Betsey Brown, by Ntozake Shange illustrates the way a 13 year old girl feels when she goes to an integrated school. A black girl going to an all white school faces many challenges with integration. This book compares and contrasts what is taught to students around the world about integration. The fictional story Betsey Brown seems less harsh than what actually happened during the time period of integration.
When Betsey first arrived at the integrated school, the students looked at her like she didn’t belong. Betsey felt completely out of place, as any new black student in an all white school would in that time period. Betsey didn’t understand why the white girls treated her differently than her white friend at her old school. That girl treated her as a friend, not someone of a different race. At the all white school, Betsey was looked at like she didn’t belong. They acted as though they didn’t know how to respond to a girl of color in their school because they really didn’t. The situation of integrated school was a new experience for everyone involved. When Betsey first met her teacher, Mrs. Leon, she felt relief because her teacher treated her the same way as she treated everyone else. She was the first person to address Betsey by name and introduce her to the class. She smiled at Betsey, showing friendliness towards her. The students witnessed the way the teacher treated Betsey and started to accept her.
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Towards the end of the story, Betsey has an argument with her teacher. The teacher refused to accept that Paul Lawrence was an American because he was black. The teacher argued that “Being colored meant you couldn’t write poems or books or anything.” (183) She realizes that her teacher doesn’t even think Betsey is American because she is black. This insults Betsey and results in her leaving school crying. Betsey ends up going back to school after the counseling of her friend and housekeeper Carrie. Carrie explains that she cannot leave school whenever someone insults her; she has to stick up for herself.
The story of Betsy Brown was a reality to many colored students when integration took place. The feeling of unacceptance was the same. The white girls didn’t know how to double dutch. Double dutch is jump rope with two ropes and they couldn’t get the hang of it. The girls also made fun of the way Betsey danced. Betsey danced much more provocatively than the white girls.
Integration was a horrible time for most involved. This story does not have near the actual turmoil that took place. Many white parents stood outside the schools screaming obscenities. They held signs demeaning black students. Signs were made saying “Segregation,” “Whites Only,” and “No Niggers Allowed.” These signs were held up as the new students, who were already scared, walked up the sidewalk. Police officers had to hold back the rioting mob of people. School was supposed to be a “safe place” but school officials needed the assistance of police officers to insure safety to all people. The white students didn’t know how to react to the new students. Many families in this time period had a strong prejudice and were brought up that way at home. The white parents didn’t want the “niggers” in school with their “babies,” as if the black people would do them harm. Because the whites had not been susceptible to being around blacks as an everyday thing, and vice versa, the races were scared of each other.
The ultimate question is, was the short period of hate worth the permanent integration of schools? The answer is yes. Now children can go to school with different races and it is normal; they don’t think anything is wrong with it. It is sad that black students of that era had to go through the horrible time of integration, but it was all for a greater good. Without integration, segregated schools would still be in effect.
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