Editor's note: This story is part of My Life, My Town, a special project exploring the hopes and challenges of teens in rural Missouri. The project is a product of the Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with the Columbia Missourian, KBIA and Reynolds Journalism Institute. Some of the teens were found with the help of Missouri 4-H.
HALLSVILLE – Alaysha Jefferson is sitting at a table in a crowded high school lunchroom with a cluster of friends.
“That’s Chris,” Alaysha says in a voice low enough that only the people at the table can hear.
Chris walks up and says something to Alaysha's older sister, Na-Keysha Berry. The whole table is looking at him, but he does not pay them any attention.
“As soon as he walks away he is going to do that Justin Bieber thing with his hair,” Alaysha tells her friends.
Sure enough, three steps later, he cocks his head to the right and moves his hand gently through his hair.
The table erupts with the kind of laughter only high school girls can produce.
Fifteen-year-old Alaysha is an observant, chatty freshman and the life of the lunchroom at Hallsville High School.
But she belongs to a tiny minority in the rural community. In a town of 1,491 people, only 13 are black.
Growing up in rural Missouri
Alaysha has lived in Hallsville since she was 3. She has plenty of friends and gets along with most everyone, but it's not always easy. At times, she said, she finds herself between two worlds.
“I was raised around all white people, so I am kind of white at heart,” she said. “But my skin shows otherwise.”
With whites, Alaysha is occasionally on the other side of jokes, slang references and stereotypes. She's heard people call her "that black girl."
Most of the time, she believes these slights are the product of an all-white town in a section of the country that has a history of segregation and discrimination.
“I don’t blame them because that may have been how they were raised,” she said. “Considering it’s basically a white town, all I can do is tell them I’m not a bad person because of my skin color.”
Navigating a tricky situation
Yet among blacks, she is often considered "too white" because the way she talks and acts.
“They call me the whitest person they know because I talk proper,” she said. “And I’m like, no I don’t talk crazier than you do. It’s really awkward.”
She said these double-sided interactions make her uncomfortable around people of her own race who are not family or good friends.
"Barack Obama: The Making of the Man," a recent biography of the president's college years by David Maraniss, acknowledges a similar struggle with racial identity. He was known as Barry at the time and was dating a woman named Genevieve Cook.
Maraniss writes: "They talked about race quite often, as part of his inner need to find a sense of belonging. She sympathized with and encouraged his search for his identity.
"If she felt like an outsider, he was a double outsider, racial and cross-cultural. He looked black, but was he? At times he confessed to her that 'he felt like an imposter. Because he was so white. There was hardly a black bone in his body.' "
Alaysha discovered in May that earning a spot as a cheerleader for football and basketball gave her a way to fit in at Hallsville High School.
“If I was having a bad day because I heard a racial comment,” she said, “I go to cheerleading, and it takes everything off my mind. It makes me focus on something more important and more productive.”
Finding a home in cheerleading
Being a cheerleader dominates her life and provides structure for it.
“It’s a big family. We’re all sisters, and our coaches are our moms,” Alaysha said. “No matter how rough things get, I know that those girls will be there.”
Cheerleading was something she always wanted to do when she got to high school.
“I went to games and saw how they really got the crowd excited, so I got excited,” she said. “It has always been a dream of mine.”
“I cheer all the time,” she continued. “If I am not at practice, I am at a game, and if I am not at a game, I am at home.”
Tricia Williams, who has been teaching and coaching in the community for 14 years, says racial issues in Hallsville are not as prevalent as they used to be.
“I have had students say to me that they feel sometimes self-conscious or out of place,” Williams said.
“But in the past five years, we are starting to get much more diverse. So maybe it is not as big of an issue as it was maybe five or 10 years ago.”
Older sister leads the way
Na-Keysha Berry, Alaysha's older sister and senior at Hallsville High School, said she is glad her sister was able to grow up in Hallsville, despite the racial situation.
"I feel like she wouldn’t even know how it feels to have racism around and be the only person in an all white community that isn’t white," Berry said.
Alaysha actually found high school t0 be kinder than she expected.
"I thought it was going to be so horrible," she said with a laugh. "Like a senior walking past and knocking my books out of my hands."
Not that she wouldn't stand up for herself.
“I’ve got a mouth on me,” she said. “I mean if you say something to discriminate against my race, I am going to say something to you.”
Family support is critical
Alaysha lives with her mother and two sisters in a house in town. Her mom, Starla Berry, believes that growing up in Hallsville has made her girls stronger.
“When they were younger, it was a concern of mine,” she said. “Now that they are older, if someone says something discriminating, they check them on it.”
After moving to Hallsville a dozen years ago, Berry knew her girls could face discrimination. Originally from Montgomery City, she also grew up in a mostly white community and decided the same environment might be beneficial to her children.
“I did think it made me understand all races a little bit more," she said. "I didn’t exclude myself, and I didn’t exclude others."
“Living here has taught them to love everyone and get to know people before they figure out whether or not they would like to have them in their life."
Alaysha likes Hallsville. She thinks it’s a beautiful, quiet place. All her friends live there and she sees herself going back to live there, too, after college.
For now, she tries to push racial issues and insecurities to the back of her mind.
"I try not to let it bother me because I think about all the good times that I have had here," Alaysha said. "If there were no white people around me I would just blend in with all the black people, I wouldn't stand out at all. I like to stand out."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.