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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: Racism, Most Recent at Top [Help]
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1. Protesting Injustice Then and Now

ferguson 2In August we wrote to you about the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Our publisher said then that the matter of representation was urgent; now, four months later, we see that urgency for what it is: a matter of life or death. Michael Brown’s name now sits alongside new names like Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Akai Gurley. How many more names will need to be added before things change?

Protests around the country remind us that we are not in a post-racial society, that inequality is still here. This can be a harrowing reminder, but it is also an important teachable moment for young people. How do we put current events in context and help young people engage in today’s big questions?

In difficult moments, books are often a good starting place for conversation. Books that touch on history can be read with fresh eyes in light of current events. For example, in Love to Langston, author Tony Medina describes when a seventh-grade Langston Hughes in 1914 peacefully protests his teacher’s segregation of black students to one row in the classroom. Even when he is expelled, Hughes fights for what he knows is right and his community joins beside him. The teacher is forced to integrate the classroom:

Jim Crow Row
from Love to Langston
By Tony Medina

In the seventh grade
in Lawrence, Kansas
the teacher puts all
us black kids in the same row
away from all the white kids

I don’t roll my eyes
or suck my teeth
with a heavy heavy sigh
and a why why why

I make signs
that read
that read

Jim Crow Row
Jim Crow Row
we in the Jim Crow Row

Jim Crow is a law
that separates white and black
making white feel better
and black feel left back

So we protest
with our parents
and let everybody
know about

Jim Crow Jim Crow
not allowing us
to grow

Jim Crow Jim Crow
don’t put us in a
Jim Crow Row

Whether it was this event or the lifetime of experiences of racism, Langston Hughes was profoundly transformed and wrote about and advocated for equality and justice throughout his life.

I, Too
By Langston Hughes
From the Poetry Foundation

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

How will today’s children be impacted and awakened as activists by images of and participation in the protesting in Ferguson, New York City, and around the nation? In what ways will this moment and experience affect our children’s lens by which they view the world and influence their life’s purpose or calling? What art will they create to express this moment and themselves?

A photo from one of the recent protests in New York City.

A photo from one of the recent protests in New York City.

Further reading:

Books on Protest:

 


Filed under: Educator Resources, Race Tagged: African/African American Interest, children's books, diversity, Educators, History, Langston Hughes, poetry, Power of Words, race, Race issues, racism

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2. Thoughts on Ferguson and Recommended Resources

The following is a note from our Publisher, Jason Low, published in this month’s e-newsletter:

image from BirdIt’s been a hard few weeks for those of us following the news out of Ferguson, Missouri. While the exact details of Michael Brown’s death remain unknown, we can already see how this latest incident fits into a larger narrative in this country in which people of color are routinely discriminated against and subject to violence based on the color of their skin. Healing and change cannot begin until we as a country acknowledge the role racism plays not just in events like Michael Brown’s death, but in the everyday lived experiences of the 37% of America that is not white.

From a distance, it can seem like our book-filled corner of the world doesn’t have much to do with Michael Brown’s death, but we know better. The need for more diverse books and better representation is urgent. Poor representation doesn’t just damage self-esteem and confidence of children of color, it also perpetuates a skewed version of society as a whole. How can true equality ever exist if we are literally not even on the same page? Promoting diverse books is about creating a safer space for all children.

There are no easy ways to teach children about what’s happening in Ferguson, but here are couple links we’ve come across that help illuminate the issues and, perhaps, let us find teachable moments:

The Murder of Sean Bell: From Pain to Poetry

What did you tell your kids after the Zimmerman Verdict?

5 Books to Instill Confidence in African American Children

A Dream Conferred: Seven Ways to Explore Race in the Classroom

10 Resources for Teaching About Racism

America’s Racial Divide, Charted

The Case for Reparations

Stark Racial Divisions in Reactions to Ferguson Police Shooting

We’ll add more links as we find them; meanwhile, please do share your favorites in the comments.


