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Mitchell: ‘Hey, Liberal’ gives a white perspective on integration

Hey, Liberal!, a novel by Shawn Shiflett.

Shawn Shiflett, an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago, dropped by my office to discuss his new book: “Hey, Liberal!”

Even though I was at Columbia while Shiflett was teaching, I never ran into him. But we’ve been passing like ships in the night.

Thirty years ago, his father, the Rev. James A. Shiflett, was pastor at Bryn Mawr Community Church in South Shore, the church my family now attends.

One reason Rev. Shiflett resigned in 1986 was to allow the congregation, which had become almost entirely African American, to call its first black pastor.

Shiflett’s novel is a work of fiction. But it draws heavily from the author’s experience being one of a handful of white kids in a black high school during the late ’60s.

Despite the title, Shiflett’s novel isn’t about politics. It’s a coming-of-age tale told from the perspective of a white teenager forced to participate in integration.

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Because Shiflett’s parents were active in the civil rights movement, they sent him to Waller High School — now called Lincoln Park High School — a school he calls “Dexter” in the book. He was there for a year and a half.

In the book’s prologue, the narrator, Simon, describes the aftermath of a shooting by a white student who told police he was tired of being threatened by gang-bangers.

“Whether in delayed reaction to James Jeffrey’s attack, or to historical and present-day discrimination of all kinds, black kids at Dexter decided that it was Stomp Honky Day. It started in the lunchroom during fifth period. Someone gave the signal; they stood up from tables en masse and then proceeded to pummel, kick, trounce, fling and body slam to the floor any white boy or girl within reach.”

"Hey, Liberal!"

“Hey, Liberal!”

While a lot of black kids were marching through angry white mobs to get inside newly integrated schools, a smattering of white students integrating black schools were going through a similar ordeal. White students were being assaulted in and around school daily, according to Schiflett.

He still finds it difficult to talk about a beating he suffered at the hands of a black bully over chump change.

“I said I don’t have it… He took me behind a building, which is now Oz Park;  Other kids gathered around, and usually…,” Shiflett said his voice cracking, “usually, someone will step forward and…they will try to stop it. This kid was just in a fury. My life was totally in his hands. Then, they all stole my money,” he said.

At a time when Donald Trump is stoking distrust among the races, and the Black Lives Matter movement is challenging police departments over police shootings of black people, “Hey, Liberal!” might be dismissed as a frivolous tome.

It isn’t.

This novel tells a piece of our racial history that must be included as part of the conversation if we are to heal our  wounds. But few white writers have tackled the subject, likely fearful that their message would be misconstrued.

“There are no white men writing fiction about that experience. I’m it,” Shiflett told me.

He acknowledges his novel “breaks some rules” that people who are trying to make social change don’t want to break.

And he points out that African-Americans are much more willing to discuss the issues contained in his book, while his “progressive” friends tend to be “over-correct.”

“Like anything where you show black people who at certain times are not acting in a certain way, you can’t talk about that,” he said.

Shiflett said his father regrets his decision to put his son in what turned out to be a hostile environment.

“For years, I wanted an apology,” Shiflett said. “I don’t want it anymore.

“I am really glad I went through this experience. I wouldn’t be me without it.”

Shawn Shiflett will reading from his novel at 2 p.m. Nov. 6 at the Beverly Arts Center, 2407 W. 111th St.