“What’s Mine and Yours” Complicates the School Segregation Story

Naima Coster, author of What’s Mine and Yours (Photo credit: Sylvie Rosokoff)

Legacy issue cover featuring Nailah Howze, a Black woman styled with a sculptural, braided hairdo, wearing a pleated gold top, adorned with a sparkling headpiece and nail decor
This article was published in Legacy Issue #90 | Spring 2021

It has been more than 60 years since Brown v. Board of Education legally desegregated U.S. schools, but schools are as segregated now as they’ve ever been. In 2014, Nikole Hannah-Jones, then a reporter for ProPublica, opened many people’s eyes when she chronicled how the segregation embedded in Ferguson, Missouri’s school system contributed to the untimely murder of Michael Brown Jr. in 2014. Since then, Hannah-Jones and other education reporters have blown the lid off the idea that U.S. schools treat all students equally and that they follow a system of meritocracy. EdBuild, a public school-focused nonprofit, released a study in 2019 that found that schools systems primarily serving children of color typically receive $23 billion less in funding than those that serve white children—this has a rippling effect that can determine the trajectory of each child’s life. “You can tell these dollars make a difference,” Rebecca Sibilia, CEO of EdBuild, told the New York Times in 2019. “Walk into a rural nonwhite community. Walk into an urban nonwhite school district. You can see what that means in terms of how much that has added up over time.”

It’s not only funding—or a lack thereof—that keeps students from receiving the education they deserve. There’s also a concerted effort in wealthier communities to create enclaves that purposely exclude children from poorer communities, the majority of whom are children of color. The same EdBuild study found that more than 50 percent of children in the United States are in segregated districts where more than 75 percent of their classmates are either white or nonwhite, depending on where they live—and wealthy parents, many of whom are white, fight tooth-and-nail to keep it that way. That’s how we’ve gotten to the point where nearly one-fifth of public schools in the United States have close to no students of color. (These are the same schools that hoard more than their fair share of resources.) Our schools are still separate and unequal, an idea that is central to Naima Coster’s second novel, What’s Mine and Yours, which focuses on two parents, Lacey May and Jade, and their children, Noelle and Gee, respectively, as their school begins an integration program that ignites tensions.

On the surface, Jade and Lacey May have a lot in common: Both women are working-class parents in North Carolina, want the best for their children, and have endured incalculable heartbreaks and tragedies. However, Lacey May believes her daughters, including Noelle, should be able to attend segregated schools—though she hides her true feelings behind language that implies her daughters would lose something by sharing their school’s resources. Tensions bubble over until these women and their children are forced to face the realities of racial segregation in the United States—who this system hurts, who it benefits, and who is willing to be complicit within it to get what they believe they’ve “earned.” What’s Mine and Yours is a prescient novel that brings human faces to this broader social issue, revealing the selfishness, fear, and disillusionment that can motivate parents to go to the extreme to keep themselves, and their children, from having to face reality.

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How did the idea for this novel come to you?

It started in two places. In North Carolina, I lived in a house heated by gas, and the propane was really expensive. It was something I hadn’t anticipated. I spent time snowed in and really cold in that house because we couldn’t afford [to use] more gas at that point. I wrote a short story [inspired by] that time about a mother trying to keep the heat on for her kids. That [became] the story of Lacey May, and it got me thinking about how [far mothers are] willing to go to provide for their children. It’s so often thought of as a virtue. I started thinking about other behavior[s] that sometimes drive families, [particularly white ones]. [And then] I started thinking about Lacey May and the kinds of things she might do to secure a future for her daughter.

I was really interested in the work of Nikole Hannah-Jones. I was introduced to her work through [an] episode of This American Life, [“The Problem We All Live With”], about school integration in the school district that Michael Brown Jr. graduated from. After listening to that episode and [the] audio [clip] from a town hall meeting where parents were opposing an integration effort, I started [wondering], What would it be like to be a child sitting in that auditorium listening to parents oppose your presence in the school? This is a question Hannah-Jones answers when she follows a young Black girl who’s in the town hall listening. That got me thinking about a novel that follows the lives of several people being shaped by the integration of a local high school. I find Hannah-Jones’s work really challenging in good ways. I am not Lacey May. I am not a white woman from the South, but I think about the ways that I too might feel inclined to hoard opportunity.

