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MFP 021 Interviewee: Liz Fusco Aaronsohn Interviewer: Dr. Paul Ortiz Date: August 6, 2004 A: I' m Liz Aaronsohn. I was Liz Fusc o in 1964 and that's how people down here know me. O: Can you spell Fusco? A: F U S C O, it's an Italian name. What I was just talking about is this demonstration that we just saw. The kid from the community was shot by the police and was hurt they said paralyzed, and that's what's happening to our kids t hat's one thing that's happening to our kids. Emmett Till was fourteen. A nd when I wa s staying in Sidon, Mississippi, in 1965, there was a fourteen year old kid, Fr e ddy Lee Thomas. T hey mobbed him up on the highway, killed him, no one ever charged for it. They just did it because they could. A nd then in Carthage, a fourteen year old boy how ol d was the young man who was shot ? U: Oh, they didn't shoot him, they broke h is neck. A: In Hartford a fourteen year old boy was shot in the back by a cop and we tried to get the cop fired for y ears. They wouldn't even indict the cop. U: We want to know how long we have to go about doing what's right. A: Wow. Well I think that' s what the whole meeting insid e really needs to talk about, here it is right now, right? You're doing what's right. That's probably what should happen the organizers are in there, Charles M cLa uri n and Hollis Watkins and some other SNCC workers are right in there, and so you might ask for their
MFP 021; Fusco Aaronsohn ; Page 2 " advice about what they suggest that you might do because that's another outrage. U: So it's time for them to go. A: Time for them to go. Ask for Charles M cLa uri n and Hollis Watkins, they're SNCC workers from the  60 s and they've been working steady ever since. Ask them what they s uggest that you might do and t here they are, that's it. U: He said Mac just left. A: McLauri n just left? Is Hollis still in there, Hollis Watkins? O: Or Lawrence? A: Or G u yo t is in there, Lawrence Guyo t? Any of them were SNCC workers and they're experienced with this stuff, they'll know exactly what to suggest to you. You've got more space no w tha n we had in the  60 s to move on the C ity H all, to go down with your signs, and to move on C ity H all and make these demands. U: They have nothing that they could do to us. A: Not by law, no ma'am. As long as you're nonviolent. Sounds like you did the right thing, that you're doing the right thing this is what needs to happen t o make that demand and just say there's no way this can happen. It's happening all over the country, it happened in Cincinnati, happened in Florida, happens all the time in L A I was just telling this gentleman it happened in Hartford, Connecticut, cops shot a fourteen year old black boy in the back, a white cop. We tried to get him fired, it took us two years and we couldn't get him fired. We picketed the
MFP 021; Fusco Aaronsohn ; Page 3 " police station and we raised our voices .We weren't successful in ge tting h im fir ed, but he now has a desk job. That's a desk job and a traffic job, so we kept him out of the community at least by steady protesting. O: You all can definitely demand investigation. And people are giving testimony about what happened? And go door to door, make sure the whole neighborhood is safe. U: They told us get a paper, sign a petition, everyone put they name on it. O: The biggest danger is t hat people sometimes get burned out. A march is easy to do, it's spectacular, and then what do y ou do the next day? You just have to keep people A: Energized. Make phone calls at night because the FBI is from here. So the FBI agents are all local Mississippians and the state troopers are all local. O: That's exactly how you talk about connecting the past, present, an d future. I will hear people saying all the time, you know when I go to events like this or political organizing that I work with, people say they don't have the same passion . but it's not true. A: So I want to say something abo ut Bill Cosby, and I was going to say something in my speech but I wanted to give Hollis much more time. I didn't hear Bill Cosby talk and I didn't see his whole speech written out but I know the drill, I know what he's talking about, he is blaming the pa rents and the children in the inner city. He is blaming them for the situation that they're stuck in. Talk about a colonized
