Tag Archives: Angie Thomas

Stop and Go Traffic: African-Americans, children’s lit, and driving

I have been thinking about driving a lot lately.  My beautiful, well-behaved, respectful, eager-to-be-a-grownup 16-year-old is learning to drive with me.  She’s a great driver, actually, which is something of a relief.  Not just because of the cost of accidents and speeding tickets, but because despite her pleasant and respectful demeanor (around adults, anyway), she is the wrong color for driving in America.

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Nice work if you can get it, Nancy Drew; but driving cars in children’s books is almost exclusively for white people.

On our first lesson, I was doing some role-playing with her and I said, “Okay, you hear sirens behind you, what do you do?”  She said, without hesitation, “I pull over and put my hands high up on the wheel so the cop knows I don’t have a gun.”  This answer nearly made me cry.  But unlike me, my daughter has grown up hearing stories of cops shooting unarmed brown or black drivers on “routine traffic stops”.  She asked how she could get her license and registration if her hands were on the wheel.  “Don’t do anything until the cop tells you,” I found myself saying, “and tell him or her exactly what you plan to do before you move.” She trusts me, so I know she’ll follow this advice.  But I also know it may not be enough.

Last week, the St. Louis chapter of the NAACP warned African-American drivers to exercise “extreme caution” when driving in Missouri.  “Race, gender and color based crimes have a long history in Missouri,” the original advisory stated. “Warn your families, co-workers and anyone visiting Missouri to beware of the safety concerns” (http://www.npr.org/2017/08/03/541382961/naacp-warns-black-travelers-to-use-extreme-caution-when-visiting-missouri).  I initially thought the report was one of those “on this day in history” reports and that I’d just missed the beginning of it.  It was horrifying to think that it wasn’t.  But for most African-Americans, the automobile has long represented both freedom and threat.

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Most children’s books depicting African-American travelers have them walking or using public transportation, both in history . . .

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. . . and in more modern depictions.

The connection between cars and African-Americans has, until recently, been more or less ignored in children’s books, especially picture books.  When African-Americans are connected with transportation in books, it is everything but the car: slave ships on the Middle Passage, the Underground Railroad, maybe the occasional Pullman Porter or—even more rarely—the Tuskegee Airmen.  Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  These stories of African-American movement are generally not about freedom of movement (or at least not about legal freedom of movement) that you find in American children’s stories of the automobile—the freedom of the open roads was only for the (white) Motor Boys and Motor Maids, Tom Swift, and Nancy Drew, the Man with the Yellow Hat from Curious George.  Picture books, when they depict African-Americans at all, generally have them walking or using public transportation; a young white reader could not be faulted for getting the impression that only white people drove cars based on what they were given to read.

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While there are many Dustbowl Migration stories for kids, Jerry Pinkney’s God Bless the Child is one of the few depicting the Great Migration.

But as early as the 1910s and 1920s, automobiles were vital to African-American life.  For many families, a car was vital to the escape from poverty that occasioned the Great Migration from the rural south to the industrial north.  Many extended families packed everything they owned and themselves into cars in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and other southern states to find jobs in manufacturing cities like Chicago, Detroit, and New York.  Although it is estimated that one and a half million people participated in the Great Migration between 1910 and 1940 (http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/great-migration), the image of this period in children’s books is usually of white sharecroppers, not African-American ones, piling up their cars to drive to better economic conditions.  Jerry Pinkney is one of the few illustrators to depict an African-American family piling up a car to drive north during the Great Migration; in fact, he has two different cars in his version of Billie Holiday’s and Arthur Herzog, Jr’s song, “God Bless the Child” (Harper Collins 2004).  There’s the broken-down car that a family of seven hope will take them north, reminiscent of the dustbowl families that went west to California. And then there’s the flashy car of a neighbor or relative who has already made it in the big city, indicating the rewards waiting in the industrial north.

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Everyone should be able to enjoy a good singalong in the car, as in this illustration by Floyd Cooper from Ruth and the Green Book

One of the aspects that separates the Great Migration family from the Dustbowl migration family is that, while both are poor and both are looking for a better life, the discrimination against the dustbowl families was based solely on class factors—something understood by picture book audiences, who know that the poor characters in fairy tales often face rejection.  Great Migration families often could not find anywhere to eat or sleep or go to the bathroom, even if they had the money to do so.  Restaurants, hotels and service stations in the south—and in many parts of the north as well—refused to serve African-Americans, or offered them far inferior services.  Travel was not only difficult but frequently dangerous if an African-American family was caught out after sundown.  In 1936, an African-American postman by the name of Victor Green decided to do something about it, and made the first guide for African-American travelers, called The Green Book.  Initially only serving New York City, the guide expanded to the entire US, Canada, Mexico and Bermuda by its final edition in 1964, the year that Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill into law.  Calvin Alexander Ramsey (with the help of Gwen Strauss) wrote a picture book about Green’s guide, with illustrations by Floyd Cooper, called Ruth and the Green Book (Carolrhoda 2010).  The guide helps the family to travel safely, and more than that allows them to enjoy the experience without fear.  The author’s text gives the child character the power (Ruth is assigned the task of finding safe places in the guide).  Teen drivers rarely have such positive experience in books—Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give being a recent poignant example.