Your book begins with a tragedy—Jade’s boyfriend, who was also Gee’s surrogate father, is fatally shot—that alters the course for two of our protagonists. Why did it feel important to start there?

I wanted to think about what it’s like to have a dream for your family and to have that disrupted by violence. I was interested in that because it’s something that has happened in my life. Incarceration, deportation, and assault are things that have happened in my family history, [all of which] altered the course of individual lives. I wanted to think about the ways we try to rebuild from that. That’s why the book follows Jade and her son as they try to find their way out and [learn] to live with that legacy. When I was thinking about Jade, the first [thing that] came to me was the feelings that might come up if you’re carrying the child of someone you lost. So I knew I wanted to tell the story of all of Jade’s mixed feelings as a woman who wants to hold on to that connection with her partner but also has to figure out a way to survive and build a life for herself. And I wanted the reader to meet that partner.

North Carolina is its own character in the book.

[North Carolina] is definitely a place that’s shifting and in flux. Durham was a changing place when I lived there; it was becoming more hip in the national consciousness, [which] made it rife with growing pains like gentrification and shifting ethnic demographics. [North Carolina has] a lot of pride in itself, its history, and its land. It’s like a mosaic. When I was in North Carolina, I was struck by how different it was county to county [and] city to city. Hillsborough is [only] 20 minutes outside of Durham, but it has a totally different character and personality. When I was writing this book, I was interested in this idea of the “soft South.” When I was [planning to move] to North Carolina, people would say to me, “You’re gonna love it. It’s the soft South,” which felt like a way of [overlooking] the [state’s] complicated history.

Lacey May is an extraordinarily interesting character: She goes from being so impoverished that she can’t properly heat her home to picketing to keep her daughter’s school from bussing in children from other cities. What was your approach to crafting such a layered character?

I wasn’t interested in redeeming Lacey May or apologizing for her. Making her human and complex wasn’t about apologizing for her racism. It was me thinking through the kinds of logic people [use to excuse] their prejudice, their hatred, and the harm they [cause]. I was thinking a lot about how Lacey May’s sense of self and her own life shaped the way she viewed other people. She was a woman who lost so many things. She [believed] things were snatched away from her because of her relationship with [her children’s father, who has a drug addiction]. [She sees] herself as someone who’s [had to fight] for what she has. [She] understands that life is precarious, so she needs to be on her guard. I [thought] about the ways that would shape her and her sense of what she and her daughters deserve and how that would collide with the integration initiative. She places all of her feelings [about the] things that have happened to her on the families being [integrated] into Central High School. I don’t think that’s explicit in the book, but I hope readers will pick up [on] the rage she feels about children who are trying to get a fair and equal education. [They] become targets for her rage rather than her reckoning with her own life and losses.

What’s Mine and Yours by Naima Coster (Photo credit: Grand Central Publishing)

Lacey May and Jade both seem to have an innate desire to protect their children even if they have to make extreme sacrifices to keep them “safe.” Are they, in some ways, mirrors of each other? Were you intentional about giving them similarities?

I don’t think of them as mirrors of each other. I think of them in opposition to each other, but I don’t think of them as different versions of the same kind of woman made different by life circumstance. The thing they share is [that] they’re mothers who are struggling to find ways to connect to their children—though their struggles are different—and [what] gets in the way is their preoccupation with their children’s future. Jade’s son is missing the sense that she delights in him and wants to be close to him. The way she tries to communicate her love is by making sure doors aren’t closed to him and [that] he can have a good life. Lacey May’s trying to do something similar with her daughters, but in the process, she’s not really listening to or seeing them. She’s so obsessed with her eldest [daughter] that she [overlooks] her younger daughter.

You structure the book across time. Each chapter either moves backward, in retrospect, or takes place in the current moment. Why was it important to take a non-linear approach to this story?

