Tag Archives: Rosa Parks

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.


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.


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


. . . 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.


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.


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.


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”.


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


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.


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.


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.