Ruby Bridges

Painting of Ruby Bridges, by Norman Rockwell

Ruby Bridges was six years old when she was one of a few children chosen to be the first student to desegregate a public school in Louisiana. When the day came for her first day of First Grade, she was accompanied on this journey by federal marshals. The gauntlet of hate that this little girl walked through that day and through the rest of the school year, was horrific.

Last fall was the 60th anniversary of the desegregation of a New Orleans public school. I read two books about this milestone happening in the struggle for civil rights in this country. The first was a picture book written by Robert Coles, called The Story of Ruby Bridges.  It’s a powerful and moving telling of a little girl’s experience and her inner strength and faith that helped her through it. The gauntlet of hatred she had to walk through on that first day of school, and for most of that school year, was horrific. But this book is an excellent introduction to this historical happening for young people. Robert Coles is a Harvard professor emeritus, a child psychiatrist and author, who actually worked with Ruby Bridges during that school year in 1960, helping her cope with the effects of that experience.

The second book was Through My Eyes, by Ruby Bridges herself. She narrated the audiobook version, and I’m glad I listened to her read it. That incredible experience, described in her own words, was so powerful. I also enjoyed hearing about her life after that year, and about what she is doing now to help others and educate others about racism. She really is a hero…not just because of the courage she showed at such a young age, but because of the life she has chosen to live since that time.

I highly recommend reading both of these books!

Kadir Nelson: Harlem on my Mind

Kadir Nelson is an artist/illustrator whose work I just love. I became aware of him first as an illustrator of some children’s books I’ve been reading. Then I discovered that his work is also featured frequently on the cover of the New Yorker magazine. His painting “Harlem on My Mind” is a wonderful expression of his tremendous talent. His statement on the painting is below.

“The New Yorker cover painting Harlem on My Mind celebrates the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the civil rights movement, and Harlem’s rich history in the visual, literary and performing arts. I created a stylistic montage of images as an homage to great Harlem renaissance painters Aaron Douglas, William H. Johnson, Norman Lewis, Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, Horace Pippin, Henry Tanner, Archibald Motley and Palmer Hayden; performers the Nicholas Brothers; writers James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston; and activist Malcolm Shabazz.”

Misty Copeland: A Life in Motion

Being snowed-in during a quarantine is an interesting happening. We’ve had unusual snow and ice in the last week here in the greater Portland, Oregon, area, so hubby and I just hunkered down (more than usual) and withdrew into books, tv shows, and indoor projects. I spent my time with Misty Copeland, learning about her life through three books checked out of the online section of our library.

The first book was the young reader’s edition of Misty Copeland’s autobiography, Life in Motion: an unlikely ballerina. I had heard of Misty Copeland as a gifted ballerina, but I didn’t really know her story. This book was a very interesting way to get to know more about her, through her own words, and I enjoyed the experience. Not only is she an amazing ballerina, but she is an inspiration to and a role model for so many people, young and old.

From the publisher:

With an insider’s passion, Misty opens a window into the life of an artist who lives life center stage, from behind the scenes at her first classes to her triumphant roles in some of the world’s most iconic ballets. A sensational memoir as “sensitive” and “clear-eyed” (The Washington Post) as her dancing, Life in Motion is a story of passion, identity and grace for anyone who has dared to dream of a different life.

There were not many people of color in ballet when Misty Copeland began her journey. Better said, there were very talented dancers of color, but not many ways to advance very far in the white world of ballet. She was a late-starter in ballet at age 13, but she was tremendously gifted, a prodigy, who excelled right from the beginning of her training. She was fortunate to have an early mentor/teacher who embraced her talent and nurtured her growth of confidence and pride of self.

“Most of the students at the San Pedro Dance Center were white, but I wasn’t the only child of color. A lot of people think that ballet dancers should all look the same: thin and delicate, with white skin. Cindy thought different shapes, colors, and sizes should be represented to reflect the variety of talent in the ballet world. I feel lucky to have been nurtured by someone so supportive of my differences so early in my career.”

Her drive and ambition to become the best she could be was integral to her career in dance. Her dream was to become a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater, and she worked fiercely toward that goal.

