Mine was a Crooked Path – Skowhegan Notes (2009)
Picturing Us Together
It Wasn't Little Rock
Making Artist's Books
The Site of Transition from Female to Male
In so Many Words
Reliving My Mother's Struggle
The Plaintiff Speaks
Witness to Dissent
Women of Color
Taking the Private Public
American Black Student
It Wasn’t Little Rock - Notes for VSW Press
“It Wasn't Little Rock” was the response that black students in Arlington, Virginia often gave when asked about their experiences in the newly racially desegregated public schools of the 1960s. It was shorthand for we might have problems but we are not being subjected to the unspeakable hatred that was showered on black students when they integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. White students spat on, beat up, yelled insults, destroyed black student lockers, threw flaming paper wads at them in the bathrooms, sprayed acid in the eyes of a female black student and even threw lighted sticks of dynamite at others. To the Arlington students, Central High in Little Rock provided the standard for what they might face when integrating formerly all white schools in their county. This, however, did not occur in Arlington or in Virginia. Yet the lives of the Arlington students and their families were affected in ways that impacted their lives forever. Some continue to be bitter to this day.
During a residency at the Washington Project for the Arts (WPA) and Pyramid Atlantic in Washington, D.C in 1992, I created a text-based installation. Entitled “Witness to Dissent: Remembrance and Struggle” it evolved through recollection and investigation, interviews on audio and videotape of numerous people including my family, neighbors, Congressional men and women and other former civil rights activists, and searches through libraries and archives for old news and images that were buried in my psyche.
Years later, in 2004, I revisited the boxed contents of the installation and set about creating an artists’ book for the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling, Brown vs. Board of Education. My focus, however, shifted to the question of what motivated my mother, a quiet, reserved, seemingly passive but determined “colored” woman who grew up in the South, to offer up her own children as plaintiffs in the Arlington school class actions suits?
Fragments of stories, told to me by my mother, were interwoven with an exploration of my experience as the lead plaintiff in the 1955 school desegregation case in Virginia (Clarissa Thompson et. al. vs. Arlington County School Board) and with excerpts from news clippings, legal documents, and interviews with my sisters, brother and daughter.
The narratives reveal change, transformation, and complications. Ethel Mozell Thompson was the daughter of sharecroppers from North Carolina. Through revisiting her personal story of struggle, anger, and pride, reality is shown to be stranger than fiction. Her family’s tragedies make it seem as if her decision to enter her children into the Virginia school desegregation suits and the newly integrated schools was inevitable, a matter of intersections of time and place.
Although I work a lot with text, it is the oral rather than print origins of black culture that have a great influence on my work. In the neighborhood where I grew up, stories were told at family and social gatherings and in the songs and music which where a big part of our lives. It is this quality that I try to create in this work.
The book, at 11 x 8 inches, is approximately the size of spiral notebooks used by students today. The shiny white paper and laminated cover take on that quality of a hybrid school text and composition book. When the proofs came from the printer, the images were flattened out and often more contrasty than I had intended, but there was no time or opportunity to make corrections and changes because of costs. The book that was produced at Visual Studies Workshop resulted in a work that was different from the way I had visualized the piece.
Copyright © Clarissa Sligh, 2009
“Notes on It Wasn’t Little Rock,” Artists’ Books: Visual Studies Workshop Press 1971-2008, edited by Joan Lyons, Visual Studies Workshop Press, 2009, Rochester, NY.