Dorothy Counts and The Look

Dorothy Counts, 1st Afr Am girl in all-white school

Someone posted this picture the other day, praising Dorothy Counts for being one of the first African-American girls to attend an all-white school.  I looked at it briefly and tried to move on, but the look on her face brought me back to it; that look was so familiar that it gave me pause.

In the picture, Dorothy Counts is sitting in the front of what I’m guessing is a filled auditorium with an empty seat beside her.  She’s looking to her left, intent on something other than what her eyes are seeing.  Her mouth is set, as if she’s holding something back, and her eyes look tired.  If she were the only figure in the picture, I might have thought she was thinking about something outside or at home or anywhere, really.  But because she’s not the only one shown, and because the other faces reveal much more, I have a hunch her mind was bracing itself against the constant bombardments of ignorance she has put up with her whole life and that are in the room with her.

Surely she can hear the two boys in the row behind her, laughing and trying to catch glimpses of her face.  There’s nothing hidden in their expressions: they are wearing the ridicule they spew.  Whatever whispers they might have whispered to get them going were probably not as quiet as they think, or maybe they assumed she wouldn’t hear them if they spoke out loud, or maybe they didn’t care if she did, so they spoke their comments for all– including Dorothy– to hear.   The dad in the row behind them is laughing along– with them? at something different but just as funny?– and even if his laughter isn’t heard, it’s felt.  She feels it.  All of it.

At one point or another, most of the people in that auditorium (and probably in that town) have stared at her, made comments to or about her, pointed at her, and whispered behind her back.  She is seeing it all right now in her mind, and she can hear their voices.  Though she cannot fight back at the moment (in fact, she can’t fight back ever, not all of them at least, not with her fists), some could argue that her intimidating and threatening presence in that school is a way of fighting back, fighting a system rather than individuals and, as a result, changing individuals along the way.

But I would argue that her face tells a different story.  She is not feeling particularly courageous right now, but neither is she scared.  She is simply fed up with it all, with the tireless taunts and the unending spotlight on her: her difference and her presence.  It’s not new to her.  In a way, it’s her life.  And she’s sick of it.

I don’t know if I would have recognized that before coming to Mongolia.  I don’t know what I would have noticed in this picture, to be honest.  I can say I know that look so well now because it is mine every time I leave my apartment.  People yell things at me on the street; they talk about me behind, in front of, and next to me; they speak to me and then laugh with their friends as they walk by.  The comments are rarely unique: I could guess what they will say before they even say it.  They are commenting on my Otherness.  Before, I used to walk on by, unfazed, but eventually, somewhere along the way, it started to get to me.  My Otherness became my prominent feature, and my awareness of this and of the effect it had on others gave me The Look, the same one Dorothy Counts has.

This is more than just a case of being different.  Different is nothing new to me and, for most of my life, has not been a problem.  People can be different and respectful of each other; I know because I’ve seen it.  What happens here cuts out respect and leaves me feeling like the brunt of a joke or like a showcase item, only here for the entertainment of others.  To them, I am a freak with no feelings.  And I can’t predict what they will do with that.

So when I saw this picture, I saw it in Dorothy Counts’ face: the look that says, If I could just live my life, just get on with it like they can, I could focus on more important things than who’s looking at me and what they’re going to do…

Before seeing this picture, I had never heard the name of Dorothy Counts, so I did some research.  She was 15 at the time she enrolled at Harry Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1957.  After just four days, her parents withdrew her from the school because the harassment was so bad.  Apparently, the wife of the leader of the White Citizens Council told the boys to “keep her out” and the girls to spit on her.  Kids threw rocks and trash at her; teachers ignored her.  Two white girls attempted to befriend her, but the others harassed them and successfully prevented the friendship from coming to fruition.  Her locker was ransacked, her brother’s car was smashed, and her parents received threatening phone calls at their home.  The parents loved her too much to let this continue, and after withdrawing her from that school, the family moved to Philadelphia where she attended an integrated school.

I have not been spit on.  Trash has not been thrown at me.  I won’t pretend that I completely understand the struggle she dealt with on a personal level, and I know that what I have to deal with here doesn’t come close.  My experiences with racism aimed at me are of a different sort than hers; I realize that mine are smaller in degree and shorter in duration in some ways: longer than four days, sure, but shorter than a lifetime.  And I feel indebted with gratitude for the hardships that she (and so many others) faced to make this world more livable for those after.  But, as is becoming more and more clear to me all the time, this world isn’t there yet.  People continue to mistreat others based on arbitrary differences.  Far too many are left hurting and isolated.  The lack of understanding can be enraging.

Still, I don’t think it’s impossible to be both in the wake of the devastation and in the lead of taking action against it– the two aren’t mutually exclusive, strangely enough, for we can both be affected by the world and by those in it and affect it.  I would like to learn how to do this with grace, and Dorothy Counts gives me a clear example of that: the boys behind her in those seats hurt her, but we don’t remember their names.  We remember hers.

My four days (more like two years) in Mongolia are almost up, and, as I hope some of my previous blog posts have shown, my time here has not been all harassment and hurt.  Everything is a lesson that will come in handy later in life; I’ll return to these experiences when I need to.  For now, I will try to focus on the good to maintain some balance in my life.

But perhaps I’m learning one such lesson already, that reading a look on someone’s face is a way to recognize my own and that sharing this can be a way to cope with the emotions that are not mine alone.

For that and for so much more, I thank you, Dorothy Counts.

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4 thoughts on “Dorothy Counts and The Look

  1. This is a great articulation of how I often feel as well! Mongolia is so not diverse. At a certain point you do get fed up with being defined by your otherness. I think its valuable for us to experience it to get a small taste of what being a minority is like.

  2. Your “Other-ness”, your difference, has always been intelligence, humor, a strong sense of who you are, a willingness to show up and be counted, empathy — the important stuff about humans. Alongside such abundance of character “tall, blond, big nose, round eyes” are paltry signifiers, if a corrosive and wearying interface with your surroundings. Clearly you and some others have overcome such nonsense, and thus you know it’s not inevitable. Be as cautious as you need to stay safe, never confuse other people’s prisms with your own image. You will always know you persisted in the eye of this little storm ( hard as it was on the girl in the middle). You will always recognize the eyes of Dorothy, know the person, step up and make a difference because you’re, well… you.
    Interestingly, we’ll all benefit. Even those assholes in the peanut gallery. Ain’t that something?

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