“I went back to my journal to write about ABT: I need to go in there and show them how good I am. I wasn’t ready to stop fighting my way to the top at ABT. Maybe I’d have to work ten times harder than anyone else because of my skin color, because I didn’t have the body they thought was ideal for ballet. If that’s what it took to become a principal dancer, I’d keep pushing myself. I couldn’t stop now. I’d given up so much to get here. I’d make them see that I deserved it—and more.”

But that drive and ambition was for more than herself. She was deeply appreciative of all those people ( white and people of color) who mentored her and helped her achieve her dreams. She talked in this book about them and about who she also included in her dream:

“If this could open doors for black women in ballet, that would mean the world to me, I penned in my diary. It would all be worth it. That’s what I’m doing this for. Not for my own pleasure and gratification. I need to remember this every morning I wake up tired, just think[ing] of what I could do, not just for me but [for] others.”

Her athleticism and artistry are extraordinary. I was completely enthralled when I watched clips on YouTube from some of her performances, and then I discovered that there was a movie of her called A Ballerina’s Tale. I look forward to watching that soon.

The other two books written by Misty that I checked out at the same time were Bunheads, a book on ballet for 5 to 8 year olds. It had wonderful illustrations and would please any young person interested in ballet.  The other book was Firebird, also written for young children. Both books encourage hard work and dedication as ways to become a dancer and also to build confidence in one’s self.

The temperatures here are warming up and the melting has started today. The snow and ice will be gone soon with the coming rain, but  thanks to Misty Copeland, I really enjoyed my time being snowed-in during this quarantine. (But I will be glad to be able to get out to the grocery store once again!)

 

 

The Beautiful Struggle

Ta’Nehisi Coates wrote this powerful and moving story of growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, and called it The Beautiful Struggle: a father, two sons, and an unlikely road to manhood. It was his first work and it was beautifully written. It is also the first book I have read by him, but it will definitely not be my last. What an impressive talent and powerful voice!

This synopsis of the book from the Publisher is a little long, but I couldn’t describe better the focus of this book:

An exceptional father-son story about the reality that tests us, the myths that sustain us, and the love that saves us.

Paul Coates was an enigmatic god to his sons: a Vietnam vet who rolled with the Black Panthers, an old-school disciplinarian and new-age believer in free love, an autodidact who launched a publishing company in his basement dedicated to telling the true history of African civilization. Most of all, he was a wily tactician whose mission was to carry his sons across the shoals of inner-city adolescence—and through the collapsing civilization of Baltimore in the Age of Crack—and into the safe arms of Howard University, where he worked so his children could attend for free.

Among his brood of seven, his main challenges were Ta-Nehisi, spacey and sensitive and almost comically miscalibrated for his environment, and Big Bill, charismatic and all-too-ready for the challenges of the streets. The Beautiful Struggle follows their divergent paths through this turbulent period, and their father’s steadfast efforts—assisted by mothers, teachers, and a body of myths, histories, and rituals conjured from the past to meet the needs of a troubled present—to keep them whole in a world that seemed bent on their destruction.

With a remarkable ability to reimagine both the lost world of his father’s generation and the terrors and wonders of his own youth, Coates offers readers a small and beautiful epic about boys trying to become men in black America and beyond.

My experiences were almost the opposite of Mr. Coates’s experiences, but I identified with much of what he described of his growing up years. He idolized his older brother, Bill; his family focus was on the goal of getting that college education. The interactions he described between family members, and the stories of friends and neighborhood, touched me and brought back memories of my own brothers during our growing up years. That he could touch my own memories, and those of so many of his readers from such different backgrounds and life experiences, is a tribute to the depth of his writing.

Family life and interactions are the universals that he wrote about, but what was not part of my own privileged life was the daily racism and struggles just to survive growing up black in this country. Those stories were profoundly moving and educating for me. There is no “distance” for a reader of Mr. Coates. He makes you feel deeply and identify closely, and that is a transforming experience.

