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Terrence Roberts On Lessons from Little Rock

Why write a book at all? This is a very good question, really. This book seemed to grow inside me over a number of years as I tried to understand what had happened to me during the year I spent at Central High School. Early on, there was too much emotional debris and I kept getting lost in dark corners, reliving fears, rethinking decisions, trying to find some sort of emotional balance. But the urge to write was always there. My sister, Juereta, told me at one point that the "book" would tell me when it was time to be written. Her calm approach helped me to relax and let the process lead me forward. This worked. I even tell my students that their papers will spring forth at the appointed time if they are willing to let the process guide them. In any case, I continued to write and re-write until I had completed the manuscript, or I should say version one of the manuscript. Several iterations later I was able to say to myself, "The book has been written!"

So, why write it? What was so compelling that I needed to record it for generations to come? And this is, in part, an answer: for those who come after me, for those who have a need to understand what the nine of us endured at Central High School, and why we decided it was important to be there in spite of the life-threatening conditions we faced. I have felt for a long time now the essential connections between generations. We were able to endure at Central in part because of the sacrifices made by countless ancestors whose courageous actions helped to establish a foundation upon which we could stand. It is, also in part, a tribute to them that I pen these words.

It is also an explanation to the very young among us about how and why such an action was necessary. At the same time, it serves as inspiration to this group as they encounter vestiges of the same craziness that frustrated us in 1957. Hopefully, my story will provide just the extra push necessary to move a young person to act on principle, to confront injustice, and to demand equal space in the universe he or she inhabits.

In truth, I am convinced beyond measure that we live in a community of the collective-all of us live together in time and space. And, because of that reality, it is needful to tell each other our stories-our stories of personal perspective, fears, concerns, hopes, dreams, and expectations for the future. It is through the telling and hearing of our stories that we begin to tear down the walls of separation that divide us from each other. Some believe, and I concur, that when you know another person's story, it is very difficult to have that person as an enemy. This book tells a portion of my story. The reader gets to see me as a fellow human being who has faced some of the harder edges of life. If I have told my story well enough, it will possibly remind the reader of his or her own perilous journey through life, reveal the similarities between us, or in some cases, remind or even inform the reader about aspects of life and living that are typically absent from the radar screens most commonly scanned by him or her. And, if it is the latter, perhaps my story will be the catalyst to convince these readers to expand their scope of awareness, enlarge their comfort zones, and seek to find other stories that speak about unknown realities.

I write these words for my grandsons who know me as "Papa" and who are just beginning to learn my history. As they grow and develop, I see it as essential that they know the historical antecedents that have contributed to the reality of the present. As my mom saved the printed birth announcement that proclaimed me to be the son of parents who did not merit the social titles of Mr. and Mrs., so I want my grandsons to know how their "Papa" worked to help create an educational environment that would allow both of them to realize fully all the potential they bring to the universe. It is through having an accurate account of the past that we can most completely understand the dynamics of today. And, I write as well for all the sons and daughters who will very soon take their places as leaders of government, business, education, industry, science, and technology, and all the various segments of human enterprise. As you go forth, remember that in you are embodied the hopes and dreams of all of us who have preceded you. If, as I trust it does, my story inspires you to conquer personal greed and selfishness in favor of working to benefit the collective, then by all means use that inspiration to achieve levels of greatness for yourself and others. Be willing to act on principle when others around you may choose political expediency; do the right thing even if it hurts to do so; and know without doubt that you are stewards of the world's goods and products, keeping them safe and in working condition for the next generation.

This is, of course, a work designed to relieve me of the burden of carrying around a vast storehouse of fears and frustrations by myself. You, the reader, now share that task with me. And just as some of you did in 1957 by offering prayers and supplications on our behalf, you now have yet another opportunity to shoulder some of the load. But, as you see, it is getting lighter by the moment. As more and more people join us in this activity, the weight carried by each one is lessened by degree.

Finally, this book serves to open and/or continue the conversation we must have in this country if we are to survive at all levels of social interaction. Race looms large as one of the most salient yet vastly unexplored regions of our life. We have conversations about race without admitting that race is the subject-we speak in code, euphemisms, and double entendre. We accept the scientists' conclusion that race is not biologically supported, but we embrace wholeheartedly the notion of race as tangible legal and social artifact. As we move deeper into this new century, perhaps we can find ways to broach this subject with the intent of removing this archaic notion from the lexicon of human discourse. We have the opportunity; do we have the will or the necessary levels of commitment?