Sunday, August 26, 2007

Waves of Racism

Using the emotionally restrained voice of a ten-year-old fictional narrator, Carole Boston Weatherford draws readers into the heart of an African-American girl who witnesses one of the most brutal racist acts of the Civil Rights era.

"The year I turned ten," Weatherford begins the free verse poem that is her new book, Birmingham, 1963, "I missed school to march with other children for a seat at whites-only lunch counters."

The narrator continues:
Like a junior choir, we chanted "We Shall Overcome."
Then, police loosed snarling dogs and fire hoses on us,
And buses carted us, nine hundred strong, to jail.
With these words, Weatherford, the award-winning author of two dozen books for children, including Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, and Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-ins, introduces readers to the racial tension and unrest that was part of living as an African-American in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

Although the narrator is fictionalized, the events are real, notes Weatherford in the book's afterward, and it's through this narrator's eyes that readers glimpse the devastation and grief that follow the bombing which took place on Sunday, September 15, 1963, as worship was just beginning at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the city's meeting place and rallying point for many of the the Civil Rights leaders and marchers.

Only moments before the blast--the result of nineteen sticks of dynamite ignited by racists in the basement of the church--the narrator notices four big girls giggling as they pass her on the way to the bathroom and tells us that she would have joined them if she thought they'd let her. But she never gets the chance:
The day I turned ten
Someone tucked a bundle of dynamite
Under the church steps, then lit the fuse of hate.
Twenty-one people were injured in the blast, and those four girls--Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins--lay dead in the rubble.

Instead of filling her mouth with birthday cake on the day of her tenth birthday, the narrator tastes only cinders and ashes... and wishes that she could have stayed nine instead of turning ten.
The day I turned ten,
I saw blood spilled on holy ground
And my daddy cry for the very first time.
What had those girls done to deserve this?

At supper, no one had much appetite.
Afterwards, Mama washed and I dried dishes
While she hummed "Nobody Knows the Trouble I Seen."
Weatherford's poem offers a painful but realistic and unsentimental glimpse into the strained years of the Civil Rights era as events unfolded across the country, as well as in Birmingham, where Weatherford notes, racists "set off so many bombs in Birmingham's black neighborhood that the city was nicknamed 'Bomingham.'"

Stark black-and-white photographs of the times--a scene of the church after the explosion, a portrait of a hooded Ku Klux Klan man shouldering a rifle, and a picture of a crowd of young blacks being dispersed with water from high-pressure fire hoses--add drama and heart-ache to the poem as the story unfolds.

Although the young narrator is forced to confront the bitter facts of life as an African-American living amidst hatred and bigotry, she manages to find a glimmer of hope in the dream that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. shared with more than two hundred fifty thousand people in the March on Washington in August, 1963, only a month before the Birmingham bombing.

She finds some comfort, too, in the gospel songs that nurture her faith, trusting that one day the murderers will stand before the scales of justice to pay for their crime.

And she finds inspiration in the memory of the girls whose untimely deaths serve as a reminder of the enormous effort still needed to heal the rift between blacks and whites.

It took many years after the bomb went off in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, notes Weatherford, for the men responsible for the murders to come forward and finally admit their part in the crime.

In her opening dedication, Weatherford writes:
To all who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom.
The struggle continues.
With these words, Weatherford reminds readers there is much work that still needs to be done to bring people--both black and white--together.

In Birmingham, 1963, Weatherford offers her plea for healing and shares her hope that one day children will no longer need to sacrifice their lives because of the color of their skin.

For more information about Carole Boston Weatherford, visit her website:

For more information about Birmingham, 1963, which is scheduled for release in September, visit Wordsong's website:

For more information about the Birmingham, 1963 bombing, visit:

And for more information about Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the speech that he delivered on August 28, 1963--forty-four years ago this week--visit these sites:

1 comment:

Becky said...

Bruce, thanks for your review about this. It looks like a wonderful book for teaching my kids about a difficult subject, and I think the spareness of poetry might be a good way for them to learn without overwhelming them.

And to think yesterday I was reading about it being the anniversary...

(PS Found this about CBW while looking for info on the book,