Not long ago I was in a local library’s children section and I came upon Toni Morrison’s 2004 children’s book Remember: The Journey To School Integration. I wasn’t aware of this book by Toni Morrison. Remember is the story of school integration geared towards younger readers and told through photos and text. In the text accompanying the photos, Morrison assumes the voices of one or more of the people pictured, both black and white, and conveys what she imagines to be their thoughts.
For those not familiar with her, Toni Morrison is a distinguished American novelist. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. She is one of only twelve Americans to win the Nobel Prize in this category if we exclude T.S. Eliot of Missouri who also won the award, but later became a British citizen. She is one of five Midwesterners to win the award. The others are Sinclair Lewis and Bob Dylan of Minnesota and Ernest Hemingway and Saul Bellow of Illinois. Morrison was born and raised in Lorain, Ohio.
The books begins with an introduction by Morrison entitled “The Narrow Path, the Open Gate, the Wide Road,” which are also the names of the three main sections of the book. In this introduction she gives her young readers an overview of segregation and the impact of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Writing for children is tough—a lot tougher than people might think, and Morrison keeps things clear while also getting to the heart of the matter.
Here is a section from her introduction I find especially effective in providing an overview of those tumultuous times:
“The demand to integrate public schools grew into a nationwide civil rights movement to eliminate all racist law: to have the right to vote, the right to choose the neighborhood you wanted to live in, to sit in any vacant seat in a public place. Marches, protests, countermarches, and counterprotests erupted almost everywhere. It was an extraordinary time, when people of all races and all walks of life came together. When children had to be braver than their parents, when pastors, priests, and rabbis left their altars to walk the streets with strangers, when soldiers with guns were assigned to keep the peace or to protect a young girl. Days full of loud, angry, determined crowds, and days deep in loneliness. Peaceful marches were met with applause in some places, violence in others. People were hurt and people died. Students and civil rights workers were hosed, beaten, jailed. Strong leaders were shot and killed. And one day a bomb was thrown into a church, killing four little girls attending Sunday school.”
“None of that happened to you. Why offer memories you do not have? Remembering can be painful, even frightening. But it can also swell your heart and open your mind.”
Morrison is careful to provide younger readers background on what happened during the Civil Rights struggle. Each of the three sections begins with information providing context for the pictures.
The first section—“The Narrow Gate”– opens with a picture of black children in a segregated school and one little girl standing and reading out loud. The text next to the photo reads “The law says I can’t go to school with white children. Are they afraid of my socks, my braids? I am seven years old. Why are they afraid of me?”
A few pages on there is a particularly poignant image—that of a young black girl playing with her large white doll—“my Jasmine.” The book includes an appendix with thumbnail versions of the images and accompanying descriptions. Morrison notes in regard to this picture that during the Brown vs. Board of Education trial a child development expert presented information to the court about studies done on children’s play with dolls. The expert testified that study results showed black children preferred dolls with white skin, an effect which raised serious questions about self-image and the effects of racism.
Most of the other images in this section show assorted segregated classrooms. It concludes with a photo of two girls walking along a railroad track to school in Topeka, Kansas. Their backs are to the camera. Each one holds a lunch bag. They are off to school, but they are also walking into an America that is in the midst of tremendous change.
This picture is followed by the book’s second section, called “The Open Gate,” which deals directly with attempts at integration. There is first a picture of the New York Times’ front page announcing the Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
On the facing page is a photo of the Supreme Court. There follows what I find to be one of the most intriguing combinations of image and text in the book. The photo here is also on the book’s cover.
Two little girls—one white, one black—sit looking at each other in their classroom. The text reads “I think she likes me, but how can I tell. What will I do if she hates me?” What I find intriguing is that we don’t know which girl is thinking this. The natural assumption at first glance is that it is the African-American girl, but it could just as well be the white child, or both might have the same thought. We don’t know if this was Morrison’s intent, but the text and image are suggestive.
The same ambiguity surfaces elsewhere. On another two-page spread we see one photo of three white teenage boys wearing anti-integration placards. On the opposite side we see a group of black children and parents walking towards the camera. The children in front are holding signs protesting segregation. Below the picture of the white teens we read the following:
“I don’t know. My buddies talked me into this. They said it would be fun. It’s not, but these guys are my friends and friends are more important than strangers. Even if they’re wrong. Aren’t they?”
If I had to put money down on this, I would say the text is referencing the three white boys, but there is a kind of tension on the boy’s face at far right on the front row of the facing page that complicates the matter.
Feelings of tension and discomfort about taking on the role of activist could have been shared among the black children as well.
Another evocative combination of image and text appears later in this same section. On one page we see a charming photo of two girls smiling at each other at a party in Virginia prior to school integration and on the other page two girls each standing separately before a bathroom mirror.
The text: “I see in her face just a girl. She sees in my face another girl. Maybe not friends, but simply girls together.” The latter picture of the two girls standing side by side is interesting for its composition, its use of mirrors and the presence of the photographer in the photo.