MFP 021; Fusco Aaronsohn ; Page 4 " mind Bill Cosby. When's the last time he lived in the inner city, does he forget his roots? He forgets that most of the people in t he inner city are being raised by single parents who have to work two or three jobs, and they're not home, and they have to work all those jobs because there are not the jobs there used to be for people. The drugs that are in the city . people are deal ing because there are no jobs. They've got to be able to pay the rent and put food on the table, they're doing that to help out their mamas. It is not because they cho o se it, and the mamas for the most part are not anymore crack heads than the wealthy white people in the suburbs who are into cocaine and are doing whatever they're doing. It's not disproportionately a thing of black families, and it isn't that the black families don't cherish their children. They love their children, but I will say to you that most of the young people that I work with who are going to be teachers in a few semesters are convinced that black parents don't care about their kids, poor parents don't care about their kids; if they did, they would come to conferences. And my graduate students all say this, well they didn't come for a conference, I had only three parents show up because black parents, poor parents don't care. I said come on, what are you talking about? And I try to have them understand, be in the position, of a person who has to work two or three jobs. I finally say to them look, parent involvement, what do you mean by parent involvement? Well, like my mother did. Well your mother was able to stay home because your father worked a job that provided for everybody in t he family -one person could provide for everybody. Your mother was able to be a real mother. But not everybody is able to do that, and so that shouldn't be the model. I said is
MFP 021; Fusco Aaronsohn ; Page 5 " it parent involvement that that child gets to school every day? And they had to admit yeah, it's clear that no matter what if that child gets to school every day that parent cares about that child's education, and that's all the involvement you need; anything on top of that is extra. It means teachers have to take the initiativ e to show parents that we care about their children. We have to assume parents care about their children, but Cosby has done a terrible disservice I think by himself putting down the black family in the inner city. And not only does he talk about that they don't watch their children, they don't care about their children, he's talking about their language. That's Ebonics. That's the language that slaves developed out o f African gram mars with English, the master's vocabulary on top of it. It's an incredibly creative language that was developed that is now spoken across this country. It is not slang, it has a very predictable grammar and syntax and style. It is its own la nguage, and for Cosby not to recognize that he has b ought into all the white middle class myths. It's tragic to hear him talking about this stuff. The be st antidote to it, I think, is [The] B oondocks ." O: Right, Aaron McG ruder. A: I'm so glad that Aaron McG ruder has taken on Cosby because that's what he's talking about. White folks love hearing this because they love to bash the black family. O: The irony about what Cosby says t here's so many ironies b ut one of them is that the behavior that he's atta cking is one of the things that's been commodified and is primari ly consumed in the white middle class community. The talk, the
MFP 021; Fusco Aaronsohn ; Page 6 " lingo, the hip hop, the pants. I see with my white university students who do everything they can to try to, as they think, act black. A: Yeah, because it's cool. O: Because it's cool, and it's been commodified with MTV. So I think it 's ironic that Cosby, who's like the consummate entrepreneur, either doesn't understand this A: Or has bee n paid not to understand this. B ut I think he's just been gone so long, and I think that's why it's so interesting: that those of us who are here, who are still working which is most peop le who were really part of the M ovement know that's not true. But Cos by never was, he grew up middle class He's got his doctorate from the same place I've got my doctorate from, and so I challenge my colleague, Bill Cosby. Having a doctorate doesn't make you smart. Being president doesn't mean you're smart. Miss Hamer was smarter than any of them, she had an eighth grade education, she spoke Ebonics. These people in here speak Ebonics. They're not ignorant, they're not lazy, they're not refusing to work hard, they're not rejecting America. You listen to Ray Charles sing America the Beautiful ; that's not rejecting America, but he's speaking Ebonics. Right? O: He sang it in his own way, exactly. Liz I wonder if we could talk about the experience that you h ad in the Civil Rights M ovement and if you could ta lk about what l ed you into the M ovement. Childhood experiences, your younger life growing up?
