For someone like me who gets nervous before even pretty ordinary events, reading Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley, about a group of the first black students to attend a white school in Virginia in 1959, was almost unbearably frightening. This is a work of fiction, but based on real people’s experiences, doing this very thing. Going to a school where they are not only not wanted, but stared at, shouted at, and generally attacked in ‘small’ ways every day. (And occasionally much bigger ways.) A place where the students count the minutes left of the school day, when they have to try and escape unhurt. The – ineffective – police were only present on the first morning. After that it was every student for themselves.
The topic is so incredibly interesting, because although most of us have read historical descriptions of the early black pioneers for integration in education, I don’t think we’ve really put ourselves in their places. Not stopped to think about what it really must have been like. Because we didn’t have to. Because many of us are white.
So, desegregation in schools would have been more than enough for one novel to deal with. I was a little surprised to find that Robin also added a relationship between a black girl and a white girl, making it an early lesbian issue, on top of everything else. I suspected this was more than would make sense.
But I was wrong. It is what makes Lies We Tell Ourselves a very special book. OK, I didn’t buy the instant attraction between them on the first day when Sarah, the black student, is already incredibly tense over the whole situation. But from then on, the reader can see the situation develop, from both sides.
Sarah is your ‘typical’ black role model; polite to all, intelligent, pretty, sings like an angel, and courageous. The same can be said about Linda, but she happens to be the daughter of a racist newspaperman, and she herself believes in the supremacy of white people and absolutely does not want black students in her school.
It’d be easy to expect a clichéd story about these two girls. But that’s not what Robin gives us. This is very, very good. And frightening. And I’m glad people like Sarah and her nine fellow black students did go through with this, or we’d probably still be looking at segregated schools.
I know. Things are still not right. But reading a book like this will tell you we are on the right path. Hopefully.
Even without the integration issues, this would count as an interesting ‘historical’ document, on how American teenagers lived fifty years ago. Yes, we see some of it in films, but this sets out the rules for dating and going steady and all those things we are only vaguely aware of. It’s fascinating!
I have added the US book cover on the right, because although the UK one is striking, its American counterpart really brings home the period and the way people looked. Makes it feel real.