April 02, 2015
(+++) TALES OF THE FAMOUS AND ORDINARY
Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens. By Nina Nolan. Illustrated by John Holyfield. Amistad/HarperCollins. $17.99.
My Name Is Truth: The Life of Sojourner Truth. By Ann Turner. Illustrated by James Ransome. Harper. $17.99.
Harlem Renaissance Party. By Faith Ringgold. Amistad/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Bronzeville Boys and Girls. By Gwendolyn Brooks. Illustrated by Faith Ringgold. Amistad/HarperCollins. $6.99.
It is a shame that self-segregation by self-identified groups of one kind or another makes it difficult today for members of other groups to appreciate the accomplishments of the ones that choose to stand apart. These four books all profile people whom it would benefit all young readers to know; but the books are deliberately targeted only at African-American children, presumably to show them larger-than-life (or at least very interesting) characters of their own color – but therefore turning the works into specialty items rather than the more-general-interest ones they deserve to be. This is largely the result of political correctness run amok, of special-interest groups using silly phrases such as “people of color” (all people have color, including albinos) while insisting that similar-sounding phrases such as “colored people” forever taint those using them. There is genuine pathos in this, if perhaps not out-and-out tragedy, because it means that people who are not within the chosen group for which these books were created are far less likely to benefit from the stories they tell.
And there is plenty of benefit to be had here – for children of any color. Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens and My Name Is Truth: The Life of Sojourner Truth are both brief, surface-level biographies of women whose contributions to music and the abolitionist movement, respectively, are deservedly valued at very high levels. Both books tell their stories from a highly personal perspective, although Nina Nolan’s is narrated in the third person and Ann Turner’s in the first. The Mahalia Jackson story features John Holyfield illustrations in which all the prominent characters are subtly rounded and Mahalia herself constantly stands out from whatever background she is portrayed against. It briefly traces Jackson’s life from her birth in poverty in New Orleans in 1911 to her singing at Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington in 1963 (King’s widow spoke at Jackson’s own funeral in 1972, but the book omits Jackson’s later life). The focuses throughout the book are music; Jackson’s remarkable, untrained voice; and the ways in which Jackson’s chosen focus on gospel lifted the lives of African-Americans. The only individualized white person in the book, a singing teacher, is shown denigrating Jackson – a shame, since her music could and did reach beyond those of her own color. Similarly, Turner’s story of Sojourner Truth (c. 1797-1883) features attractive, involving James Ransome illustrations of Truth and her family, with pictures of whites being done as caricatures that make such people look clownlike when they do not appear overtly evil. Truth’s story is a remarkable and uplifting one for people of any faith or no faith: although motivated by religion, what she preached was rights and equality, concepts that resonate with Americans of any color. The author’s note at the end of this book is a big help in understanding more about Truth’s life: the book itself is rather spare, providing more emotional impact than factual material. Readers who spend some time with the back-of-the-book material will appreciate the biography more fully than those who read only the story.
Faith Ringgold pulls together African-Americans of many times and places and has them all show up in Harlem during the New Negro Movement, which was later called the Harlem Renaissance. An imaginary little boy named Lonnie goes to Harlem with his Uncle Bates to meet the many famous people there, encountering Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and many other celebrities. Lonnie is simply a device to draw readers of roughly his age to a story into which Ringgold not only places well-known people but also introduces specific locations: Harlem itself, the Harlem Opera House, the Savoy Ballroom, the offices of The Crisis magazine, the Schomburg Library, and so on. Ringgold’s five back-of-the-book pages about the characters and places in Harlem Renaissance are a virtual necessity for young readers trying to make sense of the book, which is densely packed with people and events. There is no particular story here – the book is basically a recitation of various people’s names and various locations – although Ringgold tries near the end to provide uplifting messages to her target readers by having Lonnie say, “I am so proud to be black” and by having him describe a dream in which “I was the proudest, littlest giant of the Harlem Renaissance.”
Ringgold’s contribution as illustrator of Bronzeville Boys and Girls is actually more involving than is her writing-plus-illustration in Harlem Renaissance. The reason is that the Bronzeville children, created in 1956 in poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks, seem real and alive and genuine, even though they are entirely fictional – unlike the stylized “important people” of Harlem Renaissance, who seem more like unidimensional cardboard characters even though they really lived. Bronzeville Boys and Girls is set in a section of Chicago, but could take place just about anywhere urban. All the characters here are black, but their personalities are such that children of any color can relate to them if only they have a reason to pick up the book (which dates to 2007 and is now available in paperback) in the first place. For instance, a poem featuring a boy named “De Koven” is an appealing eight-liner: “You are a dancy little thing,/ You are a rascal, star!/ You seem to be so near to me,/ And yet you are so far./ If I could get you in my hands/ You’d never get away./ I’d keep you with me always./ You’d shine both night and day.” And four lines are enough for “Robert, Who Is Often a Stranger to Himself,” which goes: “Do you ever look in the looking-glass/ And see a stranger there?/ A child you know and do not know,/ Wearing what you wear?” And “Michael Is Afraid of the Storm” offers emotions that any child who, like Michael, is eight years old, will understand, beginning: “Lightning is angry in the night./ Thunder spanks our house./ Rain is hating our old elm—/ It punishes the boughs.” Many of the names of children here are or were more common in African-American households than in other homes: Tawanda, Keziah, Eldora, Beulah, Mirthine. But aside from that, Bronzeville Boys and Girls is simply a story of urban children – not famous people, not people of a specific orientation or skin color, but simply children trying to cope with and understand life as they live it. This is a book that can reach out widely and effectively, and it does – but only if and when families beyond those obviously targeted by the book take the time to look for and explore it.