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Both Sides Now: The Story of School Desegregation's Graduates

reviewed by RoSusan D. Bartee - May 21, 2009

coverTitle: Both Sides Now: The Story of School Desegregation's Graduates
Author(s): Amy Stuart Wells
Publisher: University of California Press, Los Angeles
ISBN: 0520256786, Pages: 368, Year: 2009
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Both Sides Now: The Story of School Desegregation’s Graduates provides a compelling account of the evolutionary process of desegregation from legal policy to social phenomena. The inherent dilemma of desegregation becomes transparent through revelations of the personalized experiences of racially diverse graduates. In many ways these revelations are linked to the presence of double consciousness, a term coined by W. E. B. Dubois in the 19th century, and one that substantiates many of the worst fears about desegregation while perpetuating its best hopes. This book also offers inspiration toward fostering integration, which is a fundamental tenet of a successfully desegregated context and an overcoming of the double consciousness therein. Such findings remain important to further understand the cross-sectional, shared implications of desegregation for schools and society.        

In the book, double consciousness is used to describe the warring ideals and ideas of both majority and minority racial groups who graduated from desegregated schools. While the deliberate approach to identify selected characteristics of double consciousness is notable, the usage of the term in this particular context is somewhat problematic. DuBois’ description of the term is meant to be holistic and inclusive, but it is also intended to be clearly expressive of structural injustice and its implication for African Americans (DuBois, 1994).The reviewer does not consider the term fully applicable to all of data used in the book, especially when this data does not speak directly to the effects of structural injustice on the inner and outer lives of students.

Notwithstanding this minor issue, the book provides valuable insight into how graduates of color and white graduates conceptualize their desegregated school experiences internally and how their desegregated school experiences were operationalized externally. Similar characteristics about the internal conceptualizations situate the best of desegregation as a noncognitive proxy for “increasing comfort” and “decreasing fear.” Issues related to comfort and fear become evident in how the graduates spoke candidly about the quality of their interactions in school as being less tenuous due to proximity. Divergent perspectives became more evident and were also more indicative of the worst fears of desegregation. Graduates discussed how their desegregated in-school experience as students did not align with their segregated in-society experiences as taxpaying citizens. The graduates appeared to be perplexed and somewhat disappointed about the glaring distinctions between the school they attended and the society in which they lived. For graduates of color, the book approaches their perplexity as stemming from what they consider as unfulfilled promises of Brown, and for white graduates, the book situates their perplexity as stemming from what they consider as the unfulfilled potentials of graduates of color. Irrespective of the point of departure, the demonstrated perplexity of the graduates speaks volumes about the limited capacity of school desegregation to remedy societal segregation in its many forms.  

Both Sides Now also describes how the cognitive implications associated with double consciousness for graduates of color and white graduates influence the manner in which desegregated schools are experienced within their specific context. Graduates of color acknowledged the obvious existence of internal school policies and practices leading to in-school segregation. Such acknowledgement highlights a (sub)awareness of systemic injustice. White graduates, however, viewed the behavioral issues and/or “ghetto classes” or lower academic sections, where an overrepresentation of students of color was present, as a function of cultural incompetence. Such acknowledgement exposes the threatening stereotypes that are being placed upon those who have the least power. This highlights a problem: Accomplishing integration becomes contingent upon the successful bridging of the gap between the perceptions of black and white students into the cognitive and social abilities of the other group, and the reality of those abilities.          

From the passage of post-Brown desegregation legislation to choice-based initiatives to the charter school movement to No Child Left Behind, the impact of these educational policies, practices, and perspectives affects the interpretation of the legal and social need for continuing desegregation efforts. The book critically infuses the state of the political climate and educational ideologues and how they align positively and/or negatively with the evolution of desegregation. Given the current phase and stage of life of these graduates, double consciousness appears ever more influential in their decision making process. And perhaps that is one of the unintended outcomes of desegregation -- to bring people into an eternal conscious and/or conflicting awareness about the decisions that are made regarding the schools that they and their children attend and the society in which they and their children reside.  

Much applause is extended to Both Sides Now in its vivid depictions of the uneasiness and the often burdensome responsibilities laid upon students because of the unfinished working through of desegregated school experience. Despite all of the challenges, none of the graduates expressed regrets from having shared the experience. This provides impetus to the noble cause of working through problems that remain unresolved.


Du Bois, W. E. B. (1994).  The souls of black folk. New York: Gramercy Books.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 21, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15634, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 6:30:03 AM

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About the Author
  • RoSusan Bartee
    University of Mississippi
    E-mail Author
    ROSUSAN D. BARTEE, Ph.D., is currently an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi. Dr. Bartee’s research interests are K-12 education leadership, organizational culture and social contexts of schools, and university-school partnerships. Dr. Bartee teaches graduate-level courses in educational leadership, research methods, and cultural contexts of education.
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