History and the People Who Make It: Liz Fusco Aaronsohn

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler

This is the seventeenth in a continuing series of transcript excerpts from the collection of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida.

Liz Fusco Aaronsohn was interviewed by Paul Ortiz [O] in 2012.

A: I’m Liz Aaronsohn. I was Liz Fusco in 1964 and that’s how people down here know me.

O: Liz, I wonder if you could talk about what led you into the Movement.

A: I’ve written about that, there’s a book called Owning and Disowning White, edited by Jim O’Donnell at the University of Arizona. The whole idea of whiteness and how white people 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: my father was a rabbi and he taught me justice, justice shalt thou do, and I took him seriously. Period. That’s it.

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 questions 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. My mother grew up in an orphanage and she was a servant and I won’t have servants. So I started to question America at that time.

I joined Seattle CORE and we were doing sit-ins and demonstrations just like this for the same reasons, so I was active in Seattle. Then I read in a paper called the National Guardian — no longer exists — about a call for white volunteers, Northern 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 stayed for two 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 classroom 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 either of the black or the white schools, so I left. That’s when I went up to New York City and got involved with Teachers Against Racism.

O: Today, you were talking about the importance of the Freedom Schools. This is something that historians and everyone else is finally realizing is part of the Movement, because for many years when you hear about the Movement, the Freedom Schools are always the last thing brought in.

A: As Hollis [Watkins] was saying today, 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 inferior, you don’t have to do any more work; they’ve already enslaved themselves.

So, bringing black history 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. Even though there were separate projects — voter-registration, community centers, and freedom school — we realized before the end of the summer that it was really one project, that you couldn’t have voter-registration without Freedom School and you couldn’t have a place for all of this without a community center and who you were teaching.

If we’re going to put that in quotations, who you were teaching, they’re not just teenagers that you thought you were going to be teaching lessons to, it’s everybody, it’s elderly people who want to learn. It’s Paulo Freire’s idea, but we didn’t know about Paulo Freire at that time — although he was operating in Brazil at the same time as we were operating in Mississippi.

O: Can you talk about the interactions between the teachers and the students inside the Freedom School? What made it different than a conventional education?

A: As Freire talks about, it was a dialogue. 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 claiming — Michelle Cliff calls it claiming an identity they taught me to despise. It’s claiming your own identity in very powerful ways, and that’s freedom. It’s the liberation of the mind. 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 North expected. There was a special uncertainty here, because we thought we knew what school was and what teaching was and we thought we knew what learning was.

I had a Master’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 Freedom Schools, as we conducted them, were different depending on the constituency, depending on who showed up, depending on who was there, in every place across the whole state. I do know that when I became coordinator of the Freedom Schools, 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.

O: What allowed you to begin to learn from them, and then what did you learn from them?

A: 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 wasn’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 pinpoint 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 reflection 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 Freedom Schools, but all of us white teachers and maybe some of the black teachers from the North too, we had one model in our minds of what teaching is. I think we had to, those of us who stayed long enough — 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 that, the mass meetings and the church services, all of us who were white and had not been raised in the black Baptist church. Also, we begin to learn along with our students. I remember, even in Ruleville — 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.

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. There 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. I think that helped me be pre-disposed to standing at the margins of society.

It started in January when Stacy called me. I got a call at school and she said, Liz Aaronsohn, 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.

I was very excited to come back. Then, I started thinking about all the toes that I had stepped on, and I called Stacy and I said, 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.

She said to me something that I knew in my head from Nelson Mandela but I hadn’t put together 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. 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 [19]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. And to see the place unchanged since I left it took me back, and also has made me reflect in lots of ways, which 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 person. I saw his mama, I went and visited her in Rising Sun. 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, strapping 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 reenergized 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 certain people.

A full transcript of this interview is available at http://ufdc.ufl.edu/l/ AA00017847/00001.

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