Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Black History Month: Four Courageous Women

Nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, Claudette Colvin, fifteen years old, stayed in her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

It was March 2, 1955, but in the intervening years, this story has been all-but-forgotten. Phillip Hoose‘s work is essential reading.

Claudette Colvin Hoose

Based on fourteen lengthy interviews and substantial supporting research, this is a compelling story indeed.

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009) is a keeper.

Large segments of the narrative read as though she is speaking directly to the reader.

The author posed thousands of questions to her in interviews (three of them were conducted in person) and he then read and reread these written segments to her and made the corrections she requested, either to correct or to change the emphasis to accurately reflect her perspective.

This makes for a truly engaging account with an air of authenticity.

The supporting historical narrative is clearly presented too, so that the pacing of the work remains consistent even in the more outwardly expository segments.

There is also an abundance of imagery – photographs and copies of newspaper articles – which adds another dimension to the reading experience.

(The image of the ticket to the movie theatre fit perfectly with my reading of Viola Desmond’s story too: see below.)

“When I look back now, I think Rosa Parks was the right person to represent that movement at that time. She was a good and strong person, accepted by more people than were ready to accept me. But I made a personal statement, too, one that she didn’t make and probably couldn’t have made. Mine was the first cry for justice, and a loud one. I made it so that our own adult leaders couldn’t just be nice anymore. Back then, as a teenager, I kept thinking, Why don’t the adults around here just say something? Say it so they know we don’t accept segregation? I knew then and I know now that, when it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it. You can’t sugarcoat it. You have to take a stand and say, ‘This is not right.’ And I did.”

For a more familar story, but told here by the inimitable Nikki Giovanni, Rosa (illustrated by Bryan Collier, Henry Holt, 2005) is certainly worthwhile.

It begins: “Mrs. Parks was having a good day.”

Her mother had been feeling poorly, but was now out of bed. Her husband was getting some extra work. And, just like that, Rosa reminds us ta the amour Rosa Parks is ordinary.

Rosa Giovanni

She seems extraordinary. And what she did was extraordinary. And that resonates across the generations.

The author describes her feelings about the project like this:

“Rosa Parks is a cooling breeze on a sweltering day; a sun-dried quilt in fall; the enchantment of snowfalls extending the horizon; the promise of renewal at spring. It is an honor and a responsibility to explore the bravery of her acceptance of history’s challenge.”

The artist describes his feelings about Rosa Parks as follows:

“To me, she s like a radiant chandelier, an elegant light that illuminates all our many pathways.”

He captures this deliberately in the images which accompany this story, created with watercolour and collage.

First, he explains that he travelled to Montgomery and to Selma, Alabama in 2004 to research the book, and he was so struck by the heat , that all of the paintings have what he describes as a yellow and sometimes dark hue. 

They look soft, like old sepia photographs, but with gentle hues adding dimension and depth.

“I wanted the reader to feel in that heat a foreshadowing, an uneasy quiet before the storm” so that it looks as though there is light radiating from Rosa Parks in every image.

The details in the paintings are remarkable, and although the images sound dark (and, yes, these were dark times), there is light reflected in unexpected places: in the fold of tape measure around her neck, the plastic window of a wallet, opened on the kitchen table, the gleam of a wedding ring on a seatbelt tightly gripped in determination.

Most impressive is the double-page fold-out spread of the march, described with a poet’s patient rhythms:

“And the people walked. They walked in the rain. They walked in the hot sun. They walked early in the morning. They walked late at night. They walked at Christmas, and they…. They still walked.”

Richard Rudnicki‘s acrylic paintings in Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged (told by Jody Nyasha Warner, Groundwood Books, 2010) are of a very different nature.

His bold colours and brushstrokes complement the vivid style of storytelling perfectly.

Viola DesmondThe work begins:

“Viola Desmond was one brave woman! Now come on here, listen in close and I’ll tell you why.”

And so it unfolds, this story of another “everyday person who courageously took a stand against racial segregation”.

Viola Desmond sat in the whites-only section of a movie theatre in Nova Scotia and refused to move when she was confronted.

She was also refused the option of paying an additional penny to gain entrance to the lower level in which she was seated and, when the case went to court, the matter of the policy’s racist roots was doggedly overlooked.

“But I told you Viola was brave, didn’t I? She wouldn’t budge one inch because she knew this seating rule wasn’t fair to black folks. It was just plain wrong. So the manager and the policeman dragged her out of the theatre in a real rough way.”

