The Watsons Go To Birmingham 1963 – by Christopher Paul Curtis

The Watsons Go To Birmingham - 1963

If you loved the tv show “Family Matters” in the 1990’s, you will probably also love “The Watsons Go To Birmingham-1963”. The Watsons are a black family living in Flint, Michigan during the sixties. Kenny, the main character in the novel, is nine years old, with an older brother Byron and a younger sister Joetta. Kenny has a great time playing with plastic dinosaurs, reading books, and spending time with Dad, but gets picked on by bullies at school. His big brother comes to the rescue and chases off Kenny’s bullies. But Byron is constantly getting into trouble, hanging around with friends that aren’t good for him. Eventually, Momma and Dad decide that the best option is to drive down to Birmingham, Alabama, and leave Byron with the grandma for the summer. That will separate him from the bad influences and hopefully get him back on track. Unbeknownst to the Watsons, they are driving straight into a hot spot in the Civil Rights movement.

What I loved the most about this book was the relationship between Kenny and his brother. Byron would tease him, pick at him, and act like he didn’t want his little brother around, but when push came to shove, he really loved Kenny and always defended him. I also liked the way the whole family stuck together, whether it meant huddling together under a blanket on a frigid winter day, or driving across the country to get one member of the family away from bad things. They all cared deeply about each other, and that is the way it should always be with family.

The book dealt with a lot of serious subjects – racism, juvenile delinquency, bombings – but was kept from being too heavy and serious by a number of light-hearted parts. Parts like: Byron playing Nazi parachutes over the toilet, putting a record player in the family car, handling a bad hair job, sharing winter gloves, and of course, the stuck-to-the -car-mirror incident!

This book can be enjoyed by any age over nine, the age of the main character. It is also available as an audiobook, read aloud by Lavar Burton. (He is a fantastic narrator!)I have both read and listened to the book, and enjoyed it equally. This fine novel is available at libraries and bookstores across the country.

Newbery Honor Book

Coretta Scott King Award

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Song Of The Trees – by Mildred D. Taylor (1975)

Song Of The Trees

Eight-year-old Cassie Logan loved the family trees. At a time when money was scarce and her daddy was away working for the railroad, the trees were a comfort to her. Some were ancient, some were young, but they all seemed to sing to Cassie with their leaves, telling her things would be alright. But one day, when she and her brothers were out picking blackberries, they spied two white men marking x’s on their trees. Who would stop them from cutting down the family trees?

 

 

This is Mildred Taylor’s first book about the Logans, a family living in Mississippi during the 1930’s. The book is short – only 52 pages in the copy I read. “Song Of The Trees” is a good introduction to the life of a black family after slavery ended but before the Civil Rights Movement Yes, they were technically free, but in practicality they were often treated harshly and unjustly by the white people in their community.

Although Cassie Logan is a fictional character, the story itself is based on a true event from the life of Mildred Taylor’s father. After this book, the author went on to write seven more books about the Logan family, some short, some hundreds of pages long. The events were inspired by stories handed down through the generations by older family members. People of almost any age will be deeply moved by the stories portrayed in these books.

Black Like Me – by John Howard Griffin (1961, 1996) part 2

John_Howard_Griffin

link to “Black Like Me – part 1”:
https://alwaysreading1.wordpress.com/2015/09/05/black-like-me-by-john-howard-griffin-1961part1/

I have read “Black Like Me” three times now, and am moved each time by John’s 1959 experience as a Negro in the deep South. John had been born in Texas in 1920, when prejudice and segregation ruled, then lived in France, where whites and blacks enjoyed the same rights. Upon returning to the U.S. later, he must have thought to himself: Why would white people hate Negroes so much?

John was one of many people in the 1950’s and ’60s who acted on their beliefs that all men were created equal, and deserved to be treated as such. His book was published two years later, in 1961. John became a much-sought-after speaker about civil rights. Wherever he went, his speeches made people angry. John wrote:

“In my own case, if I stayed more than three days in any large city, I usually tried to change hotels or else move in with some black family. In one city in Louisiana where I lectured, I could not even stay in the city because all the lodging places had been threatened with bombings if they accepted me as a guest.

This kind of thing continued throughout the early and mid-sixties. We led strange, hidden lives. We were advocating only one thing: that this country rid itself of the racism that prevented some citizens from living as fully functioning men and as a result dehumanized all men. We were advocating only that this country live up to its promises to all citizens. But since racism always hides under a respectable guise – usually the guise of patriotism and religion – a great many people loathed us for knocking holes in these respectable guises. It was clear that we would have to live always under threat…”

(from page 167 of the 35th anniversary edition)

Finally, the death threats became too great. John, his parents, his wife, and the four children moved to Mexico for awhile.. Sometimes when you follow your conscience, life does not reward you. Instead, you may find yourself rejected or even harmed. But in the end, you have to live with yourself. Thank God for people who persist in speaking the truth and standing up for what they know is right, even when it costs them dearly.

