Martin Luther King Day: Busing & Flying

African-American Children’s Books, Toni Morrison & Virginia Hamilton

U.S. deputy marshals escort 6-year-old Ruby Bridges from William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in this November 1960 A.P. file photo.

The celebration of Martin Luther King Day and the movie “Selma,” as well as tributes given to Rosa Parks and others, signal how much we understand the history of the civil rights movement in terms of the heroic contributions of adults. Even so, a good deal of the burden for initiating social change actually fell upon the frail shoulders of children and the locus for transformation was their schoolrooms. In 1954, “Brown v. Board of Education” struck down the notion of “separate but equal” and ushered in school integration.

A good deal of the burden for initiating social change actually fell upon the frail shoulders of children

My daughter teaches at a bilingual school just a few miles from the U.S./Mexican border where children with every shade of skin color–from freckled white through brown to plum-colored blackness–go about their business and play with each other without any awareness that it was once otherwise. Toni Morrison, the Pulitzer-winning author of Beloved, wants today’s children to know about the past sacrifices of other youngsters who brought about these conditions they now unthinkingly take for granted.

Remember: The Journey to School Integration. Ages: 4–8 yrs. By: Toni Morrison. Houghton Mifflin, $18.00 (Hardcover)

In Remember: The Journey to School Integration, Morrison collects more than 50 photographs from the era of school busing, and she provides as commentary her own imaginings about what people were thinking at the time the picture was taken. Here are U.S. marshals sent by President Eisenhower–white men in dark suits and thin ties, in an era when men wore hats–watching over a tiny African-American first-grader carrying a plaid portfolio at her new school. Here are two black youths inside the circle of a jeering mob, their heads hung down as if expecting a rain of blows at any minute. As Huckleberry Finn once said, “It’s enough to make a body ashamed.”

Children often had to pay for what the Bible calls “the sins of the fathers.” Indeed, Morrison dedicates her book to the four black children murdered by members of the older generation and the K.K.K. in the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church. On the other hand, the situation was sometimes different among the younger generation themselves. Morrison provides a photo of a smiling white boy (looking smart with his bowtie, his hair slicked with Brylcreem) talking so nonchalantly with a black classmate in their schoolroom that you wonder what all the fuss was about. And the back cover of the books shows two classmates, black and white, holding hands on a school bus.

The People Could Fly. Ages: 4–8 yrs. By: Virginia Hamilton Illustrated By: Leo and Diane Dillon. Knopf, $16.95 (Hardcover)

Addressing these same issues, but in the different and imaginative manner of literature, is another recently published book: Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly. In 1985, Hamilton collected twenty-four African-American folktales dealing with airborne themes in a collection also called The People Could Fly. Now, after her death and as a tribute to Hamilton, Leo and Dianne Dillon have illustrated the title story from that collection. Previously, the Dillons addressed African themes in their prize-winning picture books Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears and Ashanti to Zulu; here they surpass even their prior pictorial excellence.

The story concerns some Africans who had a magical ability to fly but were, nonetheless, caught and sent to America as slaves. When Sarah is mercilessly whipped in the cotton fields, she appeals to grey-bearded Toby who conjures up the old magic and Sarah wings away with her baby, to the consternation of her slave masters. Soon others join in this angelic procession to freedom; and those unable to do so, pass along this story of hope to future generations. This tale, let me add, recalls my own favorite African-American children’s book, a prize-winning young adult novel that Hamilton wrote some thirty years before: M.C. Higgins, the Great, with its account both of a slave mother escaping to freedom and of her descendant, a contemporary boy whose own adolescent desire for freedom manifests itself in his wish to fly.

“M.C. Higgins, the Great.” By Virginia Hamilton. Aladdin, 2006.

Though these seem different books–one nonfiction and the other fiction, one retelling recent history and the other passing down an old legend, one about busing and the other about flying–they both offer the same African-American vision of intertwined pain and hope. Still, we might ask: Why are these stories presented to us in children’s books? The answer is simple. The same expectation lies behind both: that the young will remain our saviors and take on the burden of keeping these stories alive.

This essay was originally published in Parents’ Choice. Kate Capshaw Smith has published an interesting study of photographs of children in the civil right movement in her Civil Rights Childhood (University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

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15. January 2017 by
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