You take the assignment because it’s too important to pass up—a nonfiction children’s book about the Civil Rights Movement—but then you realize you have to explain hate crimes, white supremacy and slavery to children under the age of 12. And that’s where the work comes in.
You start with what you know—Jim Crow, MLK Jr., Ruby Bridges, Sit Ins, the March on Washington. And then you delve into what you don’t know. The year of the first slave trade in America—Jamestown, 1616. The first civil rights laws at the end of the Civil War. The details of Plessy vs. Ferguson. And then you look at the things you don’t want to know, don’t want to think about: Lynchings, the Klan, The Supreme Court’s compliance in both. Then you stop because you are writing for eight-year-olds and you don’t want to tell them how ugly the world once was. How ugly it can be.
Because you turn on the news and there it is again: three black churches burning in Louisiana. And you stop writing, and try to think of something happy. But then you pick it all up again because the only happy thing that comes to mind is, “One day, we’ll do better.” And by “we” you know you mean the next generation, or the one after that.
I once heard, or imagined I heard, President Barack Obama call activism young person’s game—they have the energy, the passion, the fury for it. It’s the job of us elders to pass on wisdom. Wisdom is knowledge. Experience. And the truth about the past.
But how do you write it down for kids so they learn it young, learn it in their bones, without scorching the innocence from their souls?
You start with simple facts. This is how it was. This is what happened. You paint it in color, with personal anecdotes from real people. Real survivors.
I think that’s the biggest help, telling the story of a transgression from the point of view of someone who survived it. Because, maybe the world will change in a generation, or two, or three. But even if it doesn’t, we need our kids to know that they can survive. Against the odds, in the face of hate, there is great strength in knowing that your forebears got up again and again. They stood up and marched, they stood up and sang. They stood up, and some of them even thrived. Enough for us to be here today, still watching churches burn in the news, yes, but also knowing —to paraphrase the deacon at Morning Star Baptist Church— that they burned the building, but not our spirits. We shall overcome.
You ever notice that song doesn’t have an expiration date? It doesn’t make promises it can’t keep. We shall overcome some day. Some day in the future. The same day your parents will let you get that dog, or drive the car, or stay out after midnight. The day you’ll fall in love. It happens. Not when we want it to, maybe, but eventually. The difference is, “eventually” doesn’t belong on a calendar. It’s written on the wall behind the calendar, next to the hole you’re covering up from the thing that was there before. It seems rather hopeless back there, doesn’t it?
But “some day,” is an actual day. An event in the timeline. And that’s what we’re marking on our hearts and reaching for: Some day.
There’s another song that says:
There’s a place for us.
Somewhere, a place for us.
So much hope can go into a song or into a story. That’s what I’m trying to do here in this little book– give hope, let the darkness of the past cry out for the light of the future, so that our little people, our future adults will see the need and spark the match.
It’s not easy, telling ugly truths to beautiful children. But it’s not like they don’t already know, on some level, how bad things can be. They just don’t have words for it yet. But it helps to name an evil, to call it out, separate it from the good, and excise it. Understand it. Tell it, “no.”
So yes, there will be a sidebar on lynching, and my editor will balk. No one wants to put murder or torture in a children’s book. But it will be a sidebar bar about Ida B. Wells, who fought long and hard against the crimes of lynch mobs. She is a hero, one who helped call out evil, to make it stop. And some little child reading that book will say, “Hey, look what she did. She did what she could. I’ma do what I can, too.”
At least, that’s the hope. That’s what I tell myself as I peel through the pages of history books and desolate recountings. The painful memories of my race, my people, my country, our past. I never thought I’d write a book like this. I’m a novelist, more suited to telling truths packaged in fiction. But when they asked me to write it, how could I not? It’s a true story that needs to be told, and remembered, again and again and again.
Three churches in Louisiana. The FBI is investigating. Is it arson, a hate crime, a sign of things to come? All of the above, most likely, if the past is any judge. But like the spirituals and musicals, like any good children’s book, the news stories this week are ending in hope. A fourth church opened up its congregation last Sunday. Two choirs sang. And the people lifted their voices. They stood up, and carried on.