Black Like Me – by John Howard Griffin (1961, 1996) part 1

Black Like Me

(cover of 35th anniversary printing, 1996)

An old proverb says you cannot understand a man until you have walked in his shoes. In 1959, John Griffin decided to do just that. Born in Texas in 1920, he went to France as a young man, and studied both literature and medicine. He also interned at the Asylum of Tours, using experimental music therapy on the criminally insane patients. During his stay there, World War II broke out. John used his medic skills to treat wounded French Resistance fighters, and helped move Austrian Jews out of France. When it became too dangerous, John returned to the United States.

From there he served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the South Pacific for about three years. A bombing attack damaged his vision, and by 1946 he was totally blind. In his years of blindness he experience a spiritual revival, and became a devout Catholic. He also wrote a number of stories, using his trusty typewriter. In 1953 he married Elizabeth Holland, and together they had four children. A few years later, his eyesight was restored, and John developed skill as a photographer.

By 1959, racial tensions between the whites and the Negroes were at an all-time high. This bothered John greatly, as Negroes had been treated as equals in France. He devised a plan to “become” a Negro for a month or so, then write his impressions of what it was like to be a black person in the southern states. A dermatologist gave him prescription medication to darken his skin. Skin creams and hours under a sun lamp intensified the effects. John also shaved his head so that his hair would not give him away. And so he “became” a black man, traveling through Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama. The things he experienced changed the course of his life.

Excerpts from page 54-55 of 35th anniversary edition:

With almost an hour before bus departure, I turned away and looked for a place to sit. The large, handsome room was almost empty. No other Negro was there, and I dared not take a seat unless I saw some other Negro also seated.

Once again a “hate stare” drew my attention like a magnet. It came from a middle-aged, heavy-set, well-dressed man. He sat a few yards away, fixing his eyes on me. Nothing can describe the withering horror of this. You feel lost, sick at heart before such unmasked hatred, not so much because it threatens you as because it shows humans in such an inhuman light….

A Negro porter sidled over to me. I glimpsed his white coat and turned to him. His glance met mine and communicated the sorrow, the understanding. “Where am I supposed to go?” I asked him.

He touched my arm in that mute and reassuring way of men who share a moment of crisis. “Go outside and around the corner of the building. You’ll find the room.”

The white man continued to stare, his mouth twisted with loathing as he turned his head to watch me move away.

In the colored waiting room, which was not labeled as such, but rather as COLORED CAFE, presumably because of interstate regulations, I took the last empty seat. The room was crowded with glum faces, faces dead to all enthusiasm, faces of people waiting.

Go Set A Watchman – by Harper Lee (2015)

Go Set A Watchman

Although you will find this book in the “new book” area of your local bookstore or library, it is actually quite an old book. It was written in the late 1950’s but rejected by the publishers. Ms. Lee then proceeded to write “To Kill A Mockingbird”, using many of the characters she had created for her original novel. In 1960 “To Kill A Mockingbird” was published. The book became an instant success, won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize award, and was made into a movie several years later. It was a wonderful book, loved by millions, but was it really the story Harper Lee wanted to tell? We now have her original novel, more than 55 years later.

Jean Louise (Scout) is the main character in “Go Set A Watchman”. She is now a young woman living in New York City, but is in Maycomb, Alabama for a visit. Her father, Atticus, who she has always looked up to, is old and crippled with arthritis. Aunt Alexandra lives with him and runs the household since they no longer have their black housekeeper, Calpurnia. Henry, a childhood friend who has his heart set on marrying Jean Louise, is a major character in the book as well.

On the surface, everything looks as it did in childhood days. But times are changing, and even Maycomb has been affected. The highest court in the land has ruled that its black citizens have all the rights that its white citizens enjoy. They can vote, hold political office, and go to schools that were previously segregated, among other things. It is against this backdrop that Jean Louise happens to stop in to observe a meeting of the townsfolk, where a fiery segregationist is speaking. She is shocked, and expects people – especially her father and her boyfriend Henry – to stand up and object to the hate-filled speech. That doesn’t happen; in fact, everyone seems in agreement with the guest speaker. What has happened to Maycomb and the people she thought she knew?

The story alternates between the present and the past. The scenes of Jean Louise as a schoolgirl add depth to the story, and a good bit of humor. I especially enjoyed reading the chapter where she goes to a school dance for the first time, the mishap that occurs, and the solution to the situation.

I have read both of Harper Lee’s novels, and enjoyed each immensely (after almost abandoning “Watchman”), but they are very different. “To Kill A Mockingbird” shows a more idealized Atticus with unwavering morals and a dedication to the truth, and Jean Louise as an adoring daughter who believes every word he says. In “Go Set A Watchman” Atticus’ moral and political beliefs are muddled, and he seems to be swayed by the culture, and Jean Louise is a shrill, angry woman. But if you read both books, you get a more complete picture of both Jean Louise and her father.

No human is perfect. We all have inconsistencies in our lives. We say and teach our children one way, but often behave another way ourselves. Sometimes we are strong and stand up for what we know is right, and other times we allow society to push us into conformity. Sometimes we are able to accept the flaws of those we love; other times we turn our backs on them when they don’t live up to the standards we thought they had. All in all, this is a powerful story that is well worth reading.

