Learning the Hard-Knock Rhythm of Life

In honor of the twin educational celebrations for March, Women’s History Month and Music in our Schools Month, today’s blog examines two children’s books based on real-life African American and American Indian women who found music—and hardship—in school.

Music is often, especially for African Americans, depicted as a path out of poverty; being a musician is one of the acceptable careers for African Americans in children’s books, especially children’s biographies. At first glance, poet Marilyn Nelson and illustrator Jerry Pinkney’s Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World (New York: Dial, 2009) falls easily into this category. An all-girl band, formed at a poor rural school for African Americans in 1930s Mississippi, goes on to international fame, playing swing music in some of the biggest jazz venues in the US and for troops across Europe at the end of World War II. Nelson’s story, told through poems with swing tune titles, and Pinkney’s collage illustrations (an unusual artistic method for him), are complex and multi-layered. For the reader who was uninitiated into the history of jazz, or unable or unwilling to read the book’s extensive metadata (dedications, publication information, author-illustrator notes, timeline), the book would probably remain simply the story of a band, albeit a women’s band.

They can thank a music teacher?

The metanarratives of Sweethearts of Rhythm, however, tell some of the most important parts of the story: how the band began as a group of teenage girls, who gave concerts to raise money for their school; how it was made up of not only African Americans, but of girls of multiracial heritage, including girls with Chinese, Hawaiian, and Hispanic parents; how white women later joined the band; how they grew to gain such wide acceptance that Downbeat magazine named them the #1 “all-girl” band in the US. But even these do not tell the whole story. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm did originate as a school band, and many of the girls learned their instruments—and a way to make a living—because of the Piney Woods school’s efforts. But the school administrators, in their efforts to make money to keep the school afloat, exploited the girls by paying them eight dollars a week—and then taking seven of the dollars back for meals. The school also took out life insurance policies on the girls, with the school as beneficiary, and some of the girls feared they would not be allowed to graduate. They eventually broke from Piney Woods, but the lessons they learned in their schooldays followed them throughout their life: they continued to struggle with exploitation, sexism, and racism (not to mention homophobic remarks directed toward both gay and straight members of the band) until the band finally split in the 1950s. Nelson and Pinkney’s book is a good introduction to a remarkable musical group, but in its efforts to focus on the positive and child-friendly, it leaves out the ways that music in school both saved and damned the women of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

Similarly, Gina Capaldi and Q.L. Pearce’s Red Bird Sings: The Story of Zitkala-Ṧa, Native American Author, Musician, and Activist (Minneapolis: Carolrhoda, 2011) tries to portray a positive vision of the story of a young Sioux girl who is taken away from her family and the prairies to live in a assimilationist boarding school. The school that Gertrude Simmons (her birth name; she did not go by Zitkala-Sa or Red Bird until she was older) attended was run by Quakers, but it was part of a larger US governmental project in the 19th and early 20th centuries to remove American Indian children from their tribal homes, teach them English and a trade and assimilate them into American society. Some of the schools had the best of intentions, while others inflicted physical and emotional abuse on their pupils; either way, the schools seldom achieved their aims. Many of the children who attended these schools felt, not assimilated, but alienated, cut off from their tribal origins and unable because of the racial prejudice of others to fully integrate into Euro-American communities.

Capaldi and Pearce’s book is told through Zitkala-Sa’s “own” words, “adapted” by Capaldi and Pearce. Gertrude Simmons wrote a series of articles in 1900 and 1901 for the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s New Monthly about her upbringing, and it is on these that the book is based. Although she struggles at times—describing herself as “caught between two worlds”—she is overall successful, becoming a well-known violinist and composer, and speaking out about American Indian issues. The picture book focuses Zitkala-Sa’s success in the Anglo world, citing book contracts, excellent reviews of her concerts and operas, and the attention her work received from President Herbert Hoover. It does not focus on the heavy price that Zitkala-Sa paid for this achievement. She was painfully estranged from her mother for many years; Zitkala-Sa describes in her autobiography how her mother prayed to her dead warrior brothers’ spirits to save her from the “helpless misery” her daughter had brought her, and how Zitkala-Sa had eventually left home, feeling “homeless and heavy-hearted”. The picture book, however, describes only that “I had let a distance grow between my mother’s simple life and my own, and so I had lost her as well.” The book ultimately approves of Zitkala-Sa’s success in the Anglo world (the cover illustration shows this nicely); and in weighting the book toward the benefits of education, writing, and western forms of musical composition, it can only regret Zitkala-Sa’s mother as a “loss,” though not one that stops her. The “simplicity” of the Sioux life is a back-handed compliment as well, since the opposite of that simplicity is clearly civilization, reinforcing the notion, perhaps unintentionally, that the Sioux are a savage or primitive race.

The thoroughly Anglicized American Indian.

Education and music, according to both these books, can be powerful tools for self-improvement and self-esteem. But in an assimilationist, and often racist, society, they can also be the means to separate people from their families and cultures. This is the side of the story that these books would rather not tell.

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