Tag Archives: Raul Colon

Voting as a Battleground: Children’s Literature that Reminds Us Why We Vote

Today is election day in the United States. It has been an ugly election year and people of color (not to mention women) have been put in the spotlight at several moments in the campaign. From discussions about walls and judges who might be biased, to labeling whole groups of people as living in poverty and crime, to threats to remove all people from a particular religious group from the country, watching the news during the last few months has often felt like viewing a battleground.

So far, however, most of the American people have ensured that the verbal sparring has not spilled over into actual physical violence. This was not always the case in the US, and today I’ll focus on one of the many books available that remind us of those times. Paula Young Shelton and Raul Colón’s Child of the Civil Rights Movement (Schwartz and Wade 2010) is particularly pertinent for today’s election for a number of reasons.

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Just an ordinary friend of the family–Shelton’s description and Colon’s illustration of “Uncle Martin”.

Paula Young Shelton is the daughter of Andrew Young, the first Black mayor of Atlanta. The book is her story, her childhood spent in the midst of Civil Rights leaders such as her father, Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the most surprising and tender moments of the book is when Shelton describes learning to swim with Martin Luther King, Jr, at the local YMCA, because it is a good reminder that MLK and other Civil Rights Leaders were also ordinary people, albeit living through extraordinary times.

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The sit-in strike–as old as childhood itself.

The ordinariness of people is one of Shelton’s messages in the book, but so too is the idea that ordinary people can choose to do the harder thing, and thus become extraordinary. At the beginning of the book, Shelton’s family is living in the northern part of the country “where there was no Jim Crow” (n.p.). But during the Freedom Rider protests, Shelton’s family sees how “racists pulled the students from their seats and set the buses on fire” (n.p.) and rather than simply shake their heads and say what a shame it is, both of Shelton’s parents, in separate declarations, announce that they need to move to the South to stand up for the rights of all people to do ordinary things. Shelton describes her first “sit-in” strike at a restaurant in Atlanta. When her family was refused a table, Shelton was so hungry that she sat down and essentially had a temper tantrum. Her parents did not make her stop. Any parent who has ever had a child break down in a restaurant or store knows that even that takes courage.

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Doing the hard thing is easier when you are together.

The culmination of the story is the Selma to Montgomery march, and this too is a triumph of the ordinary. Shelton lists all the various groups who came, and includes in it “a man with one leg who everybody called Sunshine” (n.p.). This is the only individual she mentions besides Martin Luther King Jr and Coretta Scott King, and again it highlights the way that ordinary people making hard choices can make a difference. This march led to President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which “would make sure all people—black and white—could vote and no one could stop them” (n.p.).

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Civil Rights are for all people–and you can make a difference, no matter who you are.

Raul Colón’s illustrations underpin the book’s message. As I mentioned earlier, Martin Luther King, Jr. is first mentioned in the story as “Uncle Martin” who teaches little Paula Young to swim. Colón’s first illustration of King is, not as a statesman or even a leader of marches, but of him in his swimming trunks. Colón depicts him filling up the page—larger than life, as we have come to think of him—arms wide open and smiling, but as a person, rather than a Civil Rights leader. This everyday action, of King teaching Shelton how to swim, makes Paula feel a part of a family, “the family of the civil rights movement” (n.p.). Her family—birth and “adopted”—gives her strength to become a protestor herself, to protect the rights of people who don’t have a family like hers to stand behind them. The book ends with this connection to family and to protest: “And one day, when Mama and Daddy were too tired to march, too weary to carry us on their shoulders, too exhausted to fight another battle, the baton would pass to us and we would march on—children of the civil rights movement” (n.p.).

And although Shelton mentions “other battles” that would have to be fought, Colón’s illustrations remind the reader subtly that civil rights affect everyone in all times, not just African-Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. His cover illustration, which is not drawn from any of the pages of the book but is a separate and unique illustration, with no text other than the book title and authors to accompany it, is of the little girl Paula holding a flag. The flag says EQUALITY, and is rainbow-colored. The book appeared in 2010, during the fight in the US over another kind of civil right—that of same-sex couples to marry. Civil rights, Colón appears to suggest, are more than just a historical issue. And voting is the citizen’s way to protect those civil rights for all people (even the non-citizens) who live in a country. In that way, we are all children of the Civil Rights movement.

