Tag Archives: Emmett Till

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?

“Emmett Till’s name still catches in my throat”: Lynching and Children’s Literature

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Emmett Till’s story is told by poet Marilyn Nelson in a heroic crown of sonnets.

Last week, I wrote about the children’s books in my public library (the big central one) that discussed the lynching campaigner Ida B. Wells. I hadn’t initially intended to write about Wells; I was looking to see if there were children’s books on lynching available and her name came up first. I was pleased to find the Wells books, particularly the one by Walter Dean Myers—but in some ways I was also not surprised. Children’s biography subjects, even when bordering on the controversial (lynching is not exactly a good bedtime-book subject) also tend to stay safe in some way or another. The books about Wells certainly deal with lynching, but in a roundabout way; a lynching campaigner is a safer focus than a lyncher—or indeed, someone who was lynched.

But I had initially gone to the library hoping to find books about Emmett Till, because I had thought that Till would be the ideal subject for a children’s book about lynching. He was, after all, a child himself when in 1955 he was lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Money, Mississippi, shot in the head and bound with barbed wire before being tossed in the Tallahatchie River. His murderers were acquitted despite the open casket funeral his mother held and despite the outrage his death provoked all across the nation. If you wanted to teach children about the crime of lynching, there could be no better subject, especially since his death prompted many who had opposed or been indifferent to the Civil Rights Movement to change their minds.

 

However, I had not grown up in the 1970s knowing about Emmett Till. Discussions of the Civil Rights Movement when I was a kid included other figures who had changed minds—Martin Luther King, Jr of course, and Rosa Parks (who was always portrayed, not as a campaigner, but as a tired lady on the bus). I remember seeing the photo of the first day of school desegregation in Little Rock Arkansas, African-American girls with their books against their chests as they were escorted by the National Guard. I even learned, eventually, about the 16th St. Baptist Church bombings and how innocent girls were killed. These figures and images were all made safe somehow for childhood consumption: King as a larger-than-life figure, giving his “I have a dream” speech, Parks rendered much older and weaker than she was, students supported by the symbol of the American government (see how good the US is, we protect against racists; somehow this message was congruent with the American racists who were spitting in the faces of the students), children killed by a bomb but in a church so it was straight up to heaven for them. Perhaps these interpretations were as much mine (protecting my child self) as of the children’s books I read about Civil Rights. But Emmett Till was not in them. He might have whistled at a white woman. This, apparently, was enough to keep him from being a notable figure of the Civil Rights era in books for children.

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Freedman’s discussion of Till is quickly ended, and the reader is returned to the relative safety of Rosa Parks.

 

Even now, many children’s books that I found on Civil Rights do not even mention Emmett Till. The few that do put Till’s murder in the context of other Civil Rights actions. Russell Freedman’s Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Holiday House, 2006), for example, gives a couple of paragraphs to Till’s lynching in the midst of a discussion about Rosa Parks. The last line of the paragraph about Till, in which “the killers boasted to a journalist that they had indeed murdered Till” (32), and the first line of the next paragraph, “Rosa Parks had not expected to resist on that December evening” (32) are never directly connected, but narratively, the book returns to a position of safety by invoking Rosa Parks.

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Irma McLaurin’s history of the Civil Rights movement gives Till two pages–but never uses the term “lynching”.

Irma McClaurin’s contribution to the “Drama of African American History” series, The Civil Rights Movement (Marshall Cavendish, 2008), has a two-page spread about Till’s murder, but they never refer to it as lynching. And, while the author notes that Till’s death had an impact, it is interesting that she writes that the verdict acquitting the white murderers, rather than the death itself, “had a dramatic impact on an entire generation of young African Americans”. The acquittal of white racists is seen as galvanizing, but for African-Americans only.

 

My public library did have books for children specifically about Emmett Till—but they were not available in the children’s section. Both Simeon Wright’s Simeon’s Story : an eyewitness account of the kidnapping of Emmett Till (Lawrence Hill, 2010) and Marilyn Nelson’s A Wreath for Emmett Till (Houghton Mifflin, 2005) are listed in the library catalog as “juvenile literature” but neither are shelved in the children’s section. Instead, they can be found in adult non-fiction. And while Wright’s book could conceivably be seen as a book for adults, A Wreath for Emmett Till was written and designed as a picture book and a poetry book for young people. Nelson herself was nine years old when Till was murdered, and she wrote in her introduction that Till’s “name and history have been a part of most of my life” (n.p.). She wanted to write the collection of sonnets (a heroic crown of them, if you are well-versed in poetic forms) for young people who would recognize what it meant for a person of their own age and generation to be lynched. She felt that the strictness of the sonnet form would help protect herself as she wrote “from the intense pain of the subject matter” (n.p.). But although the book won multiple awards as a children’s book including the Coretta Scott King award and an ALA Notable Book for Children (it won several awards as a Young Adult book as well, including the Michael Printz Award), my public library does not encourage children to access it. “Emmett Till’s name still catches in my throat,” Nelson writes in one of her sonnets, but unless we teach children about the history of lynching and how it affected all Americans—including children—his name and story will not underscore the violence, current and historical, of racist Americans who take the law into their own hands.