Tag Archives: Claudette Colvin

Not Riding the Bus Alone: Doctor Who, Rosa Parks and Malorie Blackman

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Blackman had previously written this Doctor Who story in honor of the 50th anniversary of the series; it featured the seventh doctor.

This past week’s episode of “Doctor Who” was co-written (with Chris Chibnell) by the phenomenally talented Malorie Blackman, author of Noughts and Crosses and British Children’s Laureate from 2013-2015, and concerned the 1955 Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, catalyzed by Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus and her subsequent arrest.  The episode was of course fantastic, tense and taut in its plotting, horrifying in its historical details, and deeply emotional.  It is good for the audience of “Doctor Who” to be reminded that there was a time, not so long ago, when giving a white lady back her glove could get a Black kid threatened with lynching.  (Now, as nine-year-old Jeremy Harvey knows, it “only” results in the police being called: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2018/10/13/black-childs-backpack-brushed-up-against-woman-she-called-report-sexual-assault/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.284fbbbe112d.) In typical “Doctor Who” fashion, the episode contains didactically-delivered history, with the Doctor writing up facts on the wall of a whites-only motel as if it were a schoolroom blackboard and her companion Yas, who is mistaken for a Mexican person in 1955 Montgomery, researches details about the bus boycott in a banker’s lamp-lit library.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I’m pleased to see the show tackling these historical events.

But.

The episode makes a generalization (I’ll not call it an error, given that it is impossible to deliver all the history of a single event in the space of fifty minutes) that turns Rosa Parks’ story into a mythic one; and it also fails to connect Parks’ story to other histories—particularly those in Britain itself.

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Funny, I don’t see Doctor Who sitting anywhere . . .

The generalization is that Rosa Parks made her decision not to stand up on the bus by herself.  In my own childhood, Parks was described as being too tired to get up; recent children’s books have done better about correcting that idea.  Rosa Parks: My Story by Parks herself, with the assistance of Jim Haskins (Puffin 1999) states firmly several times that Parks was tired, but not physically.  Even the back cover proclaims, “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”  The “Doctor Who” episode does not make this error; the depiction of Parks shows a quietly determined woman, not a tired and elderly one.  But the idea that the Doctor and her companions had to make sure that Parks got on that bus, that night, or the racists would win (and, as the time-traveling villain says to the Doctor’s Black companion Ryan, “your kind” will stay in their place) suggests that the bus boycott was down to the actions of a single woman.  I do not wish to take away from Parks’ courage, but just as in “Doctor Who” she had the support of the Doctor and her companions as she took her stand, Parks in real life did not make a random decision that night: she did not ride that bus alone.

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Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on the bus more than half a year before Parks, but at 15 and pregnant, she was far from the “model minority” that the NAACP needed.

Parks was in fact the secretary of the local NAACP chapter; she was an advisor to the chapter’s youth group, whose members included 15-year-old Claudette Colvin.  Colvin had, the previous March, been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white person, but because she was young, unwed and pregnant, the NAACP did not see her as a suitable person around whom to organize a boycott—something they had long planned.  Parks had been moved to take a stand in part because of the case of Emmett Till, whose murderers had recently been set free; a rally at the Dexter Street Baptist Church (Martin Luther King, Jr’s church) four days prior to Parks’ action had been organized to discuss how to respond to the violence against Black people and specifically discussed Till’s case.  The “Doctor Who” episode mentions both Till and a “movement”, but the specific connections are not made clear.  This is, I think, unfortunate, because community organization was key to many of the successes of the Civil Rights Movement in America.

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Stephenson’s story, and that of the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963, would make an excellent children’s history book. Or Doctor Who episode.

Also, I think the episode missed an opportunity to connect Parks’ story with the wider African diasporic community.  At the beginning of the episode, Ryan says in response to the question, who was Rosa Parks, “She was the first Black woman to drive a bus”.  When chastised by Yas, he shrugs and says he didn’t pay attention to her story in school because Parks was American.  The episode works to show how “Rosa Parks changed the world” and thus should be important to all viewers—but this doesn’t really address Ryan’s complaint.  At the conclusion of the episode, the Doctor tells them that not only did Parks change the world, she changed the universe; she then shows them an asteroid named after Parks.  I get the science fiction connection, but it might have been more powerful—and more relevant to Ryan—if the Doctor had explained how Parks’ action had, in 1963, inspired Bristol resident and Black Briton Paul Stephenson to organize the Bristol Bus Boycott, protesting the “colour bar” that kept Black Britons from becoming city bus drivers.  Stephenson writes about how, “Seeing what was happening in the USA I decided we should draw more attention to what was happening here with black people, particularly in Bristol.  I then decided to take on the Bristol Bus Company because it was a symbol of all that was wrong with Bristol as it advocated racism, defended racism and was the most notorious racist employer in the city” (Memoirs of a Black Englishman 51).  The boycott, which was successful, led not only to Afro-Caribbean drivers being hired, but Indian and Pakistani drivers (who were also, at the time, considered Black).  In fact, the first driver to be hired was Raghbir Singh, a Punjabi.  Bringing this connection to Parks’ story up could therefore have connected Black British history with Parks’ efforts—and also shown how communities of colour, including the communities that Doctor Who companions Ryan and Yas belong to, worked together for change.

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The Bristol Bus Station has a plaque to the boycott that shows its leaders, as well as Singh, the first bus driver hired after the boycott ended (far right).

As I said, though, I thoroughly enjoyed the episode, and teared up at the end like many other sentimental viewers (https://metro.co.uk/2018/10/21/doctor-who-fans-left-sobbing-and-inspired-by-rosa-parks-episode-i-have-literal-goosebumps-8061149/).  I can only hope Blackman will get more chances to write for “Doctor Who”—and that next time, she will introduce her viewers to some Black British heroes.  Mary Seacole and Claudia Jones, anyone?

