An Education in Georgia


Although less than a year old, the "Negro Revolt" has become a stock phrase in the vocabulary of current events. Spring was stark headlines about Birmingham, summer aerial shots of thousands along the reflecting pool, and fall frustration at the failure of Congress. Now winter may be the time of abstraction and formalization. Even as boycotts and demonstrations continue in North and South, the language of sociologists and slick magazines fits police dogs, marching students, and anguished ministers into the broad context of mid-century America. The subject of countless words, the Negro has become a new caricature, de-humanized into a single image of militant man on the move.

In An Education in Georgia, Calvin Trillin describes a sequence of events which has a prominent place in civil rights lore, the desegregation of a state university. And the expected drama is not missing from his account of the integration of Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes into the University of Georgia in January, 1961. Students stone Charlayne's dormitory her first night on campus, they deface her car, and insults and abuse greet both Negroes throughout the university. But Trillin, a Yale graduate who writes for the New Yorker, does not dwell on these incidents. Instead he chooses to report the disillusionment and sense of loss that two Negroes experience when they leave the comfort of high-school success in an all-Negro environment to enter Georgia as symbols of The Cause.

But The Cause had very little to do with their decision. Aided by a flat, straightforward style, Trillin makes clear that Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter were neither prodded by the NAACP nor initially moved by a deep personal commitment to civil rights activity. From the insular atmosphere of Turner High, Atlanta, they had simply not thought de-segregation possible.

Trillin contrasts their relative innocence with the experience of James Meredith, for by some Negroes, Hamilton and Charlayne would be considered almost white. Unlike Meredith, they did not have to overcome the disadvantages of a sharecropper background; coming from a middle class community in Atlanta, they were more concerned with a normal education than with simply breaking down the system. Almost casually, both Negroes responded to the suggestion of a local leader that they become intergrationists.

Hamilton's desire to go to medical school could be served best by attending Georgia. Therefore his personal battle, his wish to "make those crackers sit up and take notice," was fought in the classroom. Charlayne was not so singleminded. She wanted to observe people observing her. More gregarious than Hamilton and lacking his drive, Charlayne chose to live on campus instead of with a Negro family as he did.

Ultimately both were to fail as integrationists. And this is one lesson to be inferred from Trillins' Education. As a student, Hamilton was successful, graduating with honors and a Phi Beta Kappa key. But he had drawn more and more into himself, falling back on the Negroes he had known in Atlanta. Although his example of excellence encouraged a few others to come to Georgia, his contact with whites at Georgia was nil.

Charlayne's stay at the university was in a sense more frustrating since she had no honors to justify her experience. Her contact with white students became less tense, but she was never able to establish friendships. Discouraged at the inability of Negroes to raise funds for her scholarship and dismayed at the bickering over who was the better integrationist, she or Hamilton, Charlayne finally began to feel detached from both whites and Negroes. As she told Trillin.

I feel like a hypecrite giving all these speeches, all that we shall evercome business. I believe in it sure. But there are some things I don't believe in talking about. I'm sick of whites and sick of Negroes. I just want to be obscure.

The insoluble problem suggested in An Education in Georgia is that the low level of Negro education and the high level of Southern recalcitrance make widespread integration distant. And for the qualified Negro who can become an integrationist, the sacrifice may be too great.

The epilogue of An Education in Georgia is revealing. Following her graduation, Charlayne married Walter Stovall, a white student whom she had seen secretly at Georgia. When criticized by both Negroes and liberal whites for foresaking The Cause she replied,

This is a personal thing, and my personal life should not have anything to do with that which affects the mass of people. And so I can't be terribly concerned about that because I have my own life to live.

But it is the Charlayne Hunters and Hamilton Holmes who by their physical presence on a Southern campus begin the erosion of southern white values and inspire their own people. Thus the ironic paradox of Education is that by embracing The Cause, by seeking to help the Negro people find self, the individual Negro's sense of self is threatened.

Trillin speaks with a low and calm voice; he is not writing about an abstract Negro on a magazine cover who stands firmly, muscles taut, eyes forward. Underneath the placid prose is another figure, the intelligent Southern Negro, who, unlike his contemporaries from the North, cannot go home to Boston, New York, or Springfield after his year of working in the South is over.