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Echoes of Brown: Youth Documenting and Performing the Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education.

ECHOES OF BROWN: Youth Documenting and Performing the Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education

Echoes of Brown is a DVD presentation of a project led by Michelle Fine and Maria Elena Torre, of the CUNY Graduate Center, Center for Human Environments, which assembled thirteen high school students from the metropolitan New York area to learn the history and discuss the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education. The dvd includes a documentary about the project, interviews with eight "elders", spoken word performances by the young people, summaries of research on the subject of Brown's legacy, interviews with the artists and scholars who worked on the project, and information concerning institutions related to the project. While some portions of the dvd could provide useful classroom resources, overall it does not deliver on its promise to present a dialogue about history or to integrate the project components, and thus fails to live up to its potential.

The main feature of Echoes of Brown is the documentary about the project, which weaves together four elements. First, there are segments of interviews with one white and seven black narrators, most of whom tell stories about their encounter with school segregation, their reaction to Brown, and its aftermath. The second element is interviews with young people about their experiences with educational inequality and racial and ethnic tensions in schools. The main portion of the video is comprised of scenes of the students meeting with artists, learning to write poetry and to dance, sharing their stories, and planning performances. Finally, as the video progresses, there are portions of the students' performances.

There are aspects of this dvd that have potential for inspiring productive use in the classroom. The stories from the elders combine first person reminiscences of segregated education with reflections on where we are today. As we continue to debate Brown and witness the resegregation of schools, hearing these stories can be a useful reminder of what we never should return to. In addition, the insights from the young people about their schools, particularly their description of tracking and second hand materials, could spark conversations about the "achievement gap" and the expectations and prejudices that impact educational inequality.

Beyond those strengths, the dvd is disappointing from the perspective of an oral historian and professor of modern US history. Most important, the introductory material promises that the project involved a dialogue about the history and meaning of Brown. Yet, there is no such dialogue between the young people and their elders. At no point in the documentary do the teenagers meet the elders or engage with their interviews. Indeed, the two parts of the project seem to be completely disconnected, leaving the viewer to wonder why the elder interviews were collected if they were not to be integrated into the main part of the project. Instead, apparently from what was revealed in the documentary, the young peoples' lessons about the history of educational inequality came from a classroom lecture. This misses an opportunity for the teenagers to engage with people who lived through school segregation pre-Brown and thus give some historic context to their experience. For example, in one segment one of the young people describes cafeteria cliques as an example of segregation; students of color tend to eat with "their own kind" so to speak. While revealing a problem in the lack of true social integration in our society, this does not replicate the evils of the state sponsored school segregation and inequality of the pre-Brown period and to see it as such betrays a lack of historical perspective. Hearing the elders describe what once was, could help students to see the difference.

Readers of this journal may rightly ask if this project is in fact oral history. Definitions of oral history can be quite expansive but most practitioners agree that it involves an extended conversation between a narrator and an interviewer about personal history that is recorded and preserved for posterity. Oral histories with the eiders were collected, but apparently not used. The young people discussed their own experience and used that experience to produce spoken word and dance performances. While the poetry is at times beautiful and is always thought provoking, the students' discussions and their product reveals little historic content or context. The performances are a stimulating and admirable expression of orally communicated content. But, as an attempt to foster a dialogue with the past and ground an exploration of racism and inequality in today's schools in the history of educational segregation and Brown, the DVD and project as a whole do not fulfill their promise.

Tracy E. K'Meyer

University of Louisville
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Author:K'Meyer, Tracy E.
Publication:The Oral History Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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