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Driving is a rite of passage for American teenagers like my daughter, but for too many of them it does not offer the freedom to go wherever they want—even if they are following the rules.  Children’s books, including picture books, can play a role in changing the way that readers view African-American drivers by depicting the history of the unequal power relations that restrict(ed) the freedom of those drivers, and offering a space for readers to question why everyone does not have the same “rules of the road”.

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The Love U Give is Needed: Angie Thomas and Black Lives Matter

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The cover of Angie Thomas’s novel, whose title comes from Tupac Shakur. Cover art by Debra Cartwright.

 

Black Lives Matter began as a Twitter hashtag, in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot young African-American teenager Trayvon Martin in 2013. Two further deaths the following year, of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and of Eric Garner in New York City, both at the hands of police officers, brought the movement to the streets. While the greater majority of BLM protests have been peaceful, that is not to say that they haven’t been angry, and much of their anger has been directed at police officers involved in the deaths of African-Americans, mostly African-American men. The police and their supporters have been frequently critical of BLM members, and have also formed their own group, Blue Lives Matter.

This is the briefest of histories of a major movement, about which whole books could be written—and it is in fact on one of these books that I want to focus, rather than on the movement itself. The past month saw the publication of the long-anticipated debut young adult novel from Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give. Although it has been called “the Black Lives Matter novel” by the press, the organization is not mentioned in the novel. Angie Thomas says she was inspired by the movement, but isn’t affiliated with it (http://www.mtv.com/news/2991910/qa-angie-thomas-on-the-hate-u-give-black-lives-matter-and-writing-an-unapologetic-black-girl-book/). Her distance from the movement is nonetheless not distancing; it allows Thomas to depict a variety of complex characters with equally complex motivations.

This is most obvious in her main character, 16-year-old Starr Carter, who starts the novel living two separate Black lives: one in Garden Heights, a drug- and gang-plagued African-American neighborhood, and one at the posh prep school, Williamson High, she attends across town, where she is one of two African-Americans in her grade. She thinks of “Williamson Starr” as “normal Starr” (71): “Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the ‘angry black girl.’ Williamson Starr is approachable” (71)—by which she means, approachable to white people who, Thomas subtly infers, even Starr sees as the “norm”. Early on in the book, she is able to “flip a switch” in her brain to become the appropriate Starr for the appropriate setting. But her ability to do this begins to fail as the order of the world around her also falls apart. Her former best friend Khalil is killed in front of her (not a spoiler, as this is on the blurb describing the book); Starr has dealt with shooting deaths before, but her friend Natasha, also killed in front of her, did not die a second death at the hands of the police and the press. Khalil, on the other hand, is turned into “a drug dealer and a gangbanger,” as one white character puts it, “Somebody was gonna kill him eventually” (341). It is at this point that Starr realizes that not only is “being two different people . . . so exhausting” (301), it’s wrong. Wrong for herself, and wrong for the people she loves.

The person she thinks she has to be is “angry black girl,” but Angie Thomas does not let her character off the hook so easily. Being the opposite of Williamson Starr means pushing away people who want to help, including her white boyfriend Chris. Chris is a figure of fun at times, especially for Starr’s brother and father, but Thomas gives him a stubborn will to help, even participating in a protest that turns into a riot, that convinces Starr that white people are not the enemy. Neither are the cops, at least not in a body; Starr is at first angry at them all, including her Uncle Carlos, but he stands up for her to the point of taking a beating and being suspended. Thomas argues through her depictions that it isn’t how you look or what you wear, but the actions that you take or don’t take that make you a good person or an enemy.

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Penn State student Zaniya Joe during a Black Lives Matter protest (photo by Nabil Mark from Penn State’s State Press). Angie Thomas seeks to take the tape off the mouths of young people and give them their greatest weapon: a voice.

And acting out of love is something in Thomas’s book that happens, not just between individuals, but between an individual and the community. Here again, the message is complex. Starr’s mother wants to, and eventually convinces Starr’s father that they should, move out of Garden Heights for the safety of Starr and her siblings. Starr’s father initially thinks this is a betrayal of the Black community, but the conclusion of the book—which I won’t give away—has him realizing that betrayal can happen within the community, and “We ain’t gotta live there to change things, baby. We just gotta give a damn” (436). Starr—now neither Williamson Starr nor Garden Heights Starr—gains both the ability to act out of love and use a “weapon” (410); her weapon is not a gun, or tear gas, but the “biggest weapon” of all: her voice. Thomas’s book indicts no group wholesale (not police, and not all drug dealers either), but does argue that young people have a choice to make between love and hate. In order to honor the dead, and help the living, the love you give through visible, audible action is needed. The love you give matters.