Atlanta journalist and Douglas A. Blackmon has a distinguished career working at the Wall Street Journal and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 2009, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Now, the Georgia State University professor is tackling a story very close to home as writer and producer of a new documentary, The Harvest.
Debuting September 12 on PBS’s American Experience, The Harvest explores the story of first integrated public school class in Leland, Mississippi, of which Blackmon was a part of. The film is produced by prolific Oscar-nominated filmmaker and producer Sam Pollard (Citizen Ashe, Black Art: In the Absence of Light), who also worked on the documentary adaptation of Slavery by Another Name.
While 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Board of Education mandated the integration of the country’s public schools, it did little to change things in Blackmon’s corner of the South, where schools remained defiantly segregated, as did almost every facet of public life in Mississippi. That status quo changed with the 1969 decision in Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, which ordered still segregated schools to immediately desegregate. In the fall of 1970, Blackmon’s first grade class was the first in the town’s history to have both Black and white students. For a time, it looked like a civil rights success.
But The Harvest shows the many ways that new forms of segregation were created in the wake of the 1969 decision. Private, whites-only schools popped up. Classes in the newly integrated public schools began to be divided into “smart” and “average” students along largely racial lines. And deep social divisions remained, so that students who spent their days together in classrooms never socialized or visited each others’ homes outside of school. Black-and-white images from Leland yearbooks in the film show Black faces, but those students tended to stand apart, visually testifying to lingering divides.
The dreamy Kodachrome home movie footage that opens The Harvest documents football games, beauty queens, parades, boy scouts, immaculately tended front lawns, and smiling tow-headed children that paint a picture of all-American prosperity. This was hardly the case for Leland’s Black residents, working in virtual indentured servitude and trapped in grinding, inescapable poverty. Their exploitation was so intense many refused to work for white employers and started an encampment, Strike City, outside Leland. Schoolboy Blackmon foreshadowed his future as a journalist when he presented an essay on Strike City to the Leland Lion’s Club. The reaction of the Lions Club members to his sympathetic portrait of Strike City ranged from strained silence to rage.
It was a formative moment for Blackmon. “That moment amplified an interest that I obviously already had in both the civil rights story, but also just a genuine reflection about why were the lives of my Black classmates so radically different than mine?”
The Harvest was initially a storytelling challenge for Blackmon. Like most journalists, Blackmon’s job trained him to be an impartial observer. The idea of talking about his own experiences, narrating the film, even having his own mother, father, and brother interviewed felt a little uncomfortable.
“Sam [Pollard, the film’s producer] thought it was crazy of to even suggest anything else,” Blackmon says. “Sam comes from a very empathetic, human, emotional storytelling kind of approach. And so I think for him, it sounded kind of crazy to suggest that it would not be a very personal story, or that I would not narrate the story. He was right.”
Among the many insights and surprises in The Harvest is how it illustrates, in the voices of Blackmon’s Leland classmates and town residents, just what white privilege looks like—a kind of blindered, willful ignorance that allows great injustice to unfold conveniently outside its peripheral vision. The members of Leland’s white middle class interviewed for the film seemed to lack any inkling of what the foundation of their comfort and contentment is built upon, says Blackmon: “The film is very much about this world that was created by this tradition of extraordinary white privilege.”
Blackmon reached out to people he hadn’t communicated with, in some cases, for 30 years and persuaded them to sit down and recollect with cameras rolling. He says getting people to reveal an unflattering collusion in an oppressive system or the humiliating treatment some Black residents endured was mostly a matter of getting people comfortable. (Pollard often stepped in to interview Black subjects.)
“[The goal was] just to keep people talking and encourage them to go to places that they might have conditioned themselves to avoid because they were uncomfortable,” Blackmon says. At one point in the film, a former Black classmate, Jesse King, recalls the humiliation and shock the day he watched his father’s foreman kick him in front of his wife and children.
The Harvest’s origin was a 1992 essay, “The Resegregation of a Southern School,” that Blackmon wrote in Harper’s about the 10th anniversary of his high school class’s graduation. He was encouraged to write a book about his personal experience of school integration, but the memoir he began to write, he later discovered, did not feel like an accurate recollection.
“I went back to the manuscript and I was startled that some of my memories in the manuscripts, and in my mind, didn’t match up anymore. Either I had gotten clarity, or I had gotten fuzzy about certain things—not so much about whether specific events occurred or didn’t occur, but how I interpreted them or the significance of them. And I realized that that manuscript was not the first draft of a book—it was an artifact,” says Blackmon. “I was, in effect, an unreliable narrator.”
It made more sense, after working with Pollard on Slavery by Another Name, to tell Leland’s story as a film. “I need to be a reporter,” Blackmon realized. “And I need to go back and find other people who were a part of all of these different things, and see how they remember it.”
The history Blackmon documents in The Harvest—how despite the inroads of school integration, public education became a racially divided enterprise over time—continues today. Public schools remain a battleground, Blackmon points out, in states like Florida, where new legislation prevents instructors from teaching students that a person’s race could contribute to their privilege or oppression. He says that under this law, The Harvest would likely be barred from high school classrooms.
Even in Atlanta, a city defined by the Civil Rights Movement, an assault on public education has impacted classrooms.
“We trick ourselves a bit in Atlanta into believing that some of these dynamics were not at play here, when in fact, they really were,” Blackmon says. “Once desegregation of the schools was underway, white people abandoned public school in massive numbers. And that’s what happened in Atlanta. And that’s still the case in Atlanta.”
“There is an increasing movement away from the idea that public schools are the great leveling influence in our society and the place where the rich and the poor become one,” he adds.
A series of screenings and discussions around The Harvest are scheduled through Georgia Humanities. You can view their calendar here.
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