Each girl’s face is reflected in her mirror, solitary and focused on herself, but there is a sense that each is aware of the other’s presence. They share space and yet are isolated from one another. The photo seems to echo the sentiment of “separate but equal,” but it is significant they are in the same space, with the towel dispenser as a kind of dividing point. The photographer’s presence is also registered here. A close look at the metal surface of the towel dispenser reveals hands holding the camera, a reminder that this struggle was taking place in an age of visual media: “the world is watching.” Both still photos and news footage broadcast the Civil Rights struggle to the world, and the same would happen during the Vietnam War. The effect of this coverage was wide-ranging and powerful in both instances. The revolution was televised, and the live coverage of momentous events has continued to the present day, a constant in the media-saturated world in which we live.
In regard to the text, this open-endedness of who is speaking in all the examples I’ve cited has the effect of emphasizing the common humanity of those pictured, despite their skin color. Either or both could be thinking what is stated.
On many other occasions we are clear on who is expressing the sentiment, even if it appears to be a collective sentiment, as in the case of a photo of a group of black children and adults accompanied by the statement “No, no they said. You can’t come in here. Get away from the door. This school is for white children. Only them.”
As could be expected in a book on the civil rights struggle, a number of the pictures are disturbing. A little white boy in a Klan outfit leaning out a car window. Three white men chasing a black man down a street. White crowds haranguing black students. Two students fighting on a sidewalk.
A white restaurant owner, his cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, throwing water on protesters.
At one point Morrison introduces a strong dose of irony. There is a two-page spread with only these words: “Great! Now we can have some fun!” On the left hand side we see an integrated group of schoolchildren running out of school, possibly towards a playground. Two boys— one white, one black—are smiling and laughing together at the front of the group. On the other page we see a group of white teenagers trying to turn over a car driven by a black man.
A number of iconic images are featured in Remember:
Elizabeth Eckford being harassed while walking to school in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Ruby Bridges being escorted to school by U.S. Marshals.
Rosa Parks riding on a bus.
Martin Luther King waving to the crowd by the Lincoln Memorial when he gave his famous speech.
The book’s third section, “The Open Gate,” also features photos of acts of protest and white counterprotest that were part of the Civil Rights movement, but an increasingly hopeful note emerges as we move towards the book’s conclusion. This is the section that includes photos of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. We also see more black and white children playing together. One picture I find particularly appealing is of a small group of children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. A black student is standing on a stool or seat and holding the flag aloft for the students. His stance and demeanor, even though we only see him from the side and from a distance, suggest he is taking his responsibility seriously.
There’s a world of history, hurt and heartbreak within the pages of Remember, but also much that inspires. I find it fascinating and moving each time I look at it. Its focus on the role of children in the struggle and the fact it is geared towards a younger audience have the effect of making it an even more rigorous indictment of racism. The eyes of children beholding the ugliness of the world is one of our most powerful forms of witness.
The book concludes with an uplifting photo of two girls holding hands through bus windows. It is followed by a dedication to the four girls killed in the Birmingham, Alabama church bombing: Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Wesley. The dedication reads “Things are better now. Much much better: But remember why and please remember us.” There is a space followed by the last bit of text: “Their lives short, their deaths quick. Neither were in vain.”
A timeline of significant events in the civil rights and school desegregation movements follows, and the last part of the book includes the thumbnail collection of photos with descriptions of where and when the events pictured took place along with explanations of events in some cases. This section is valuable as it provides historical information contextualizing the photos—valuable history information for both older and younger readers.
One thing I learned from this section is that these photos are not only of southern scenes. Some were taken in New York, Illinois, California, Oregon and Masschusetts. The concluding photo of girls holding hands through bus windows was taken during Boston’s busing controversy in the early 1970s—a reminder of another unpleasant incident in American race relations and one that happened in a city that was a hotbed of abolitionist sentiment in the antebellum era.
Morrison also accomplishes what isn’t an easy job of writing: creating imaginary sentiments to accompany photos of people. It’s an interesting device and one that can be controversial, but perhaps less so in a children’s book as she is trying to reach a young audience in an effective way and give life to history in the voices of children and young people. I’ve seen other children’s books through the years in which this device is used. But it can be troublesome when used with adults, particularly people who are already seen as having little voice in society or autonomy in how they conduct their lives.
In Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White’s famous work of photo-text called You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), Caldwell created imaginary thoughts and statements for the people photographed by Margaret Bourke-White, many of them poor black and white sharecroppers. His intentions were good. Caldwell knew these kinds of scenes and people from his own life growing up around the south as the son of a clergyman. But the practice of giving imaginary voice to pictures of actual people in a published work has made some modern commentators on books such as Caldwell’s and Bourke-White’s uneasy.
Morrison addresses the issue directly in a note at the start of the book. She writes the following: “The captions included in this book are not intended to be the actual thoughts of the people in the photographs. Rather, they represent the author’s notion of what an individual in the position depicted might have been thinking. Whatever views these individuals may have held at the time may well be different today.” Caldwell has a similar note in his book, but as noted earlier, the practice may draw less flack here as it occurs within a children’s book.
Toni Morrison is a distinguished writer who has created a number of highly respected novels. But she has also written a quietly powerful book for children that can be read with profit by adults as well. As she notes in her introduction, remembering can be painful, but it can also “swell your heart and open your mind.” It has certainly done so for me.
Remember: The Journey to School Integration by Toni Morrison. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 2004.