MFP 021; Fusco Aaronsohn ; Page 7 " A: I've written about that, there's a book ca lled Owning and Disowning White e dited by Jim O'Donnell at the University of Arizona The whole idea of whiteness and how white peo ple came about, their commitment and all that stuff is really a topic of conversation. We've talked about it at National Association of Multicultural Educators for the past several years, and several books are out like ours. Basically I will say this to y ou: my father was a r abbi and he taught me justice, justice shalt thou do, and I took him seriously. Period. That's it. O: What was the star t of your involvement with the M ovement? A: Well let's see, you're talking about SNCC and CORE and Mississippi, o r are you talking about Civil Rights in general? O: Civil Rights in general. A: Well I can go back. I suppose when I was in Seattle, Washington, I had planned to go to the Peace Corps but I was selected out because I was asking too many question s about Vietnam and about class structure in the United States. They said you'll have servants in Ethiopia as teachers, teachers have servants. I said huh uh I'm not going to have any servants. I don't believe in having servants. My mother grew up in an o rphanage and she was a servant and I won't have servants. I was arrogant, twenty three, twenty four year old, and so they selected me out. They said maybe it's the way you wear your hair. I had big hair and I played guitar and I walked around barefoot, it was 1962. So I started to question America at that time. I was living in Seattle so I joined Seattle CORE and we were doing sit ins and demonstrations just like this for the same reasons, so I
MFP 021; Fusco Aaronsohn ; Page 8 " was active in Seattle. Then I read in a paper called the Natio nal Guardian n o longer exists a bout a call for white volunteers N orthern volunteers to come down. I was wanting to leave a bad marriage and so I said okay, and I got so hooked in Oxford, Ohio, and being here in Ruleville and I just stayed. Stayed for t wo years. And I left at the end of two years because I really wanted to be teaching and mostly by the end I was going out canvassing, encouraging people to register to vote one on one. I missed the clas sroom because I had been a teacher before. I was older than most of the young people who came down, I was twenty eight when I came down. I was already teaching three or four years. So the white power structure would not let me teach there weren't any integrated schools and they wouldn't let me teach in eithe r of the black or the white schools, so I left. That's when I went up to New Y ork City and got involved with Teachers Against R acism. I think everything in my life led me to that or got in the way of that, one or the other. O: Today in the panel discussio n you were talking about the importance of the Freedom S chools. This is something that historians and everyone else is fi nally realizing is part of the M ovement, because for many years when you hear about the M ovement even now when you hear about the Civi l Rights M ovement the Freedom S chools are always the last thing that's brought in. A: Yeah I t's, o h by the way, there were also F reedom S chools. But as Hollis was saying today and I strongly feel and as D r Vincent Harding talks about in here it's the liberation of people's minds from a slave mentality and a mentality of inferiority. Who was he quoting where he said if you convince people they're
MFP 021; Fusco Aaronsohn ; Page 9 " inferior, you don't have to do any more work; they've already enslaved themselves. So bringing black hist ory to people, bringing their voices back to them, we had a newspaper called The Student Voice and the whole idea of voice was really important. I think what most of us discovered even though there were separate projec ts voter registration community centers, and freedom school w e realized before the end of the summer that it was really one project, that you couldn't have voter registration without F reedom S chool and you couldn't have a place for all of this without a community c enter and who you were teaching. I f we're going to put that in quo tations, who you were teaching they're not just teenagers that you thought you were going to be teaching lessons to, i t's everybody, it's elderly people who want to learn. It's Pau lo Freire's idea, but we didn't know about Pa u lo Freire at that time although he was operating in Brazil at the same time as we were operating in Mississippi, but we didn't know about that then. Only later did we find that out. O: In your talk today you talked about the emphasis being on Freedom S chool not school freedom Can you talk about the interactions between the teachers and the students inside the F reedom S chool? What made it different than a conventional education? A: Because as Freire talks about, it was a dialog ue It was n ot in any way traditional lecturer discussion, but it was us learning at its best. It was us learning from the students, students learning from teacher, and teacher learning from students. The content was definitely about rights and about history and about cla iming Michelle Cliff calls it claiming an identity they taught me to despise. It's claiming
MFP 021; Fusco Aaronsohn ; Page 10 " your own identity in very powerful ways, and that's freedom. It's the liberation of the mind. What I talked about in some of the poetry I wrote was scratching the scales off your eyes and being able to see clearly. Sometimes it was one on one and sometimes it was having kids talk to each other and sometimes it was whatever came up. The structure was not what most teachers who came down from the N orth expected th e structure to be, and some probably myself at first there was an uncertaint y, as there always is in teaching, but there was a special uncertainty here because we thought we knew what school was and what teaching was and we thought we k new what learning was. I had a M aster's degree, high powered education, Smith and Yale. No wonder I was so arrogant. Came down and I started listening to local people and it took me two years to learn what I needed to learn. The F reedom S chools, as we conducted them were d ifferent depending o n the constituency, depending on who showed up, depending on who was there, in every place across the whole state. There was a Freedom S chool convention I recall in 64 and probably another one in  65, but I'm not so sure about the history of all of that. I do know that when I became coordinator of the F reedom S chools, when Staughton Lynd went back to Yale, he asked Ralph Featherstone and me to be coordinators. My job was just to go around the state and provide materials for people. What did I know, right? I was just driving around the state giving support. O: A very striking thing that you were saying is that when you came here you h ad a M aster's degree you had all the credentials that would qualify you to be at the head of the classroom but that when you came here you started learning from
