Posted by: George | September 23, 2010

The “Cheerleaders” in New Orleans

Rockwell's painting of Ruby Nell Bridges

 

September 23, 2010

In the third chapter from the end of Travels with Charley (pp. 220-229 of the first edition), Steinbeck enters New Orleans and witnesses whites harass “a couple of tiny Negro children” as they enter school, escorted by US Marshals.

Steinbeck had been driving hard with little sleep. He says virtually nothing about the rest of Texas, just that he stops for gas and slabs of pie. Almost as soon as he crosses the Louisiana border, he comes face to face with racism. The attendants who fill his truck with gas see Charley in the front seat and think Steinbeck is travelling with a Black man. Over and over, he hears the same comment, which I will not repeat.

In New Orleans, he parks his truck at a gas station, puts Charley in the back, disguises himself as a seaman (he was famous enough to be recognized on the street), and takes a cab to the site of the school desegregation. He watches white women (called “cheerleaders”) hurl “bestial and filthy and degenerate” words at “the littlest Negro girl you ever saw.” In a draft of the chapter, Steinbeck had included the actual words of the cheerleaders, but his publisher was afraid of law suits. The insults were cut.

Steinbeck describes the scene as a performance: “Anyone who has been near the theater would know that these speeches were not spontaneous. They were tried and memorized and carefully rehearsed. This was theater. I watched the intent faces of the listening crowd and they were the faces of an audience. When there was applause, it was for a performer.”

In the crowd, Steinbeck looks for people who might be like his friends in New Orleans, “thoughtful, gentle people, with a tradition of kindness and courtesy.” He doesn’t see “such faces.” Racism, Steinbeck suggests, thrives when it has an audience and when it is not challenged.

The desegregation plan in New Orleans was to integrate the first grade, then allow those students to advance. Thus, an additional grade would be integrated every year. Although it is not entirely clear, it seems that Steinbeck watches as Ruby Nell Bridges enters her first grade class at William Frantz Public School. Shortly after Steinbeck left, Ruby Nell was the only student in the school. Barbara Henry, a native of Boston, was the only teacher.

It seemed like nothing would change. Protests continued throughout the year. Ruby Nell’s father lost his job as a gas station attendant. Ruby Nell’s grandparents, share croppers in Mississippi, were forced to leave their land. Barbara Henry was not given a contract for the next school year; she returned to Boston.

Then, Ruby Nell entered school the next year to find other Black students as well as white students. No one spoke of the previous year.

As with much of the history of race issues, we could argue that remarkable change happened very quickly in New Orleans or that we are still waiting for real change. The cheerleaders, their theater, and their audience disappeared. Families in New Orleans seemed to adjust to the new reality of integration. Yet, no one spoke of the previous year.

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Responses

  1. I thought John Steinbeck treated the incident with white gloves, but the idea that the publisher had some impact on this makes sense and puts it in a new light for me. All in all, I was disappointed how Steinbeck, who by his writings seemed to possess an unusually remarkable and empathetic view of the human state, was unwilling to jump off the fence. Sure he seemed more sympathetic to the African-American characters he came across, but he was sympathetic to the white argument in a way that irritated me. Sure it is easy to sit from ‘here and now’ and criticize, but he was supposed to be a hero of his time. He came across as flawed. I guess that is part of the mood of the entire book. He’s an old man grappling with success but his own limitations as a human being — both physically and character-wise. He repeatedly reminds us that Charly is better.

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  2. I’m finishing the book now, and I was confused by the passage. I’m actually listening to it; maybe it would have been easier to follow on paper. Your explanation was helpful — thank you. g.

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  3. This quote brought up images of the Republican Convention to me. I thought I was going to have to research the whole book. Thanks for posting this!

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    • I have to admit I have been having trouble watching the convention. I turn it on for about five minutes, and then I switch the channel. I am going to try to watch Romeny tonight and post something about his speech. Thanks for your comment.

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