Revisiting the Civil Rights movement through multicultural children’s books

| January 26, 2011

With Martin Luther King Jr. Day recently past, I thought it was quite fitting that I came upon two picture books, Freedom on the Menu: the Greensboro Sit-Ins by Carole Boston Weatherford (Call no. PZ7.W3535 Fr 2005) and Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles (Call no. PZ7.W6474 Fr 2001, both of which are beautifully illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue. Freedom on the Menu, set in 1960, shares the experience of segregation and the onset of gradual change as everyday people “st[and] up [against racial injustice] by sitting down” from the perspective of  Connie, a girl who has always wanted to but has never had a banana split at the counter because the counter only serves white people. Four of her brother’s college friends sitting at counters in protest of racial segregation laws mark the beginning of a wave of protests that spreads, and finally change is slowly ushered in. Blacks begin to be served at the counter and Connie finally gets to enjoy the long-awaited banana split there. But in the process she has come to realize that more than getting the actual food item, it is the equality behind being able to sit freely at a counter that is ultimately the most desirable.

Freedom Summer tells the story of two boys’ deepening understanding of racism and the need to take courage to counter it the summer after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While John Henry’s mom works for Joe’s mom, the two are best friends and do everything together except swim in the town pool and go into stores to buy ice pops, since John Henry “isn’t allowed.” So instead, they swim in the creek and John Henry waits outside while Joe gets ice pops for the both of them. Told through Joe’s voice, the two of them excitedly race to the pool after the the Civil Rights Acts gets passed – only to find that county dump trucks have filled up the pool with asphalt. This slap of disappointment marks the first time the two boys talk about racism explicitly as they realize the depth of racial injustice that exists and the long road that must still be undertaken to bridge the disjunction between law and reality. John Henry says, “White folks don’t want colored folks in their pools” and Joe knows he’s right. And as the two of them go to get ice pops, this time they make a point of going in together and John Henry insists that he buys his own.

While these two stories are told from the viewpoint of children and may seem a little simplistic at times, they are good starting points for discussions about racism and social justice with children. Because of how the stories are built around small everyday experiences of children, e.g. longing for dessert or wanting to go swimming with a friend, children may find it easier to relate to characters in the books. At the same time, my concern is that the stories, especially Freedom on the Menu, make the struggle for equality seem much simpler and smoother than it really was, since they do not delve very deeply into acts of discrimination, injustice, and atrocity that took place but provide a rather sanitized version of reality. I suppose that comes down to what one’s idea of what/how much children should or should  not be exposed to is though. As it is, the books can serve as a launching point into exploring racism, segregation, and the Civil Rights movement, and it is up to one’s discretion to supplement the books with other sources (newspaper clippings, photos, primary documents, other books, etc.) and discussions that will appropriately build up one’s particular group of children’s awareness of and concern for issues of racial inequality and the power of taking a stand.