MFP 021; Fusco Aaronsohn ; Page 11 " your students. Now that's something that's almost an alien idea in an American educational syst em. Could you talk about that process of being a person who felt very much like you knew what the students needed? What allowed you to begin to learn from them, and then what did you learn from them? A: Well as I say, it took me two years. It took me the whole two years and I know I stepped on a lot of toes in that time, especially at the beginning. It wa sn't just my project directors and project members though I know I did that too but it was probably local people and I probably caused some pain. I can' t pinp oint what allowed me to do that. I guess as I reflected, which is why now as I teach teachers I work so hard on having them reflect on their experiences. Dewey says that education comes from experience but not just the experience itself, it's the re flection upon experience. It was being able to reflect and write about it that allowed me to just step back and not have to be in charge. That was the whole idea, it was Charlie Cobb's idea from the beginning with the F reedom S chools, but all of us white t eachers and maybe some of the black teachers from the N orth too, we had one model in our minds of what teaching is. I think we had to, those of us who stayed long enough those who got frustrated with it left an d those of us who said wait a second, there' s something here I can learn because we began to respect the people we were working with so deeply. We were so dependent on them for our safety, for our lives, for our food, for the reason for our existence. I think there was also a spiritual content to t hat, the mass meetings and the church services, all of us who were white and had not been raised in the black Baptist church. There's a depth of knowledge here that we
MFP 021; Fusco Aaronsohn ; Page 12 " don't know anything about, we've never been taught anything about. Also, we begin to lea rn along with our students. I remember even in Rule ville and certainly in Indianola and Sidon the book that I was using mostly was Pictorial History of the Negro in America Milton Meltzer and I think Langston Hughes was a part of that before he died. I can't remember, it was published in 60 something I don't know why I think Langston Hughes had anything to do with that. But anyway, Pictorial History of the Negro in Amer ica We started to learn a content that had never been part of our schooling, and so we began to question our own schooling about content as well as about process as well as about purpose. All of that stuff, and I think once I questioned my upper class education I was not upper class myself, I was a quota student being a Jew at Smith. T here was a ceiling and my father, having been blinded in World War I we lived on a government pension so we didn't have money but I got in on scholarship there. So I always knew I was marginalized for that reason, I think that's what helped me too, to side with those who are on the margins rather than to see from the center. O: Right, because you had experienced it. A: In many ways, as a Jew, as a person of very li ttle money, yeah I could see that. I think that helped me be pre disposed to standing at the margins of society and looking at society, not from the inside, not from where [James] Eastland sits the critic
MFP 021; Fusco Aaronsohn ; Page 13 " O: Is there anything else that you want to add that we haven't talked ab out in terms of what you think a nd also, if I could interject w hat is the experience been like coming back here after forty years ? A: Well it started in January when Stacy called me. I got a call at school and she said Liz Aaron sohn, were you Liz Fusco in Indianola? My heart stopped because no one knew me in my new life in that way, but it was such a pivotal experience for me. Ever since that moment of talking to Stacy on the phone I was very excited to come back. Then I start ed thinking about all the toes that I had stepped on and I called Stacy and I said you know what Stacy? I'm reluctant to come because if a couple of people are coming whom I really know I gave pain to I don't want them to have to suffer my presence. S he said to me something that I knew in my head from Nelson Mandela but I hadn't put to gether in terms of me, she said, you've been carrying that burden for forty years, we're a forgiving people. If those people are here, they will forgive you, and you come on down. So I just felt so welcomed, but it's been a pilgrimage to tell you the truth and it was especially a pilgrimage I felt I had to take a side pilgrimage to the town of Sidon, which is ten miles south of Greenwood where I stayed from 65 to [19 ] 66. I was the only outside agitator there and I felt like I had to make that pilgrimage and go there and just visit and be there and see whoever A nd to see the place unchanged since I left it took me back and also has made me reflect in lots of ways, wh ich is why I mentioned it. To know that Nole is dead now because of what happened in Vietnam? He joined the army because there wasn't any jobs, and he went to Vietnam and he came back, but he was not a whole
MFP 021; Fusco Aaronsohn ; Page 14 " person. I saw his mam a, I went and visited her in Rising S un. I called her and asked could I visit. She looked the same ; grey but just the same after forty years She told me when he came back from Vietnam he was never right, and he lasted twenty years. He was a beautiful, str apping young man; eighteen years old, joined the army because what else can one do? Which is the same reason people deal drugs. What are you going to do? You got to live. There aren't any options, and I think the system sets it up that way. This has reene rgized me to talk to my students more, help them understand how the system works to keep black people down, keep structures the way they are, the systems of advantage for c ertain people. I'd been getting kind of tired at my age of teaching full time, twelv e credits each semester and saying to myself maybe someone else can carry it on, but this has given me a few more years at least to keep going because I know it needs to happen. [End of i nterview] Final edit: Diana Dombrowski, July 17, 2013