A Band of Angels Coming After Me

As people across the world mourn the shooting of nine people in a Charleston, South Carolina church, comparisons have been made with shooter Dylann Roof’s act and that of four white supremacists who, in 1963, planted bombs at another historic church—the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four little girls. This is an apt comparison, even though it may seem incomprehensible that a person would attack a church group, whether killing little girls or accusing the people gathered for peaceful Bible study of “raping our women and taking over the country.” The Black church (not just in America, but in all places where slavery existed) has been seen as a threat from its inception because it separated itself from the whites—and remains separate, even though Blacks are no longer banned from or allowed only in the back of white churches. In the 18th and 19th centuries, slaves who gathered on Sundays for worship were often suspected of sedition. And indeed, the Black Church was a place where the rights of the enslaved were advocated and protests organized. In general, as Kadir Nelson puts it in Heart and Soul (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), “White folks thought that if slaves learned to read or write, they could read the Bible for themselves . . . and begin to question their master’s behavior” (24). Many of them did just that: Jamaican Sam Sharpe, for example, was one of the church leaders who instigated a protest that led to the 1831 rebellion in that country.

After slavery ended, the position of the Black Church as a place for civil rights organizers and advocates continued. These advocates were often met with violence, as in the case of another Jamaican rebellion led by church leaders George Gordon and Paul Bogle, the Morant Bay rebellion. Therese Mills, in her collection of biographies of Great West Indians (Trinidad: Longman Caribbean, 1973) writes that George Gordon “founded a native Baptist chapel in Stony Gut, in the parish of St. Thomas, and this brought him into close contact with many of the poorest people” (12). These poor people were often accused of crimes, and then tried by their own employers. Gordon and Bogle, a deacon in the church, organized their members to protest this injustice, but their pleas were ignored by the British governor of Jamaica, Edward Eyre. Peaceful protest led to outright rebellion, and Bogle was hanged for his attempts to gain justice for his people.

Bogle and Gordon in Therese Mills book.  Illustration by Tony Evora.

Bogle and Gordon in Therese Mills book. Illustration by Tony Evora.

Despite the deep connection between faith, people of African descent, and the violence and racism perpetrated against them, children’s books often have a difficult time balancing a discussion of all those things—and religion tends to be the loser if one thing is to be left out. Sometimes this happens through omission. There are no children’s biographies in print of Sam Sharpe, and few of Paul Bogle, even though they are both considered national heroes in Jamaica. Therese Mills’ biography, mentioned above, seems to indicate that Bogle was chosen to be a church deacon because of his radicalism rather than his religion: “Bogle was one of the former slaves in Stony Gut who was able to vote, and he was a natural leader,” she writes. Nothing more is said about religion. Kadir Nelson’s Heart and Soul has, despite the quotation above, few references to religion in his poetic history of African Americans.

Children’s books about clearly religious figures also struggle with this balance.  Abolitionist and Women’s Rights advocate and preacher Sojourner Truth changed her name from Isabella Baumfree because, as she puts it in her autobiography, “I went to the Lord an’ asked him to give me a new name. And the Lord gave me Sojourner, because I was to travel up an’ down the land, showin’ the people their sins, an’ bein’ a sign unto them. Afterward I told the Lord I wanted another name, ’cause everybody else had two names; and the Lord gave me Truth, because I was to declare Truth to the people.” But in Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp-Stride by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney (New York: Disney, 2009), her name change is explained this way: “She gave her slave name the boot, and called herself Sojourner Truth. She said the name Sojourner was just right for someone who was a traveler. And Truth—well, that was what Sojourner did best—she told it like it was.” This alteration shifts the agency to Sojourner Truth and away from any religion or deity. Although the book cannot escape a discussion of Truth’s faith altogether, it avoids linking religion and radicalism by stating that she preached about “her beliefs about what the Bible meant to her.” She does not preach about what the Bible meant, or even about how other people should act based on Biblical teaching, according to this text; her “beliefs” only mean something to her.

She can go her own way: the Pinkneys' version of Sojourner Truth.

She can go her own way: the Pinkneys’ version of Sojourner Truth.

Even a children’s book that describes the racism and struggle experienced by singers of spirituals can leave out religion. Deborah Hopkinson’s A Band of Angels (New York: Atheneum, 1999), with its lovely illustrations by Raúl Colón, tells a fictional story based on the origin of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee, was founded by three men, two of whom were ministers, and sponsored by the American Missionary Society. (It is still affiliated with the United Church of Christ today.) The Jubilee Singers were named after a passage in the Book of Leviticus, and became famous through singing spirituals—songs that were religious and radical, advocating the freedom of black people throughout the world.  The racism they faced in the north is discussed, but not their religion.   “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Many Thousand Gone,” are both quoted in Hopkinson’s book, but she otherwise entirely avoids any mention of the singers’ religious faith. The songs that the Fisk singers perform are “song[s] of freedom” and the Jubilee singers were so named because “jubilee means a time of hope and freedom.”

Singing about God, without God in Hopkinson's book.

Singing about God, without God in Hopkinson’s book.

Whatever an author’s (or reader’s) personal beliefs about religion, it has inspired many people throughout history to both good and bad behavior.  It is unfortunate that many children’s books are so hesitant to talk about one of the strongest motivating forces of some of the heroes of Black History—especially when white murderers have no trouble making the link between the Black Church and Black people’s freedom and equality.