Elizabeth and Hazel

David Margolick’s book, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, revolves around the by-now iconic civil rights photograph of two fifteen-year-old girls:

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This photo, taken by journalist Will Counts, shows Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine African-American students who were denied entrance to Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. Behind her is Hazel Bryan Massery, in a crowd of other Little Rock citizens, shouting racial epithets at Elizabeth. Both those faces became representations of the South at that time: dignified perseverance and sorrow on the part of African-Americans; insane rage and hate on the part of white people.

elizabeth_and_hazelMargolick spends the book exploring what happened after the shutter clicked — after that moment in time became unfrozen. Teresa’s review of this book from 2011 does a wonderful job summing it up: Elizabeth’s experiences at Central High School were profoundly scarring, and led her to a life weighed down by depression, disability, poverty, and fear. Though she eventually found her voice, it took decades for her to begin to use it for her own, or anyone else’s, advocacy.

Hazel, on the other hand, began to think about the consequences of her actions almost immediately. In the light of the 1960s and 1970s, she rethought racial and gender privilege and was eager to take responsibility for her own actions. She even called Elizabeth in 1963 to apologize for her share in what happened at Central High, long before the ambient temperature of the South had cooled down for race relations. Later still, the two women became friends — what a moment of hope for Little Rock, especially during the Clinton years! — and then, more quietly, the friendship fell apart again in a haze of wariness and misunderstandings. What does this say about race in America?

It’s interesting, of course, to find out what happened to the subjects of an iconic moment. We know what happened to all the Iwo Jima flag-raisers, for instance, while we don’t know what happened to Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.” Margolick takes the significance of this particular photograph and, in my opinion, pushes it pretty hard. The history of the Little Rock Nine and their treatment at Central High is fascinating and important, and I also think it’s vital to know that it was not an inspiring and uplifting experience for all civil rights pioneers. Could most children have gone through constant harassment and isolation and violence, even for a year, without succumbing to it? I know that I couldn’t, and that’s with all my privilege and support network. I’d have liked to see Margolick expand his thoughts about the power structures at play: it wasn’t just Elizabeth’s depression that made her leave Knox College, for instance, but the fact that she was almost the only African-American student there. It wasn’t Elizabeth’s depression that caused her son’s “suicide by cop,” but a whole delicate interplay of poverty, welfare, mental health, gun control, and other matters that frequently pivot on race.

Later, though, when Margolick begins to analyze the friendship between the two women, the gears slip a bit. I understand why there was pressure for these two to meet and be friends. But what did they really have in common? Not upbringing, history, religion, education, or a circle of friends. If the only thing, culturally or in my background, that I had in common with another woman was a love of flowers, I doubt we would ever be close. Margolick puts the weight of the entire racial tension of the United States on the state of friendship of two women who were caught in the same photo at the same time. It’s far too much. They’ve gone from one iconic photo to another, and neither treats them as individuals.

I agree with some of Margolick’s conclusions about race in America. I think that sometimes, some white people have gotten bored with the push for equal rights, and would like to see some gratitude for all the hard work and good faith they’ve put in, not realizing how very far that attitude has to go to attain any version of equality. It’s the same with this book. As important as the topic is, if we believe both Elizabeth and Hazel are unique human beings, equal to each other and to all of the rest of us, how can we expect their friendship to mean anything more than our own friendships, which come and go, like our lives and our love?

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12 Responses to Elizabeth and Hazel

  1. Carol S says:

    What a very thoughtful response to this work, I’m glad it’s been explored and written about but you are so right, in the most compassionate way, to state putting the essence of race relations on the shoulders of these 2 women is not fair, even rather silly. An American academic in race relations and education lived next door to me for a year in the 70’s. She was studying the effects on the children who were bussed to school with the intention of de-ghettoising (such a word?) such schools. She insisted and most vehemently that the vicious and racial cat calling etc that the children experienced had no psychologically deleterious effect on them whatsoever. She was so vehement that I almost suspected that she’d been part of it as a child. I couldn’t talk to her about it, she seemed to only want a listener and I most certainly wasn’t (and probably couldn’t have been) convinced. She believed it was the correct solution anyway. History will tell.

    • Jenny says:

      I suppose the question becomes whether the ends justify the means, and of course very many civil rights pioneers (and others) believed they did. The physical and mental well-being of thousands of African-American children was put in jeopardy to assure integration during those years. Would it have been better to stay separate and comfortable? Or to let only adults take those terrible risks? We don’t know. All we know is what we have now. I’d be interested in reading a good book on the topic, if anyone knows of one; it’s sad but I’m sure it brought results faster, as people saw what happened on TV and in the papers.

  2. Carol S says:

    PS correction, it was in the early 80’s not 70’s.

  3. I always think this is the kind of story that would make a very interesting article, not such a good book. It’s like you say: These are two women in individual circumstances. They weren’t intended to be Microcosms of Their Time. I’d absolutely dread being such a microcosm myself, whether it was because I’d had the Right opinions at the time or the Wrong ones. (Though wrong would be worse, obviously.)

    • Jenny says:

      I think this began as an article, Jenny, and I’m fairly sure it would have been less… ponderous that way. It’s not that the Little Rock Nine is not a very serious topic, worthy of being explored. It is! In fact, I’d have liked to see more about where each of their lives led them. But these two women in the photograph as representations of race relations in America just isn’t fair.

      I agree about it being worse to be on the Wrong Side of History. And perhaps even worse yet to have changed your mind afterward, and not be able to say so, because there you are, caught in a photo on the wrong side. But let’s not make it more than it is, was my view.

  4. Deb says:

    I think it was Hannah Arendt who wrote, in light of the Brown v. The Board of Education decision, that it seemed vastly unfair to burden our children with implementing an action that adults weren’t willing to undertake, that is, to live in racially-mixed neighborhoods. Unfortunately (and speaking as someone who works in a school in a low-income area), political and housing developments over the past four decades have effectively re-segregated many of our public schools once more.

    • Jenny says:

      I think I remember that Arendt came in for a lot of criticism for that comment, didn’t she? It is certainly true that the children (who may or may not have had a chance to develop their own views on race, one way or the other) were often at the forefront of such efforts. Still, it’s hard to imagine desegregation efforts without schools or without involving children at all, since family life is so crucial.

  5. aartichapati says:

    I have the book Warriors Don’t Cry on my shelf to read, but I do not have this one. I like that it is a thoughtful look at racism – fantastic review and cultural insight.

    • Jenny says:

      This was an interesting take — as I said upthread, I’d like to see a good, general book on the effects of desegregation on children, if such a thing exists.

  6. Jeanne says:

    Anytime we identify a group of people as “other” we stop trying to understand their actions and begin trying to force them to act the way we think they should. The Ferguson police are the latest example of this. Presumably, there was a point at which we could have seen them as individuals. Now, though, they’ll be forever tarred as monsters, collectively. We miss the point at which an individual starts to think the unthinkable and so we don’t get the chance to figure out how to stop it next time. Instead, we identify them as “other” and try to distance ourselves, saying we would never do anything like what they did.

    • Jeanne says:

      I hope that made sense. I was trying to say that the individual approach is a good thing, because it will always be combined with other approaches anyway.

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