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Interview with Neal Lester, September 14, 2016

Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies, University of Georgia
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00:00:13 - Early life and family

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Partial Transcript: Neil, we're both natives of Jefferson, Georgia, and we both still have family there...

Segment Synopsis: Lester describes growing up in Jefferson, Georgia, living with his grandparents when he was young, and having asthma as a child. He recalls the limited talk about race within his household, and describes the trauma he experienced at being assigned to a speech class to correct his pronunciation. He makes mention of Jefferson's Black-owned newspaper, The Grit, and talks about the notion of "passing" as white, which he remembers first seeing on the TV show, Imitation of Life.

Keywords: Black business; Bryan Elementary School; Jackson County, Georgia; The Grit newspaper; asthma; church community; health; integration; pronunciation; race relations; segregation; speech therapy; television; white passing

00:08:55 - Experience of race in integrated schools

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Partial Transcript: Were you aware of Morris Bryan, I mean it was Bryan Elementary School?

Segment Synopsis: Lester reflects on being in integrated schools, and discusses the dynamic of affinity between teachers and students of the same race. He recalls not necessarily feeling prejudice but at the same time not receiving the same level of personalized support from teachers. Lester talks about his adolescence and interracial dating.

Keywords: University of West Georgia; academic tracks; acting; affinity; awareness; career; crushes; differential treatment; interracial dating; prejudice

00:17:52 - Inspiration to become a teacher

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Partial Transcript: I wanted to be an actor, and I recognized that if I were going to be a soap actor, I would never be on All My Children...

Segment Synopsis: Lester talks about his high school drama teacher, Mr. Brewer, in whose class he received his first failing grade. Lester credits Mr. Brewer with inspiring him to teach.

Keywords: challenge; drama; education; teaching; theater

00:21:47 - Allies in the white community and anti-Black imagery

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Partial Transcript: Outside of school were there other people in the white community that you saw as allies?

Segment Synopsis: Lester describes the form that race relations took in the Jim Crow South, especially in the relationship between the local white and Black communities. He recalls being confronted by overt Confederate memorabilia and anti-Black imagery when he taught at the University of Alabama.

Keywords: Americana; Confederate South; Jim Crow; Racist Memorabilia; Richard Wright; Underground Railroad; University of Alabama; allies; ally; connections; domestic labor; lawn jockeys; symbols

00:25:39 - Interracial dating / "Colorblindness"

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Partial Transcript: I don't recall any interracial dating, per say.

Segment Synopsis: Lester talks about race and relationships, the idea of colorblindness, and the politics of hair. He also discusses his interracial marriage, and he describes how his children navigate having parents of different races.

Keywords: colorblindness; hair texture; interracial dating; majority-minority dynamic; phenotype; post-racial society

00:31:44 - Small town dynamic

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Partial Transcript: And just going back to the small town...

Segment Synopsis: Lester talks about how his family fit into the dynamic of his home town of Jefferson, Georgia. He describes how the wealthier, white families occupied positions of public prominence, and remembers the sense of "knowing one's place." Lester talks about racial prejudice and relates it to the time when he tried to enroll his daughter in a magnet school in the South.

Keywords: education; integration; internal migration; minority; racial bias; racial categorization; racial prejudice; representation

00:38:34 - Telling stories about one's self, one's people

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Partial Transcript: And I have to think of this the way Zora Neale Hurston writes Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Segment Synopsis: Lester talks about identity-creation through the act of testifying. He explains how storytelling was an important part of his father's role as a preacher. Lester talks about barbershops and churches as safe spaces of Black vitality and the de-centering of white people. He also discusses how having few Black teachers growing up affected his process of self-identification and academic self-confidence.

Keywords: church; denial; education; identity formation; microaggression; perception; preacher; preaching; sermon; storytelling; teachers

00:44:49 - Increased awareness of race with age

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Partial Transcript: It was interesting because it takes time to go back to sort of try to put all those things together...

Segment Synopsis: Lester describes his increasing awareness of race, and reflects on how to be an ally to a group one is not a part of. He discusses the movie The Help and the way in which white allies sometimes silence Black voices, an idea which he ties in to the older dynamic of slave narratives needing white publishers in order to gain legitimacy. Lester also discusses the idea of political correctness.

Keywords: The Help; ally; awareness; outsider perspective; political correctness; representation; rhetoric; slave narratives; speech

00:51:31 - Childhood memories

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Partial Transcript: I want to go back to your youth again.

Segment Synopsis: Lester discusses how despite his race, school always acted as an equalizer for him, but recognizes that as a Black student he had less access to resources and advice in preparation for higher education. He talks about childhood friends and the different path their lives took. Lester reminisces about being part of his high school's Thespian troupe and the yearbook staff.

Keywords: advice; counselor; high school; higher education; learning; mentors; small town; support

01:01:10 - Travelling as a Black person

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Partial Transcript: The problem is that you can't run from these things.

Segment Synopsis: Lester talks about safe spaces for Black people, and references the "Negro Traveler's Green Book," a guidebook for Black travelers during the Jim Crow era. He recalls his travel to Ghana and his culture shock at seeing a Black majority. Lester discusses gated communities, police brutality, and the media's role in constructing narratives on race.

Keywords: Africa; Ghana; culture shock; gated communities; media; outsider; police brutality; safe spaces; sundown city

01:08:47 - Prejudice in higher education

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Partial Transcript: Taking you back again to Vanderbilt.

Segment Synopsis: Lester recalls being in an all-white graduate program at Vanderbilt University. He discusses his negative experience of his Southern Literature class, including incidents of being singled-out, receiving unjustified critique on a paper by his professor, and an overall lack of feedback or interest from his professor. Lester also talks about teaching African-American literature, now that he is a professor himself.

Keywords: PWI; Tennessee Williams; Vanderbilt University; class consciousness; credentials; power dynamic; prejudice; private white institution; racism; wealth

01:16:23 - Teaching as performance

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Partial Transcript: There is an element of teaching that is performance art.

Segment Synopsis: Lester discusses his approach to teaching and how he chooses topics that he is excited to learn about and teach. He describes creating intertextuality through the incorporation of traditional and pop culture texts, such as music, podscasts, video, and literature. He also talks about sundown cities and their modern parallels in the form of riot curfews.

Keywords: Aretha Franklin; Beyonce; Ferguson, Missouri; Lemonade visual album; Their Eyes Were Watching God; Zora Neal Hurston; blues music; curfews; riots; sundown cities

01:19:56 - Power in transformation

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Partial Transcript: When Trayvon Martin was killed, one of my colleagues wrote a response to a local paper there.

Segment Synopsis: Lester describes his belief in people's power of transformation, and discusses how labels like "sexist" or "racist" eliminate the possibility of discussion or change. He remembers an experience of being racially-profiled.

Keywords: Black Lives Matter; Trayvon Martin; bell hooks; change; condemning; injustice; labels; police brutality; racial profiling; transformation; white supremacy

01:24:59 - Looking back

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Partial Transcript: I want to know what your final thoughts might be...

Segment Synopsis: Lester talks about his good and bad experiences as forming the foundation of who he has become, and for that reason, not having any regrets. He reflects on his grandmother's influence in his life, the strength of the women in his family, and the church as a foundation for leadership. Lester and Waters talk about their childhoods and their misconceptions about their families and how they fit into the racial dynamic in town.

Keywords: female influence; funeral home; house on the hill; integration; perception