I knew I wanted to look at how the consequences of the integration would reverberate over time and how it shaped relationships in the families and the [ones] formed at the school. I knew I had to have a pretty large scope to capture that; the book captures 30 years or so. I knew I’d be able to ask questions about the characters and approach them with more freedom and energy if I wasn’t tightly bound to chronology or a straightforwardly ticking clock. [I wanted to] move between [Lacey May’s daughter] Margarita as a little girl and [then] as an adult without having to account for all that was in the middle. [I thought] about how moments in our lives speak to one another even if they’re separated by a lot of time.

Midway through the book, you intertwine Jade and Lacey May’s lives through a school integration program. There’s a moment when the school is having an assembly, and parents are essentially saying they don’t want their kids mingling with kids from “different” backgrounds. Talk to me about crafting that difficult scene. What were you aiming to capture?

That chapter was heavily influenced by the audio [in] “The Problem We All Live With.” I was so horrified and struck by these parents’ self-righteousness and their ability to craft these arguments that don’t seem insidious but are actually really dangerous and harmful. I was trying to channel the tone and the determination of the parents [from] Hannah-Jones’s reporting. They believe they’re not racist and that racism is a problem of bad people. [Racism] is not something they participate in or perpetuate or that is systemic and institutionalized. It’s a matter of intention, and they don’t have that intention.

We see this in the history of the integration of Wake County Schools in North Carolina, which were viewed as an example for the rest of the country. Then the district rolled back integration with an argument for neighborhood schools that was backed by conservatives and Tea Party members. I [tried] to capture the ways people defend and protect themselves from [other people’s] critiques—and even from [their own] of themselves. When I first moved to North Carolina, I had an encounter with a woman who made a comment in the dog park that I thought was racist. I told her in so many words, and she said, “Oh no, I would never do that. I taught at North Carolina Central University for many, many years.” NCCU is a historically Black college in Durham. I put that in the novel; one of the characters in the town hall says, “I taught at an HBCU for many years, so I can’t be guilty of this.”

Entrenched interregional inequality is the legacy, and that affects every register of life, from wealth and income [to] life expectancy and health outcomes.

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What I love about your books, including Halsey Street, is that you’re writing about broad social issues—school integration and gentrification—through the experiences of these really relatable characters. It has always felt to me like you’re not writing “issues” books; you’re writing novels about humans who are messy and complex. How do you approach character development? How do you keep from letting the “issue” overshadow the story?

I try to think about how the issue would be experienced by the cast of characters I’ve chosen. How would it play out in their lives? So for Gee and Noelle, it really plays out [through] the play [they’re participating in at school] because that’s a large part of their life at the school. Gee’s aware of himself in the classroom and wonders what his peers think about him. Part of it is really trying to stay close to the characters’ perspectives and thinking about what these issues [mean] for them day to day, which means that I inevitably miss things. I can’t capture every facet of this issue when I’m following these individual characters [so closely]. The benefit of that is I can really get close to how it feels and what it means to be them. I don’t necessarily shape the plot around the issue; the plot is shaped much more by the interactions between the characters rather than what is happening in the phases of the school’s integration. I look at what the characters do amongst themselves rather than making [the issue] the backbone of the book’s plot.

We talk a great deal about segregated schooling in the United States, but there are few proposed solutions that would actually be effective. Since this is our legacy issue, tell me: What is the legacy of school segregation in the United States?

Entrenched interregional inequality is the legacy, and that affects every register of life, from wealth and income [to] life expectancy and health outcomes. When I was a girl, I participated in a program that took low-income kids of color and put them in private schools. It was called Prep for Prep, and that [program] changed the trajectory of my life. It [made] my experiences so different from the experiences of my parents, my grandparents, and my peers in my family. Prep for Prep changed the trajectory of my life, but it didn’t really create any kind of collective transformation or change anything about how Black Dominican girls born in Brooklyn in the 1980s are doing. I think a lot about the importance of collective, large-scale change—and not just for children who seem to be high performing or high achieving. The program I participated in took kids who had familial support and were already doing well in their public elementary schools. I think about the class mobility I’ve had in my life and how Prep for Prep altered my life, but my story doesn’t move [our] society toward justice and equality in any way.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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Evette Dionne is Bitch Media’s editor-in-chief. She’s all about Beyoncé, Black women, and dope TV shows and books. You can follow her on Twitter.