TAMPA — It is 1969, integration is sweeping through the South and a couple of black teachers in the Hillsborough County school system have a problem. Hoping to help white teachers and black kids talk to each other, they wrote a 52-page guide to black dialect called Let's Cross Over the Wall.
And it seems almost no one wants to use it.
Some black teachers feared it would simply spark jokes. Some white teachers just wanted black students to learn their way of speaking. Eventually, few if any copies would reach classrooms.
Flash-forward 41 years and the now-retired educators are still shaking their heads over what a fuss the words "Negro dialect" kicked up recently. Unlike some politicians and pundits, they think the term that got Senate Majority leader Harry Reid in hot water earlier this month is just fine to talk about.
They only wish we'd gotten past all of this way back then.
"I don't think it's racist; I think he told the truth," said Doris Ross Reddick, 82, who co-wrote Let's Cross Over the Wall with friend and fellow educator Altamese Simmons, also 82. "I don't think (white voters) would have elected somebody who was a deeply dialectical speaker president . . . And I can't believe, after 40 years, that we still can't talk about it."
Reddick's lifetime devotion to uplifting black people, especially black children, fills the home she has lived in for more than 60 years. Atop one cabinet lies a tattered copy of Crusader Without Violence, the 1959 biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. written by her brother-in-law, renowned black historian Lawrence D. Reddick.
Near her front door sits a gleaming plaque commemorating the 2008 dedication of a newly built elementary school in Wimauma named for her. It's a singular honor after 50 years working with the Hillsborough County schools, including 12 years as the first black woman elected to the School Board.
So when Reddick says she and Simmons crafted their book mostly to help black children, you believe her.
But critics seemed to miss their point: that training teachers to talk about the differences, while recognizing and respecting them, seemed the best way to boost communication without destroying kids' self-esteem.
Still close friends after six decades, Simmons and Reddick veer between wistful disappointment and angry defiance while recalling that time. They can't even say why the district declined to distribute the book, because no one told them.
Now they have watched as political pundits dissect Reid's gaffe. During the 2008 campaign, he hailed the presidential prospects of a "light-skinned" Barack Obama who speaks "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." They see the same inability to discuss difference and racial fears that doomed their work back when Obama was still in short pants.
"This is my mother tongue . . . but if Barack Obama was a speaker of black dialect (only), I wouldn't have voted for him either, because that's not how we all communicate," said Simmons, a retired teacher and administrator with 25 years' experience in Hillsborough schools.
"If we had been able to teach people these lessons back then, maybe this still wouldn't be going on, 40 years later."
Race's ability to divide endures
Reid's words, revealed in a new book about the 2008 campaign called Game Change, set off a chorus of criticism from Republicans and backpedaling from Democrats. Republican Party chairman Michael Steele, who is black, accused the Nevada Democrat of making racist assumptions about white voters, demanding he resign as majority leader. President Obama accepted a quickly offered apology and vouched for his lack of prejudice.
Left undiscussed: Why was it racist for Reid to say, if awkwardly, what some black pundits had also said — that Obama had a shot at the presidency because he didn't fit the typical stereotype of a black politician?
"For a politician, it was odd that he used the term (Negro) . . . I didn't know people still used the word anymore," said MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews. He's hosting Obama's America: 2010 and Beyond, a two-hour live discussion of the first year of Obama's presidency with radio host Tom Joyner at 10 p.m. Monday on MSNBC.
But Matthews, a self-described "middle-aged white guy" who faced his own controversies for past statements about Hillary Clinton, understood Reid's point.
"If (Obama) had been just another guy with a black Southern accent . . . if he came up with that sense of grievance, would whites have been more fearful of him?" he said. "We all share this tragic history of slavery. (And) I think it all gets back to that white man's fear of blacks because of that history."
Keith Berry, a professor of history at Hillsborough Community College, found himself calling into a local radio station days after the Reid scandal broke, arguing with DJs who were asking people with black dialects to call in so they could make fun of them.
Berry, who is black, felt such comedy echoed typical stereotypes about black people while avoiding real conversation about the issue. It also highlighted one of the unexpected consequences of electing a black president; instead of reducing uncomfortable conversations about race, it can bring them up more often.
"We don't know each other, white and black, and we're scared to get to know each other," said Berry, who often talks about race issues in his history classes. "We honestly have a disconnect from our own history; we don't talk to each other, we talk around each other."
A heartbreaking language gap
Simmons remembers very clearly when she first saw a need for the book.
She'd been summoned in a hurry to a classroom, where a white teacher was standing over an emotional black child. He kept saying "gih-annur-run," (give me another one), asking for a sheet of paper needed for classwork. But for the teacher, he might as well have been speaking another language.
"It crushed me to see this boy near tears," she said. "He knew the teacher was tearing down his only means of communication. How can you teach someone if you can't communicate with them?"
Neither of the women can remember who first thought of creating a handbook, but the pair spent six years collecting sayings and expressions, filling shoeboxes of notecards with observations. They wrote out how to pronounce certain sounds, the negative effects of criticizing such dialects as lazy or crude and the meaning of words such as "Leb'n" (eleven), "Hog" (Cadillac, as well as an animal), "Finnuh" (the Southern expression "fixing to" or getting ready to) and "Datun" (That one).
Years before the term ebonics would become another cultural flash point, the pair suggested that black children be taught standard English almost like a new language, the way the children of Cuban immigrants were taught.
But as the pair worked, their supervisor in the school system seemed to lose enthusiasm. Eventually, they were given just two weeks to write the book and supervisors wanted to place a horribly stereotypical image of black children on the cover, which would have confirmed black teachers' worst fears about how the material could be used.
Though Reddick and Simmons won a tough fight to get a new image on the cover (a brick wall containing words from their list), the new graphic also proved a disappointing metaphor for the attitudes that doomed the project.
Now, Reddick and Simmons can't help wondering about an opportunity that was lost, how many children struggled unnecessarily and how the same discomfort with cultural differences has fueled the political fights now underway in Washington.
"It's the children that missed out . . . and unfortunately, this language business has been going on for a long time," said Reddick. "I would think these people in Washington could use the time to talk about something more constructive."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Eric Deggans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8521. See the Feed blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.