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.

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Having Our Say – by Sarah and A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth (1993)

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This exceptional biography is the story of two sisters – Sadie and Bessie Delany – whose lives spanned more than a hundred years. The sisters were born in the late 1800’s to a father who was a former slave, and a mother who was light enough to have passed for caucasian. Eventually the sisters had eight siblings. Despite the struggles that were common to African-Americans, Sadie and Bessie worked hard and had very successful lives. Sadie, the older sister, was a school teacher in New York City, and Bessie became a dentist. Neither one married, instead devoting their lives to their careers and each other.

This is not your usual biography. It’s not a dry, chronological account of where they were and what they did there. Instead of trying to cover every aspect of their lives, they focus on just the things that they felt passionately about – their family history, getting educated, the oppression of Negro citizens, being working women, helping those around them, and the Civil Rights Movement. The books sounds as if they orally recorded their memories, then transcribed it into print. Bessie and Sadie alternated telling their story, with an occasion summary section written by Amy Hearth. By the end of the book, I was wanting to hear more Sadie and Bessie stories, and that is how a great biography should end!

Here are some clips from the book, in their words:

Excerpt from page 117-118 (Sadie speaking):

I got my first teaching job in New York in the fall of 1920. I think I was paid $1,500 for the year. It was at P.S. 119 in Harlem, which was an elementary school, mostly colored. This was a typical assignment for a colored teacher. They most certainly did not want us in schools where the children were white. The parents would object. One way that the principles kept us out was to say they could not hire anyone with a Southern accent because it would be damaging to the children. Well, most of us colored teachers at the time had Southern accents. So it was just a way of keeping us out.

When my Southern accent was considered a problem, I found a way around that. I signed up with a speech coach – a woman in Manhattan. She was a white woman, a lovely woman. I don’t think she had too many colored clients. I remember that when I would go to her apartment for the lessons, the doorman made me take the freight elevator. I didn’t make a fuss because I wanted those speech lessons.

You had to decide: Am I going to change the world, or am I going to change me? Or maybe change the world a little bit, just by changing me? If I can get ahead, doesn’t that help my people?

Excerpt from page 124 (Bessie speaking):

There were so very few women dentists at all, never mind colored women dentists. Why, I was only the second Negro woman licensed to practice in New York. I was also only the second Negro woman to get a dental license in North Caroline. (I got my license there, think I might go back someday.)

It was bad enough to be discriminated against by white people because I was colored. But then, my own people would discriminate against me because I was a woman! Two times I remember that men patients of mine insisted that Hap come and pull their teeth. I remember one man said to me, “Can you pull teeth with those little hands?” and I said, “Do you really want to find out?” It made me mad. I could take those forceps and pull just as hard as any man. That sexism was a nasty thing to deal with. But once a person had been my patient, they’d always come back. The word got out: That colored woman dentist has a gentle touch.

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.

 

To Kill A Mockingbird – by Harper Lee (1960)

To Kill A Mockingbird

“To Kill A Mockingbird” centers around the Finch family in the small fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression. The head of the household is Atticus, a widower and a lawyer, a man of deep religious and moral convictions. He has a son – Jem, a daughter – Jean Louise (Scout), and a black housekeeper – Calpurnia. Atticus is older than most fathers of young children in town, and the Finch family lives in a neighborhood of mostly senior citizens, so the children grow up mostly playing by themselves and being around older people. The first 80 pages or so focus on the day-to-day life and conversations of the Finch family, and set the base for the rest of the book.

Then the story really takes off. Atticus becomes the defense attorney for a black man charged with attempted rape of a white woman. As it is the 1930’s, there is still widespread segregation and mistrust between the two races. Many in town consider it disgraceful that Atticus is trying to get Tom Robinson acquitted. The racial prejudice affects everyone in town, either directly or indirectly.

There are many things to love in this classic novel – the close brother-sister relationship of Jem and Scout, the quirky character of the neighbors, the mystery of the man across the street, the depth of Atticus’ nature, and the two sides to Calpurnia. The amusing conversations of the children are mixed into the story to keep it from becoming too heavy and depressing. The account of the trial is very well written, and makes Atticus shine.

But the thing I enjoy most about this book is the way Atticus speaks to his children, as if they are grown-ups not children. He instills in them a love and respect for people of all racial and social groups. It doesn’t seem to bother him in the slightest when others disagree with him and mock him. Atticus teaches his family to walk to the beat of a different drummer, and to not be afraid when trouble comes.

Excerpt:

“Scout,” said Atticus, “when summer comes you’ll have to keep your head about far worse things . . . it’s not fair for you and Jem, I know that, but sometimes we have to make the best of things, and the way we conduct ourselves when the chips are down – well, all I can say is, when you and Jem are grown, maybe you’ll look back on this with some compassion and some feeling that I didn’t let you down. This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience – Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.”

“Atticus, you must be wrong . . .”

“How’s that?”

“Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong . . .”

“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions,” said Atticus, “but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

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.