I was so struck by the language that I heard black parents using to explain Trayvon Martin’s murder and Zimmerman’s acquittal to their children this summer. It’s not like these were new explanations for the parents of black children, surely. Nonetheless, it was the sheer poetry, metaphorical wizardry, and rhetorical intensity that just made me stop dead in my listening tracks. It’s the same kind of language that just sings off the page when many black authors write YAL (young adult literature) and children’s literature for and about young people of African descent. That’s why I read African American YAL and children’s literature so voraciously, especially when those texts are trying to creatively offer explanatory models for the past and present of racial violence and an alternative image of humanity that can sustain you.
There’s just something about the language. My colleague, Victoria Bond, and her co-author, T.R. Simon, is a case example. I don’t want to spoil their wonderful book, Zora and Me, so I’ll just say that the story revolves around a set of friends who learn about the saga of a woman who is passing as white. The woman’s husband and lifestyle unleash a level of disrespect and violence onto black communities that is unforgivable. What Bond and Simon do so beautifully is unpack that violence from the perspective and discourse of young adults who are learning to do better by their people (with one of these friends being the young Zora Neale Hurston). While this book is, of course, a story that sociologically interrogates the politics of passing, it is also just brilliant in showing how violent this decision is for black communities… and all in a way that is understandable for 12 year olds. Like I said, the language is just wonderful.
That language is also the reason why I have cherished The Watsons Go To Birmingham-1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis since it came out in 1995. He shows you the love, dignity, and warmth of a black family while also showing how a young boy deals with and understands the bombing of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama. There is no happy ending to the book, just an ending that lets you know that black love will sustain this family and community. When you value the language and experience of these kinds of tellings, then you just can’t help but feel real slighted when you see a Hollywood adaptation. I finally watched the movie version of The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 on the Hallmark channel this weekend. Mostly, I was just curious to see if the film achieves the brilliance that I think Curtis’s book achieves. I suspected it wouldn’t and I was right.
The brilliance that Curtis crafted with Kenny’s sorrow and mourning after the church bombing was simply lost. The plot was there but not the significance, meaning, and historical impact. What has astonished me is that so many reviews excuse the film’s domestication of Civil Rights protests in Birmingham because the movie is for children. But the movie is based on a BOOK… a book that did NOT domesticate racist violence in order to hurry up and celebrate the triumph of the North American family (nor did the book ever offer the North as a Promised Land in relation to the Evil South like the movie does). These tropes are so tired and played out that I sympathized with the wonderful actors in the movie who had to re-play these tropes. I found myself wondering who these domesticated images were for. Surely, not for those parents who had to explain Trayvon Martin’s murder to their children this summer…or for the children who look like Trayvon!
I knew I was traveling down a slippery slope when I first turned on the movie because Hallmark didn’t air the movie on the actual anniversary. Maybe it’s because I don’t watch too much television but I also found it quite difficult to view this movie when every single commercial was white. I have never seen so many middle class white women shopping at Walmart as I did in the commercial breaks. No single commercial with a black family? A black mother? A black woman? They did, however, play the infamous Cheerios commercial where the little biracial girl pours cereal over her father’s heart many, many times. Now don’t get me wrong. I was outraged at the racism this commercial unleashed against that adorable little girl. But I was equally outraged when those same folk who were posting their comments and links to this commercial on youtube, facebook, twitter, or google+ have not been similarly enraged at the events with Tiana Parker or Quvenzhane Wallis. It was as if the network just couldn’t let America see too much of two black parents raising black children. When only biracial children are your source of attention, the hierarchy of value is clear. I can’t help but be reminded of the white teachers who went to the south to teach black children after emancipation in the late 1800s and wrote long, tearful laments when they saw so many almost-white, mulatto children forced to share in the same racial misery as all those dark Negroes (they saw it as shameful to leave children with so much white in them with black people). The movie may not have been historically accurate but Hallmark’s messages during the commercial breaks surely were.
As for me, I’m going to stick with African American YAL and children’s literature. That language! Those messages! That’s what the U.S. still needs aired.