Visiting the Deep South of the '60s — Through a Teacher's Journal
Jo Ivester joins Texas Standard to talk about life in Mount Bayou, Mississippi, and what she learned through her mother’s work.
Jo Ivester remembers what segregation looked like in the American South — she was a member of the only white family in an all-black Mississippi town. In her new book “Outskirts of Hope: A Memoir of the 1960s Deep South,” Ivester describes the shock of transplanting from the Boston suburbs to Mount Bayou, Mississippi – one of the poorest, most segregated communities in America.
“We weren’t prepared for anything when we got to Mississippi,” Ivester says. “No one sat down with us and said, ‘Here’s what you can expect.’”
There was, however, one thing the southern community warned her about.
“We were told that the Ku Klux Klan was still very active,” Ivester says. “We had specific instructions, things like, 'don’t get in an integrated car and drive beyond our little town,' because that makes you a target.”
The memoir begins in 1967, just after Lyndon B. Johnson announced his plan for the War on Poverty. Part of the program required “foot soldiers” to rejuvenate the poorest parts of America.
Her father, a pediatrician, and her mother, a high school teacher, wanted to help. Ivester recalls the immediate barriers her mother, Aura, had to face upon teaching a class of students she could barely even understand.
“Her very first day, she gets into class and just asked all the students to say their name,” Ivester recounts. But her mother quickly realized she would have to fight the language barrier just to teach them.
The children, especially those coming from rural plantations, spoke in strong dialects, which Ivester described as “ebonics” or “black speech.”
“We didn’t really have a name for it back then,” Ivester says. “All she knew was she couldn’t understand them.”
Striving to solve the problem, Aura Ivester soon began to teach the children phonetics.
“She used that to get them to speak in a more mainstream way, saying to them, ‘if you do this, and you want to move north to get jobs… you’ll be better able to do that if you can speak the way the other people around you are speaking,’” Ivester says.
“Without saying the way they were speaking was wrong or disrespectful,” she adds.
In fact, the memoir builds largely upon the experiences of Ivester’s mother, who left behind a series of journals about her life as a schoolteacher in the town. Ivester says she kept journals as well, but burned them in embarrassment. Now she fights to remember the past, writing her memoir as an agent of change.
Ivester argues that circumstances in today’s society still present an ongoing struggle to the black community that may seem invisible to whites.
“I think that it’s very easy for us to forget how difficult it can be to be African American in the United States today,” Ivester says. “There are little things that happen that most of white America isn’t aware of, and I’m not talking about violence, I’m just talking about a level of discomfort that is really incredibly unpleasant, and then it can become dangerous.”
Ivester referenced that in places like Ferguson, Missouri, for example, things can still get out of hand. But modern day America must continue reach for a solution – like the Civil Rights movement tried in the past.
“There is still a separation,” she says. “We are not there yet, and we all have to work on it. And I’m hoping this book will help that conversation along.”
This story was prepared with assistance by Sarah Alerasoul and Jan Ross Piedad.