Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Jane Elliott

As we enter into a hopefully new and improved phase of race relations with B-rack's election, I thought it'd be appropriate to talk about a true genius on the subject. In my opinion, very few white people really "get it" when it comes to race and power. The poster boy for white anti-racists is Tim Wise, who, while I think he makes sense, truth be told he says nothing that people of color haven't covered before. His value is in that hopefully, whites will listen.

Jane Elliott is far more valuable as a white anti-racist, her legend cemented in her famous "brown eyes/blue eyes" exercise. There's plenty of info on the web about her that I need not repeat. What is remarkable to consider is the context within which she originally devised her exercise, the crucible of the 60's in America. Because while that time is marked by its historic turbulence, it was also an awakening of a new consciousness emerging. What I mean is that as an awakening, it was the beginnings, and as such, there was still plenty of resistance, ignorance and bundles of naivete. In this setting, in the tiny town of predominantly white Riceville, Iowa, greatness emerged.

In the 80's, as I was about to go back to school, PBS's venerable series Frontline, ran a special commemorative viewing of A Class Divided, the documentary about Elliott's famous experiment. (Originally, I believe, it was called The Eye of the Storm. Frontline re-broadcast the original film, and brought back the students as grown ups to talk about their experiences) It is without a doubt one of the top ten films I've ever seen, insightful and moving like none other. It has, as I like to quote in these situations, what Breton said of Cesaire:

That unmistakable major tone...

It is so painfully and beautifully human.

I've been lucky in my life. A few years back Ms. Elliott came to UCLA to talk, and we got to meet. She is so friendly, down to earth and practical. More - and this is where her work is far in advance of Tim Wise - she goes beyond talking; she does. Jane Elliott transcends teaching, or rather, she elevates teaching to the level of great art.

There is a pristine moment toward the end of the film, after the children, having gone through the exercise, like little wounded birds, emerge from their own intense crucible within a crucible. And they are joyous. As you watch, if you have a heart, it soars with every kid.

If you value my opinion, or even if you don't, take a chance. If you care about race relations, what real education can and should be, watch. Don't do it now; wait until you have a quiet moment this weekend. Eat first, grab a cup of coffee or tea. Relax. Turn off the boob tube, your cell. And devote an hour of your life to this film. I promise you, if you care about what it is to be human, in this world, at this time, you will see.

Watch A Class Divided