Photograph by Juliana Sohn

Even after four decades the emotions of the participants in the film 40 Years Later: Now Can We Talk? are raw, as the first African American students to attend South Panola High School in Batesville, Mississippi, shared their memories in a documentary that premiered on the Barnard campus in September. The three women who created the piece—Professor Lee Anne Bell, the Barbara Silver Horowitz Director of Education at Barnard, educator and advocate Fern Khan, and director Markie Hancock—hope it will promote dialogues about the power of educators to create environments that foster learning for everyone 

“We didn’t have a clue about what we were getting into,” says Cheryl Johnson, from South Panola’s class of 1969, describing what awaited the black students when their parents decided to send them to a previously all-white high school. 

When Johnson and her black classmates were invited to the South Panola reunion—the first invitation they had received from the school since their graduation—she started doing Web searches to find someone who could help them tell their stories. She found Bell’s Web site with information about the professor’s ongoing project to use storytelling to teach students about race, racism, and social justice. Johnson contacted Bell, telling her about the reunion and that she and her classmates, most of whom eventually moved from Mississippi, had never discussed their experiences with each other or with any of their white classmates. Recalls Bell, “I naïvely (not having ever made a film) said, ‘Seems like an historic occasion and we should film it.’”

Johnson consulted her 12 black classmates and all agreed to participate. Bell enlisted Hancock Productions; what Bell terms a ‘just-in-time’ grant from Barnard enabled the team to travel to Mississippi and compile eight hours of footage with the black alumni. “We had the most amazing, moving discussion about their experiences,” she says. Things such as abuse from classmates and teachers, lack of recognition for academic accomplishments, and even being turned away at the door of their prom were among their memories. 

Bell accompanied them to the reunion—to this day there has never been a clear answer about why they’d never previously been invited. A few months later, she arranged for 13 of their white classmates to share their recollections on film. “It was interesting to see how, in each group, the same themes emerged, but from radically different perspectives,” she notes. 

After writing numerous grant proposals and raising money from various groups (including major funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation), Bell and Hancock were able to bring most of the alumni who’d participated in the two separate dialogues together for a shared discussion. The documentary, with Barnard faculty members Kim Hall 
and Monica Miller serving as consultants, includes three sessions of discussions with the South Panola graduates. Although the completed work was first shown officially on September 13, Bell had given preliminary copies to 
all the participants, presented rough 
cuts at educational conferences, and shown clips to students in Barnard’s education program.

“There are so many layers to the film. There’s the inability of our country to come to terms with its racial past that lives on in the present,” says Bell. “Another layer that my students find particularly powerful in the film is when the students talk about their teachers and their experiences in classrooms. It really brings home the power teachers have to do harm or good.”

At present, Bell is writing a facilitation guide that will go with DVDs of the documentary when sent to educators. She hopes the work will foster honest and open discussions of the issues addressed and how genuine progress can be made. “Our primary goal as a program is to ensure that our students who will be teachers feel confident and capable to address discrimination, stereotyping, bias, and bullying in their classrooms,” says Bell. “We want them to develop the skills to halt these practices and…create a safe environment where all the kids can thrive.”

More about the Storytelling Project at: