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Trouble Spots: Troubling White People

Summer. 1954. I was fifteen.

At that time, the television stations in Nashville, Tennessee, came on the air at four in the afternoon and stopped broadcasting at eleven. One channel began its broadcast day by pointing a camera into the alley behind the studio, a place known as “Art Lane Alley.” This was where artists were invited to hang their paintings, though few ever did. I was very interested in art and had begun drawing and painting on my own. I was intrigued by the name, Art Lane Alley. I was further intrigued when I saw a white girl about my age who always seemed to be there. I decided that I wanted to meet her, that I wanted to be seen on television with her.

The mid-fifties were still a time when black males in the South were lynched for alleged and imagined crimes against white women. I remembered the story of a black man in North Carolina who was plowing a field. Probably tired of looking at the mule’s butt, he raised his head. A white woman walking along the road and some distance from the man nonetheless accused him of “leering” at her. He was arrested, found guilty, and given a long prison sentence. Such insanity was the unquestioned norm of my childhood and adolescence.

In my decision to go to Art Lane Alley, I knew what I was doing, knew what the reactions of white people would be when they saw me with a white girl on their television screens. Afraid but determined, off I went to Art Lane Alley to trouble the minds and hearts of white people.

I don’t remember the girl’s name or even what she looked like, but we liked each other. I don’t talking to her. I don’t know if she was as afraid as I was. All I knew was that she looked forward to seeing me, as I did her. Not a week passed before the inevitable happened. I had learned that she was the daughter of someone who worked at the station, and perhaps it was her father who came out the back door, looked at me, and said calmly, “Don’t come here anymore.” He did not have to say what the consequences might be if I disobeyed him.

So I said goodbye to the girl, left, and never returned. At the time I did not know that my small act of defiance against the racial mores was being replicated by other young blacks across the South. All I knew was that I would continue to find ways to challenge the insanity of racial segregation.

When the civil rights movement captured national attention with the sit-in demonstrations in 1960, Southern newspapers called us “troublemakers.” And indeed we were—joyfully so.

Julius Lester’s latest book is The Hungry Ghosts (Dial), illustrated by Geraldo Valério.

From the September/October 2009 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Trouble.

Julius Lester About Julius Lester

Julius Lester (1939-2018) is the author To Be a Slave (illustrated by Tom Feelings), a Newbery Honor winner; Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History; When the Beginning Began: Stories About God, the Creatures, and Us (illustrated by Emily Lisker); and Coretta Scott King Author Award winner Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue, among many others. His frequent collaborations with Jerry Pinkney included their iconic John Henry (winner of a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award); The Old African; Sam and the Tigers; and collections of Uncle Remus tales.

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