In the spring of my senior year, I found an article in Look Magazine about Mike Bixby, from Tupelo, Mississippi. His story enticed me. He was a white student who’d chosen to stay in a public high school after it was rapidly desegregated. The white students in his district had transferred en masse to a private school, but Bixby and nine other whites had chosen to remain.
I loved the article and I loved the photo of him–the way his muscular arms were folded thoughtfully across his chest, and the way he’d poised himself against the edge of a desk comfortably and, yet, with just a hint of restlessness. He wasn’t looking into the camera, but was gazing off somewhere, pondering an important thought. In Tupelo, where the white community prided itself on preserving the Hierarchy of the Ole South, Mike Bixby had opened himself up to being ridiculed and shunned by his own tribe. According to the article, he was called ‘Ni*ra Lover’ behind his back by the old ladies in his church who perceived themselves as too Christian to make that hard “gg” sound and all it implied.
In the article, he admitted that he was scared, sometimes, while walking the hallways between classes. He even told his new schoolmates to cut him a break if he acted aloof, because he hadn’t yet found his sea legs amidst the jarring imbalance of his new surroundings. ‘No, man,’ they told him. ‘We got your back.’
I’d cut out the article and the photo and pinned it to my bulletin board. To me, Mike Bixby was a pioneer. I wanted to be a pioneer, too. He challenged his feelings about race. I wanted to challenge my feelings about race. And he’d been accepted by black students in his school; the article said they treated him as an equal. I, too, was an equal, not a better-than or a less-than. I knew it instinctively. We were equals.
My brother Allan dropped in my room one afternoon to take back his White Album. At 19, he was moving out. His hair—short when he’d graduated high school two years ago—now fell below his shoulders, and a first-time goatee was struggling to make a home on his chin. Since the Beatles’ breakup, I’d been revisiting all of their songs in order of their release. I’d coopted his White Album for weeks, transfixed by Blackbird and Revolution 1, and was now on to Abbey Road. Even though two years had passed since they’d split up, I still clung to the hope that they’d get back together because, to me, there couldn’t be an end to the music I’d leaned on for so much of my life.
“Who’s that dork?” He glanced at the photo of Mike Bixby pinned to the board over my bed, and he laughed. “Someone you want to make out with, instead of your pillow?” He scanned the article describing how Mike Bixby was breaking down race barriers as a minority in a black public school in the deep south. ‘They’re even teaching me the Funky Chicken,’ Bixby had told the reporter.
“He’s too cool for you. Too good-looking, too.” Allan checked the album for scratches and slid it into the sleeve.
Once my brother left, I looked in the mirror, confirming what he’d said. I was plain Elaine. I wasn’t unattractive, but I was hardly Mike Bixby’s type. Yet I and Mike Bixby shared one thing: We respected blacks and wanted integration and equal rights in America. And we were willing to do more than just lip service. We were willing, and ready, to step into their worlds and walk alongside.