Excerpts from chapter 13:

…something’s wrong with me, it’s something about me. It has to be because all these people cannot have changed. Why doesn’t their flesh creep? How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say the things they do and listen to the things they hear without throwing up? I thought I was a Christian but I’m not. I’m something else and I don’t know what. Everything I have ever taken for right and wrong these people have taught me – these same, these very people. So it’s me, it’s not them. Something has happened to me.

You will not believe me, but I will tell you: never in my life until today did I hear the word “n—–” spoken by a member of my family. Never did I learn to think in terms of The N—–. When I grew up, and I did grow up with black people, they were Calpurnia, Zeebo the garbage collector, Tom the yard man, and whatever else their names were. There were hundreds of Negroes surrounding me, they were hands in the fields, who chopped the cotton, who worked the roads, who sawed the lumber to make our houses. They were poor, they were diseased and dirty, some were lazy and shiftless, but never in my life was I given the idea that I should despise one, should fear one, should be discourteous to one, or think that I could mistreat one and get away with it. They as a people did not enter my world, nor did I enter theirs: when I went hunting I did not trespass on a Negro’s land, not because it was a Negro’s, but because I was not supposed to trespass on anybody’s land. I was taught never to take advantage of anyone who was less fortunate than myself, whether he be less fortunate in brains, wealth, or social position; it meant anybody, not just Negroes. I was given to understand that the reverse was to be despised. That is the way I was raised, by a black woman and a white man.

 

All The Way Home – by Ann Tatlock (2002)

All The Way Home

This is the story of two little girls growing up in California during World War II who become inseparable friends. Augusta (Augie) comes from German-Irish roots; Hatsune (Sunny) is Japanese. The youngsters go to the same school and live only a few blocks apart. It’s not long before Augie begins to feel more a part of Sunny’s family than her own dysfunctional family. Neither of the girls are bothered by their different skin colors and family background. Their friendship flourishes until the day that Sunny’s family vanishes. Augie grieves for the loss of her friend, but there is nothing she can do.

The second half of the book jumps ahead many years. It is now the 1960’s. The Civil Rights movement is in full swing. Augie and Sunny have gone on with their lives in different parts of the country, unaware of what has happened to the other. Then one day they meet again. Can they pick back up their friendship, or have they changed too much?

What I love about this novel is the way Sunny and Augie see each other’s heart instead of their outward appearance. It’s the way a healthy relationship should be. I also like the way Sunny’s parents take Augie under their wing. It reminds me that we can make a difference in the lives of our kids’ friends. The author weaves together the themes of friendship, prejudice, discrimination, family relationships, and the Civil Rights movement into a wonderful story!

“All The Way Home” is available as a regular book, audiobook, or Kindle e-book.

Rules For Radicals – by Saul Alinsky (1971, Vintage Books edition 1989)

Rules For Radicals

I had never heard of Saul Alinsky until I heard Glenn Beck mention him as a radical in a long line of socialists trying to change our country. Who was this man? Mr. Alinsky was born in 1909 and died in 1972; no wonder I hadn’t heard of him. He started as a criminologist, then shifted into working in the labor movement and community organizing in Chicago during the 1930s. His goal was to unite people living in ghettos to fight for better living and working conditions. Later, he became involved in the civil rights movement. He wrote two books, “Reveille For Radicals” in 1946, and “Rules For Radicals” in 1971.

Glenn Beck was fond of saying, “Don’t take my word for it; do your own research.” So I got “Rules For Radicals” from the local library and read it. The beginning of the book seemed logical and well thought out. Some of the observations he made resonated with me, as I volunteered in my neighborhood association years ago and ran into similar issues. But as the book went on, it was obvious that he wanted more than just good living/working conditions for poor folks. Mr. Alinsky manipulated people into anger and conflict; he wanted the “Have-Nots” to rise up and take from the “Haves”.

That is the point at which I could not agree with the Alinsky approach. We can work toward better neighborhoods and work/living conditions without stirring up discontent and hatred. Manipulating people like a stupid herd of sheep into doing what you want them to do is not what I would want to be remembered for.
from pages 116-117:
The organizer dedicated to changing the life of a particular community must first rub raw the resentments of the people of the community: fan the latent hostilities of many of the people to the point of overt expression. He must search out controversy and issues, rather than avoid them, for unless there is controversy people are not concerned enough to act… An organizer must stir up dissatisfaction and discontent; provide a channel into which the people can angrily pour their frustrations. He must create a mechanism that can drain off the underlying guilt for having accepted the previous situation for so long a time. Out of this mechanism, a new community organization arises.

From page 161:
There is a way to keep the action going and to prevent it from being a drag, but this means constantly cutting new issues as the action continues, so that by the time the enthusiasm and the emotions for one issue have started to de-escalate, a new issue has come into the scene with a consequent revival. With a constant introduction of new issues, it will go on and on. This is the case with many prolonged fights; in the end the negotiations don’t even involve the issues around which the conflict originally began.