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Freedom Lessons: A Novel, by Eileen Harrison Sanchez.

August 9, 2019

Freedom Lessons?Freedom Lessons: A Novel, by Eileen Harrison Sanchez.  She Writes Press, 2019.

Forthcoming: November 12, 2019.

4 stars

A fictionalized memoir of the year that the white woman from New Jersey spent teaching black children in a small town in Louisiana where the school was desegregating.

Like the central figure in her story, Eileen Harrison Sanchez had been born and raised in a white suburb in New Jersey.  She also had accompanied her new military husband south for the school year, 1969.  She accepted a job teaching second-grade black children.  She tells how she had found the children easy to love and teach, but she was totally naïve about the racial issues and culture of small-town Louisiana. After a year, Sanchez returned to New Jersey where she had a successful career as a teacher and educational administrator.  Throughout her work in education, she focused attention on the problems involved in desegregation.  Now retired, her website includes “Gram’s Book Club,” a blog suggesting books to help children deal with racial issues.

In Freedom Lesson,   Colleen, the chief narrator and stand-in for the author, arrives in Louisiana totally unprepared to deal with the racial segregation she found in place there.  White teachers reject her for being willing to take a job in the black school.  Slowly she begins to learn what is and is not acceptable.Evelyn, a black teacher assigned to mentor her reluctantly becomes her friend teaching her the local history.

Just as Colleen settles into her class, the school board abruptly close the black school and integrates the black students which they consdiered decidedly inferior to the white ones in all ways.  Black teachers with excellent teaching records were fired and their students given white teachers. Frank, a secondary narrator, relates what that integration meant to high schoolers.  He was a star football player with reasonable hopes of going to college on an athletic scholarship, but at the high school, blacks were not allowed to play on the first team.  Instead, his options shrank to joining the army and going to Viet Nam.

Sanchez has given us a narrative that is critical today as racism again surfaces in the United States. ago. She provides us with a fair and factual narrative of a place and time of deep conflict without shrinking from judgment about what was happening.   Her narrative is an account of how she gained her own moral clarity.  Yet she also includes a variety of other characters and voices by including secondary narrators.  The book is much more than the story of one white woman.

Part of the power of the book is the revelation of how white administrators did all they could to hurt the blacks whom they are forced to integrate.  In Sanchez’s story, blacks lost what little they had before their school was closed.  That was true in her experience and in other places.  But the stories of integration varied widely, as Sanchez knows.  Not all the black students and teachers lost, as Tamala Harris has pointed out to Joe Biden.  Many blacks were able to become important professionals today because of the larger project of busing and integration.  That is why we so need to understand the different stories.

She Writes Press is the publisher of Freedom Lessons.  They are an unusual publisher, somewhere between traditional publishing houses and private publication. The organization views itself as a community, working with women through various stages of the writing and publishing process, helping them share their own narratives.  Some books, like this one, focus on public stories; others tell more private stories of sexuality and abuse. Do check them out.

Freedom Lessons needs to be read and talked about today, particularly, but not exclusively in schools. The Civil Rights Movement forced open some parts of our society, but white supremacy is all too present in our country today.  We need a new, informed citizenry to fight for tolerance and understanding.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 9, 2019 12:03 pm

    Why do you think she did this as a fictionalised memoir rather than just write her own memoir?

    • August 13, 2019 5:58 pm

      She has a very interesting discussion of that in her afterward. Hers is white woman’s perspective and she wanted to broaden it. Fiction allowed her to tell a broader story. For example she deliberately included secondary narratives by a black teacher and student. And she changed enough to give the epole she wrote about some privacy. I thought she had a good answer for whites writing about others.

      • August 14, 2019 12:53 pm

        I do enjoy hearing authors explain the decisions they make

  2. August 11, 2019 5:01 am

    I’m intrigued by this, thanks for sharing

  3. August 13, 2019 5:46 pm

    Yes. The American story and segregation is a strange comparison to that of Australia. Not better, but somewhat different.

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