Initially, I signed up for this course because I did not get into other classes that I wanted, but in the end, I am very thankful this opportunity came along. I was not sure what I was getting into before the semester started, and even while the semester was underway. I knew I was going to conduct an independent study based on African Americans, and it would fulfill parts of my sociology major, but I did not know what exactly the project entailed. I have always been the sort of person who needed everything organized and this independent study was anything, but organized. Going into the town of Steelton with simply a name and phone number, we were expected to walk into someone’s home and ask them personal questions about their life history. If I were the one on the opposing side, I do not know if I would be as willing to speak about my past, but for the most part, people were very willing to share their stories and some seemed to greatly enjoy the time we spent together. The interviews were both educational for us students, and narrators, as they were given a chance to tell stories that some have never shared with anyone before. I was presented with stories about making clothes out of bags since some families were so “po,” to hearing about a hanging that took place among three young boys. I think all thirteen of us were overwhelmed this semester because we saw history take on real names and faces in our lives. It was an exhilarating experience, which allowed us to see the world around us differently than before.
Before we chose our independent study focus, we were brought into the town of Steelton and introduced to residents and attended several church services. As part of our adventure, we went to Baptist Churches on early Sunday mornings, where we were part of the minority. Although it was not the first place where I had played the role of the minority as a white female, the experience was still insightful. I was most worried when showing up at these churches, about how people would feel upon seeing a group of white students walking into their place of worship. Instead of resentful eyes glancing over in our direction, we were welcomed more so than any other church I have ever attended. Most of us had never seen a congregation that exhibited such strong faith in the Lord. People shouted out in song that allowed anyone in a bad mood to walk out with a smile. Strong handshakes and friendly hugs were given to one another after the liturgy and many students continued to attend these Sunday services, feeling very comfortable and welcomed by those they hardly knew.
While we were integrating ourselves into this small town just twenty miles north of Carlisle, we were also taking classes at Dickinson College. In a period of six weeks we had thorough lessons in African American history that were emotionally draining as they proved that United States history was much uglier than we were ever taught in high school. I remember reading chapters on the horrors of lynchings in the college library and looking out the window trying to imagine myself living in that time period and having to see and experience it for myself. Even though I was reading information on the topic ad infinitum, I simply could not imagine myself in an African American’s shoes.
Taking an English class on African Americans brought all the issues discussed in the history class into autobiographies which painted a clearer picture of what it is like to live as a black individual. Feelings of anger, frustration, sorrow, and guilt were all thoughts that ran through my mind as I read these stories. The autobiography that had the most impact on me was called Makes Me Wanna Holler by Nathan McCall. His brutally honest and angry piece should be read by all as it depicts a picture of what it is like to grow up as an African American male in our society. Although Nathan spent his youth stealing, vandalizing, raping, and killing people, we felt some understanding, and even some empathy for this man.
In order for us to be fully prepared to enter Steelton as prepared interviewers, we were also introduced to the history of Steelton, as well as lessons in interviewing. I have always been more of an introvert and I was a little nervous about interviewing people. Saying the wrong thing, or unintentionally offending someone, was a big fear of mine. Not only was I expected to break out of my shell in order to conduct strong interviews, I was now taking a class that was by no means a lecture class, but rather a conversation with my professors. No longer was I supposed to be quiet, sitting in my chair taking in all the information. As the semester developed, I became more comfortable with the twelve other students and realized that they were not there to judge me, but rather to gain insight on others’ comments. Once I found my voice, I enjoyed the class much more, and fully engaged myself in this educational experience.
Little did I know when I signed up, there was going to be an assembly at the end of the year where each student presented their information. Having taken Professor Sloat’s Public Speaking class the semester before, I was slightly relieved, but still nervous. I found myself asking my professors, “So… how many seats did you say are in that auditorium?” and “When you say it’s going to be a full house… what do you mean by that?” Once again, I needed to break out of my shell and be confident standing in front of several hundred people.
Not only did I prove to myself that I could conquer this fear of public speaking, but I met some amazing people on the way. Bishop Albert Belton is the one that most stands out of mind. He immediately filled the room with kindness as he shook my hand with forcefulness and a hearty smile. Never had I met someone so positive, and yet, who had lived such a difficult life. Not only were these interviews full of educational worth, but they were also filled with life lessons.
Having had the opportunity to investigate lives different from my own has been more of a learning experience than taking the traditional four classes. Now that the Mosaic has come to a close, I view the world around me differently; when I meet someone new, or I drive through a town, I wonder what kind of life histories lie there and have never been explored. I feel more knowledgeable of how the classroom situation was like for African Americans then, and now. Since I plan to become a teacher after I graduate, knowing this history will help me to reject racism in America one step at a time.
-Marie Gschwindt de Gyor