present day.

This was the seventh trip the students have taken, according to Paul Dedell, director of the Middle School. He said the biennial trip was not a “typical tourist thing. We engage with the communities there. You can read about people, but to be with them, to share a meal with them, it’s really powerful.”

The trip fits in with the middle school’s curriculum, which asks students to explore, “What does it mean to be human?”

“This year, we’re studying the evolution of the American identity,” said Dedell. Students use the sciences, arts, and humanities to “explore who we are as a people,” he said.

“We start with the Declaration of Independence and learn who didn’t make the cut” by examining “the evolution of the promise” through the lenses of race, gender, labor, innovation, industry, class, and politics, he said.

Dedell think it’s “very important for [the students] to engage with the larger world — and with themselves — by moving beyond the boundaries they’ve known their whole lives.”

Lots of preparation

To prepare, each student selects an individual from the civil rights movement, “and does serious research,” including written papers, charcoal portraits of the person, and composing a speech in the person’s voice and spirit, Dedell said.

In Alabama, each student gives the speech in a place related to their person’s participation in the movement, such as on a pulpit or on the steps of the statehouse.

“It helps them be a part of the constant flow of history,” said Dedell. “These are some pretty profound moments.”

This trip is about “the idea of the continuing [civil rights] struggle,” he added. “An odyssey should be life-changing. Just as Odysseus found his way home, we are finding ourselves.”

Hilltop’s Language Arts and Fine Arts teacher Finn Campman said “we avoid using the term ‘field trip’ to describe the Alabama Odyssey. A field trip happens to you. For me, the appeal is this kind of experiential learning, to engage in a journey, where you don’t know exactly what will happen. It really is supposed to be an odyssey of some sort.

“I feel so uneasy about the privilege expressed by our ability to take this trip. We bring these great big vans and the students boil out of them and jump into whatever. It’s absolutely mortifying, and the privilege is real. I don’t know if what I’m feeling is my own personal insecurity, my guilt?”

Campman said when he and his students “start singing [the freedom songs] with the older people, the boundaries all go away. The students’ spirit knocks down the doors. Despite the privilege, this is where the privileged decided to come.”

Because the Hilltop students are prepared and inquisitive, “we keep getting invited back, and the people from Gee’s Bend have come here.”

Photographer and filmmaker Christopher Irion is documenting the trip and the students’ preparation for it.

“I’ve been here all fall and winter,” Irion said, “earning the kids’ trust, and increasing their comfort level with the camera.”

Irion said he isn’t focused on the “nuts-and-bolts” of preparing for the trip.

“I’m interested in their transformation. A 13-year-old is coming out of childhood, coming into the world. They’re learning our traumatic history, just as their hearts are opening, and they’re smacked in the face with something we don’t often see in Vermont.”

Living history

Seventh-grader Lily Charkey-Buren is studying author and social critic James Baldwin. She appreciates Baldwin’s powerful writing style, and how he expressed overcoming the obstacles of being homosexual and African-American during the civil rights era, she said.

Charkey-Buren wrote her speech about Baldwin’s May, 1963 meeting with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in his family’s New York City home. Kennedy asked Baldwin to gather a group of cultural leaders to discuss the state of race relations.

According to reports, the attendees, most of whom were black, couldn’t convince Kennedy of the systemic oppression of blacks. Baldwin described Kennedy as “naive.” Kennedy’s response was to order FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to increase Baldwin’s surveillance.

“I wrote a speech about that,” said Charkey-Buren, “how Baldwin reflected, what the next step was, and what it was like for him to grow up in white America.”

“Growing up in Vermont, it’s always been a ‘white bubble’ for me,” she said. “Studying this pushes up against that white bubble and almost pops it. I can now see many examples of white privilege and I ask, what can I do about this and make a change?”

Charkey-Buren dismissed those who claim youth can’t comprehend race relations. “That idea is false, that we don’t understand or are too young.”

Leila Young, an eighth-grader at the school, is studying academic, author, and political activist Angela Davis. Young plans to give her speech at Davis’ Middle School, or in the neighborhood in Birmingham where Davis grew up.

She studied Davis’ recent speeches to prepare for her version.

“The topic is Trump, and it takes place during [an imaginary contemporary] reunion of Davis’ Middle School classmates, following their progress and challenges, and I compare it to what they’ve worked for,” she said.

Young said she is looking forward to visiting historic places from the civil rights era, and to meeting with those who participated in the 1963 Birmingham Children’s March.

According to The Zinn Education Project, on May 2, 1963, “students ‘ditched’ class to march for justice. In disciplined groups of 50, children singing freedom songs marched out of 16th Street Baptist church two-by-two. When each group is arrested, another takes its place. There are not enough cops to contain them, and police reinforcements are hurriedly summoned. By the end of the day almost 1,000 kids have been jailed ... The next day, a thousand more students cut class to assemble at 16th Street church.”

“They were our age,” Young said, “and it’ll be cool to hear their perspectives. I’m looking forward to asking them questions.”

When asked about any personal challenges to participating in the project, Young said, “we’re all white. Most of my family lives in Tennessee and my family probably had slaves, and they’re racist. It makes me sad thinking about that. I don’t want to be associated with that, but these people are my family. It makes you think.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #402 (Wednesday, April 5, 2017).

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