His description of  his family:

Here’s the cast of my last name: My father has seven kids by four women. Some of us were born to best friends. Some of us were born in the same year. My elders come first, in chronology: Kelly, Kris, William Jr.—all born of my father’s first marriage to Linda. John was born to Patsy, Malik born to Sola. Then me and Menelik, the children of my mother, Cheryl. This is all a mess on paper, but it was all love to me, and formed my earliest and still enduring definition of family.

An insightful description of his Father:

To be Conscious Man was more than just the digestion of obscure books that happen to favor your side. It was a feeling, an ingrained sense that something major in our lives had gone wrong. My father was haunted. He was bad at conjuring small talk, he watched very little TV, because once Conscious, every commercial, every program must be strip-mined for its deeper meaning, until it lays bare its role in this sinister American plot.

An interesting reference to his Mother in the context of his own growing awareness of the unfairness of the world:

I paid little heed to great injustice, despite my mother showing me blueprints of slave ships and children’s books tracking the revolution of Dessalines and Toussaint. Still, I could spot even small injustices when they shadowed me personally. I knew that to be afraid while on the way to school was deeply wrong.

A philosophical thought on Life:

“I did not know then that this is what life is—just when you master the geometry of one world, it slips away, and suddenly again, you’re swarmed by strange shapes and impossible angles.”

 

I was very moved by his experiences and found this book haunting my thoughts long after I finished it.

Bud, Not Buddy

Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis, is an award winning book for young people. It won both the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award. It’s a wonderful, heart-warming book, and I just wanted to take Bud (not Buddy) home with me.

“A bud is a flower-to-be. A flower-in-waiting. Waiting for just the right warmth and care to open up. It’s a little fist of love waiting to unfold and be seen by the world. And that’s you.”

— This is what Bud’s mother told him about his name, and is why he always introduces himself as “Bud, not Buddy.”

Bud is an orphan, having lost his mother four years ago, and not knowing who his father was, he was placed in an orphanage. The time was during the depression; the place was Flint, Michigan; and an orphanage during that time was a miserable place to be. After being in the orphanage, and then experiencing an abusive foster home, Bud ran away and decided to try to find out who his father was from the clues his mother left behind. He carried those clues with him everywhere in a tattered old suitcase tied up with twine.

His first stop after running away was the library. The librarian had always been very kind to him, and he knew she would understand and help him. However, he discovered that she had gotten married and moved away, but the new librarian took him underwing and helped him figure out a walking route to Grand Rapids, where he thought his father might be, based on his mother’s clues.

Shucks, this is one of the bad things about talking to librarians, I asked one question and already she had us digging through three different books.

The twists and turns of how he finally got to a destination in Grand Rapids were fun to read, and quite adventurous. It was not easy for anyone to travel during that period of time, and it was especially dangerous for a young black boy to be traveling alone. But he met some Helpers along the way, and what awaited him in Grand Rapids was a new life, but not without twists and turns first.

If you didn’t have a real good imagination you’d probably think those noises were the sounds of some kid blowing a horn for the first time, but I knew better than that. I could tell those were the squeaks and squawks of one door closing and another one opening.

In the Afterword to the book, the author, Christopher Paul Curtis, talked about how he learned about this period of time and how he based some of the characters on his own grandfathers. He had a wonderful piece of advice for his readers:

Much of what I discovered about the depression I learned through research in books, which is a shame—I didn’t take advantage of the family history that surrounded me for many years. I’m afraid that when I was younger and my grandparents and parents would start to talk about their lives during the depression, my eyes would glaze over and I’d think, “Oh, no, not those boring tall tales again!” and I’d find the most convenient excuse I could to get away from them. Now I feel a real sorrow when I think of all the knowledge, wisdom and stories that have been forever lost with the deaths of my grandparents. Be smarter than I was: Go talk to Grandma and Grandpa, Mom and Dad and other relatives and friends. Discover and remember what they have to say about what they learned growing up. By keeping their stories alive you make them, and yourself, immortal.

This is such an enjoyable book to read, especially during Black History Month, which this year focuses on families. Read it with your family, read it to your middle grade students, or read it by yourself on a snowy afternoon. It will warm your heart.

Bass Player, by La Shun Beal