Actively Engaged: Diversity, Activism, and Children’s Books

This week I’ve been visiting the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) in Madison, Wisconsin, to find out more about their work.  The CCBC is a state examination site, which means (among other things) that they get sent review copies of most of the books published for children in the US in any given year (in 2016, this amounted to about 3,400 books).  They keep track of all these books in logs, but they only keep most of them for a limited amount of time (they save award winners and unique books for teacher education and library students to use in their research).  They’ve been doing this since 1963, but that’s not the reason I know about the CCBC. If you aren’t already aware, the CCBC publishes yearly statistics on diversity in children’s book publishing in the US and have done so in some form since 1985.

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These shelves hold the fiction that arrived at the CCBC over the last 18 months. Picture books and nonfiction are shelved separately.

In 1985, Ginny Moore Kruse was not only directing the CCBC but serving as a judge for the Coretta Scott King Award.  The Coretta Scott King is awarded annually to the best book written by an African-American, but out of 2500 books published that year, only 18 met the criteria for the award.  Kruse, and the other librarians at the CCBC, began publishing statistics on African-American authored books; in 1994, they expanded to include Latin@, Native American and Asian authors as well as books with major characters from those groups.  These are the statistics you can find on their website (http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp).

I learned that the CCBC actually keeps track of much more than these basic statistics.  Each book is logged in for several different attributes, and each category has various sub-categories.  Therefore, while the statistics available on the website give a snapshot of the number of books published about Africans and African-Americans, the CCBC logs will actually indicate the geographic region (if identifiable) or cultural background of major characters—such as Jamaican or Jamaican-American.  This is a massive operation compiled each year by the relatively small staff at the CCBC, and I’m grateful to K. T. Horning, Merri Lindgren, Megan Schliesman and Madeline Tyner, all of whom took the time to explain to me the who, what, when, why and how of the workings of the CCBC.  The statistics they compile have helped to raise awareness in the US about the deficiencies in US publishing for children.  Even though the numbers have increased since the dismal 1985 numbers, they are still incredibly small; the statistics give scholars, writers and activists information that they can (and we all should) use to help put pressure on an industry which has for too long ignored what the US looks like.

In addition to the CCBC, Madison is home to a wonderful independent bookstore called A Room of One’s Own.  They have a wider variety of children’s books than I’ve seen in a long time at an American bookstore, and—at least in terms of what they highlighted and displayed while I was visiting—many of these books are by or about people of color.  Recently, I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of books written about activism for (and by) children.  I’m not sure whether this is due to the current political climate or to the historical political climate (Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated fifty years ago this April, not to mention the other uprisings and protests of 1968 around the globe).  Either way, there seems to be a (renewed?) interest in teaching kids, not just about past protests, but about how to become activists themselves—and many of the books that are being published focus on young activists of color.  I’ll just highlight two books that I purchased at A Room of One’s Own to give an idea of what is available for kids.

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Bob Bland produced The Little Book of Little Activists after the 2017 Women’s March.

The first is The Little Book of Little Activists (Viking 2017), which was created (it’s not really authored, per se) by Bob Bland, the co-chair of the January 2017 Women’s March on Washington.  Bland, who was nine months pregnant at the time of the march, wanted to create the book to emphasize two things: one, that ordinary people can make a difference (she started it as a Facebook event), and two, as she writes in her introduction,

People from all walks of life joined together in solidarity, many of them engaging in social activism for the first time.  This book seeks to inspire them and others to keep on resisting.  And to remind us all that the future is in the hands of our children, and they are poised and ready for action. (n.p.)

The rest of the book contains photographs of and quotations from young children (some too young to offer quotations or create the signs they were carrying) who participated in the march.  Additionally, a couple of pages define words connected with the march, such as “Equality”.  One of the pages I find most interesting is the one that defines “protest” as “Disrupting the usual flow of things in order to call attention to an injustice and demand that it be changed” (n.p.; bolding in original).  It then goes on to list several types of protests, including boycotts, sit-ins, and walkouts.

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The defining of protest types gives young activists different ways to react to injustice.

This caught my eye because the first book I had picked up at A Room of One’s Own, Innosanto Nagara’s The Wedding Portrait (Triangle Square 2017) had a discussion of the types of protest as its very raison d’être.  The subtitle of the book is, “The Story of a Photograph and Why Sometimes we Break the Rules” and it opens with an epigraph from Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience.  After an opening page introducing the photograph of the title, the book continues with a discussion of different types of civil disobedience—beginning with the bus boycotts in the American south in the 1960s.  This discussion struck me particularly because rather than show the expected picture of Rosa Parks, Nagara decided instead to introduce readers to an earlier protester—the 15-year-old Claudette Colvin who, like Parks, refused to move to the back of the bus when police demanded she do so.  Nagara indicates that Colvin was arrested, but also that “In the end, the laws were changed.  This is called CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE.”

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Most books that mention the bus boycotts highlight Rosa Parks, but Nagara focuses on the young protester Claudette Colvin.

The book continues through different types of protests (my favorite line is in the section about the Salt March in India, where Nagara writes, “So the people said, ‘Sorry, British Empire, but it’s time for you to go home’”) including a page on Black Lives Matter and their protest against the confederate flag, before finally returning to the original wedding portrait.  It is only then that we learn that they bride and groom were married at a protest, and were handcuffed and arrested.  Like The Little Book of Little Activists, The Wedding Portrait shows protesters of every color.  It also emphasizes what young (and not-so-young) activists need to hear in troubled times: protest does not always lead to change right away, but with enough time and commitment, all people have the power to make a difference.  How you decide to do it is up to you.