For context, a work like Phillip Hoose’s would be helpful; herein, only a single page, titled A Glimpse of African Canadian History, appears.

In teeny-tiny type, the single page moves from the first documented black person in Canada in 1605 (Mathieu Da Costa, who acted as a translator between the Mi’kmaq and the French) through Viola Desmond’s birth (in 1914, Halifax, Nova Scotia) and business dealings (she owned and operated a popular beauty salon and  founded the Desmond School of Beauty Culture because many beauty schools refused to train black women).

Alongside existing knowledge and other texts, however, this story resonates with determination.

Eventually Viola Desmond’s case was thrown out on a procedural technicality on appeal. Her struggle is captured in small details in the paintings, which often show more of her body than just her face, and which capture the tension in her shoulders and her crossed arms and legs.

The paintings have an interesting way of dealing with the background, sometimes sketches of buildings and crowd members are greyed out, emphasizing bright and bold colours in the foreground and emphasizing the fact that other stories might be playing out back there, but this is the story which matters in this moment.

There is a sense of dynamism in the illustrations: mouths are sometimes agape, caught in the act of speech, expressing a demand for justice or an annoucement or threat, and sometimes caught in a moment of quiet indecision, or pursed in reflection or resistance.

Kadir Nelson’s illustrations for Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (told by Carole Boston Weatherford, Hyperion, 2006) are rich and resonant.

Moses Kadir Nelson

(Heart and Soul was my introduction to his artwork.)

Although a slim volume, Moses endeavours to represent the whole of a long-lived woman in only a few pages, which is a challenge given the varied nature of her life experiences.

“This story is based on the spiritual journey of Harriet Tubman – as a slave in Maryland, a free woman in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and a famous conductor on the Underground Railroad.

She had been born into slavery around 1820, one of 11 children, and she was named Araminta but took mother’s name in adulthood and became Harriet Tubman.

In 1849, after she learned that her master had died and she was to be separated from her family, she decided to flee, travelling 90 miles, mostly on foot, to Pennsylvania.

“Courageous, compassionate, and deeply religious, Tubman saw visions and spoke to God.”

This is how it’s described in the biographical note which follows the narrative:

“She believed the Lord called her to free slaves on the Underground Railroad. Her strong faith not only helped her to escape from slavery, but to lead others to freedom.”

And here is how part of her escape is presented in the story:

“Up ahead, she hears word that patrolers are nabbing runaways, and crouches for days in a potato hole., dreams she is buried alive, Have you deserted me, Lord?”

She was “called” to return in 1851, to bring other slaves north:

“Finally a conductor, a guide, she turns to God, I am ready, Lord, Lead me, Harriet, I will make a way for you.”

By 1857, she had brought her parents, and by 1860 she had travelled south 19 times; she freed more than 300 slaves, and she never lost a passenger.

The illustrations are sometimes cinematic and sometimes sharply focussed. As is clear on the cover, hands are often at the heart of a scene and the texture of garments seems palpable.

The majority of the images are dark, emphasizng those which are light (some in Pennsylvania and one each in slavery when she is at work chopping wood and one when she is mid-way to Pennsylvania and doing some farmwork in a yard for a woman who agreed to give her some food), like the gorgeous cover painting.

Picture books are not just for young readers. Each of these brings true stories to life, stories worth telling and stories worth reading and stories worth reading again.

[Edited to add that Helen Kubiw has compiled an excellent list of works for Black History Month on Canlit for Little Canadians, which also includes a mention of Viola Desmond’s story. Do check it out and add to your TBR or recall old favourites!]

 

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6 comments to Black History Month: Four Courageous Women

  • Extraordinary stories of people with tremendous courage. I’d never heard of Colvin so thanks for highlighting her.

  • The art for Nikki Giovanni’s Rosa sounds wonderful. I don’t pick up picture books often but I may have to wander into the children’s section of the library to check that one out. Hadn’t heard of Viola Desmond before either, so thanks for bringing her story to my attention.

    • I don’t do it very often either, but every single time I take the time – without exception – I feel as though I should make it a regular occurrence. It changes the way that I attend to other reading, and I really wish I’d make a habit of it, rather than having to relearn how wonderful it is every six months or a year or so.

  • I haven’t heard of Claudette Colvin so I need to get her story right away. Seems like a bit of an unsung hero. The book would be perfect for Black History Month or any other time too. Thanks.

    • Yes, definitely: an anytime book. I do love the library displays and the lists and reviews that surge forth in February for BHM, but it certainly needn’t be viewed as a one-month-long event but a series of ongoing reading choices.

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