In I989, the public schools in Durham, North Carolina, asked me to implement
a program I'd developed that uses photographs as a starting point for
writing. I began by teaching in three classrooms, two in what was then
the Durham City Schools and one in the Durham County Schools. Over the
last two decades, as more and more of Durham's white population moved to
the suburbs, the schools became segregated along city-county lines.
to merge the systems were stymied by objections from both sides. The African
American children I worked with had never attended school with whites and
many said they preferred it that way. I sensed that race, although an
issue for the children and teachers, was seldom talked about.
In I992, the Durham school systems were finally merged. In 1994, two gifted
teachers helped me on a new collaborative project I designed to look at
race directly. Cathy Fine, a white fifth-grade teacher at Pearsontown
School, and Robert Hunter, an African American art teacher at Shepard Middle
School, asked their students to write detailed self-portraits. Then we
asked each of them to write another self-portrait, this time imagining
themselves as members of the other race. At first we were met with silence,
then laughter, and finally an enthusiastic barrage of questions: Could
they change their names, their families? How could they know what it was
like to be of a different race?
Ms. Fine's class was racially mixed, so the students were able to pair
up and interview each other. Mr. Hunter's class, however, was entirely
African American. One of his students, Damien, decided to write his
inside the outlines of faces he'd drawn to emphasize the difference between
his two selves.
Once the students completed their written portraits, I photographed them
posing as their "black" and "white" selves, using props they'd brought
from home. I gave them the large format negatives to alter or write on,
using ideas from their written portraits, so they could further describe
their characters. For the students the idea of transforming the photographs
and their own physical features was exciting and challenging. They had
to think hard about scratching the negative image in order to produce a
black line or adding a black mark on top of the emulsion to make a white
line. In this way, negative and positive and black and white took on a
meaning that was both conceptual and physical.
It was difficult for some of the students to visualize themselves as the
"other." Since the white children rarely dealt with the black world's
of them, they had almost no idea of how to pose; some of them asked the
African American children to direct them. The African American children
never needed such coaching: without saying a word, Antonio slumped over
in front of a white seamless background and covered his head to represent
what he explained was his white personahomeless, without a community.
It became clear to Mr. Hunter and me that the African American children
had a clearly defined sense of how white people saw themselves and how
they were seen by white people. Sometimes they internalized this image,
as when they talked about their white selves being "nicer" or "smarter."
Rachael, an African American sixth-grader, told me she put all her dreams
for the future into her white self. As for the white children, they seemed
almost naively optimistic. Chris, a white fifth grader, said he imagined
himself as the first black president.
Sheldon, Eighth Grade
African American writing as himself and as white self
Me: [I] Funny,  Nice,  Smart, [41 Playful,  Happy,  Mad, 
Angry,  Helpful, [g] Sleepful, [Io] Handsome, Strong, [I2] Tall (as
in confidence), Creative, Good Listener, Dependable
White Me: Corny,  Smart,  Nice,  Playful,  Weak,  Country,
 Too confident,  Too tense,  My name "Billy Bob," [lo] Get better
jobs, Be a vegetarian, Listen to Garth Brooks
Chris, Fifth Grade
White writing as black self
My name is Jonathan Tarp. I live in Washington, D.C. I want to be the first
black President. I think I can because I'm nice, fair and have good
and if I can't be President, I'll be a cartoonist. My favorite food is
pizza. My favorite color is blue. I'm a nice person. I love pets. I have
two albino mice, Pinky and Brian, a calico kitten, Coco, and two dogs.
Their names are Sparky and Shadow. I can draw good. I have blue-green eyes,
brown hair. I'm about five foot....I want to go to Harvard.
Rachael, Fifth Grade
African American writing as white self
My name is Nicole Kimberly Walters. I am sixteen. My hobbies are listening
to rock music and roller-skating. I have long nails. I like Michael Jackson.
I don't like rap. I like reading Nancy Drew. When I grow up, I'll work
at an Italian Pizza Ria. People call me names like Snow White. I have rich
parents named Michael and Debbie Walters. My sister is Amy, and my brothers
are Matthew and Adam. Black people are nice. I have many black friends
too. I like going to the mall with my friends....I am spoiled. I have long
Zavier, Fifth Grade
African American writing as white self If I was white, [I] I will change
my name to Jonathan on Family Matters.  People will call me a saltine.
 I will be a rock star on stage.  I will stay in school.  Going
to funerals will be different.  I will like to go to Greek restaurants.
Danielle, Fifth Grade
White writing as black self
My name is Denise Freeman. I'm eleven years old and have seven family
I'm five feet and weigh seventy-seven pounds. I have two sisters and two
brothers. My family is nice, I'm Baptist. I have green eyes and short black
hair. I live in Brent Creek. I like loud music and wear baggy clothes.
I like to dance and sing songs on the radio. I hate when people talk behind
my back. I also hate when people talk back.
Kenneth, Eighth Grade
African American writing as white self If I was white, I would look like
that man on White Men Can't Jump. I would play basketball a lot. I would
go to ballroom dances. I would be normal in my personal activities. And
always I would jump. I would be normal as a different race. If I were white,
I would be rich so no one would know about it. If I was white I would buy
anything I wanted.
The children's essays appear in White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness,
by Maurice Berger (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1999).