Filed under: Dear Readers, Diversity, Race, and Representation, Educator Resources Tagged: Ferguson, race, Race issues, racism, teaching about race

2 Comments on Thoughts on Ferguson and Recommended Resources, last added: 8/22/2014
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3. Ferguson, Missouri, USA

Faith Rally
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)


Tactical officers fire tear gas in Ferguson
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
Media preview
(It never was America to me.)
Embedded image permalink
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
Media preview
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Media preview
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? 
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
Embedded image permalink
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
Media preview
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Violence again in Ferguson
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Tear gas Fired in Ferguson
The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
Tear gas shot at protesters
O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Police Fire Tear Gas, Clear Streets in Ferguson
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

(The words above are from "Let America Be America Again" by Langston Hughes, born in Joplin, Missouri. The pictures  are ones I saw last night on Twitter that particularly stuck with me; a few I discovered this morning. Most were uncredited on Twitter. The ones I do know come from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and are by J.B. Forbes, David Carson, and Robert Cohen.)

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4. Hate crime and community dynamics

By Mark Austin Walters


Hate crimes are offences that are motivated by hostility, or where some form of demonstration of hostility is made, against the victim’s identity. Such crimes can have devastating impacts, both on those directly victimised and on other community members who fear they too may be targeted. While much has been written about the impacts of hate crime victimisation, there has been little which has focused on how the criminal justice system can effectively address the consequences of hate — other than through criminalising and punishing offenders.

A relatively new theory and practice of criminal justice is that of “Restorative Justice” (RJ). RJ seeks to bring the “stakeholders” of an offence together via inclusive dialogue in order to explore what has happened, why it happened, and how best those involved in the offence can repair the harms caused. There is now a substantial body of research into the effectiveness of RJ for violent and non-violent offences. Yet there has been little attention paid to whether such a process can effectively address crimes motivated by identity-based prejudice.

The harms caused by prejudice-motivated crime can relate both to the individual traumas experienced by victims, and the structural harms faced by many marginalised communities. The individual and structural harms caused by hate crime are not easily remedied. The current approach to combating hate crime via criminalisation and enhanced penalties, while important symbolically to the combatting of hate crime, does little to directly repair harm or challenge the underlying causes of hate-motivated offending.

In order to understand more about the reparative qualities of Restorative Justice for hate crime an empirical study of RJ projects was conducted where practices were used to address the causes and consequences of hate crime offences. The 18 month project involved 60 qualitative interviews with victims, restorative practitioners, and police officers who had participated in a restorative practice. In addition, 18 RJ meetings were observed, many of which involved face-to-face dialogue between victim, offender, and their supporters. One such project, administered by the Hate Crimes Project at Southwark Mediation Centre, South London, used a central restorative practice called Community Mediation, which employs a victim-offender or family group conferencing model. The cases researched involved “low-level” offences (including crimes aggravated by racial, religious, sexual orientation, and disability hostility) such as causing harassment, violence, or common assault, as well as more serious forms of violence including several cases of actual bodily harm and grievous bodily harm.

In the Southwark Hate Crimes Project, the majority of complainant victims (17/23) interviewed stated that the mediation process directly improved their emotional wellbeing. Further exploration of the process found that the levels of anger, anxiety, and fear that were experienced by almost all victims were reduced directly after the mediation process. Victims spoke at length about why the dialogical process used during mediation helped to improve their emotional wellbeing. First and foremost, participants felt they could play an active role in their own conflict resolution. This was especially important to most victims who felt that they had previously been ignored by state agencies when reporting their experiences of victimisation. Many noted that they were finally being listened to and their victimisation was now being taken seriously.

800px-Southwark_Bridge_at_night

It was of utmost importance to victims that the perpetrator signed an agreement promising to desist from further hate incidents. In terms of desistance, 11 out of 19 separate cases of ongoing hate crime incidents researched in Southwark ceased directly after the mediation process had taken place (participants were interviewed at least six months after the mediation process ended). In a further six cases incidents stopped after the community mediator included other agencies within the mediation process, including schools, social services, and community police officers.

Unfortunately, the positive findings reported from Southwark were not repeated for the restorative policing measures used for low-level offences by Devon and Cornwall Police. Just half of the 14 interviewees stated that they were satisfied with the outcome of their case, where an alternative restorative practice, called Restorative Disposal was used. There were several reasons for lower levels of harm reparation at Devon and Cornwall, most of which were directly linked to the (lack of) restorativeness of the intervention. For example, several participants felt pressured by the police to agree to the intervention which had direct implications for the voluntariness of the process – a key tenet of restorative justice theory and practice.

Collectively, these results suggested that where restorative justice is implemented by experienced practitioners committed to the values of “encounter,” “repair,” and “transformation” it could reduce some of the harms caused by hate. However, where Restorative Justice was done “on the quick” by facilitators who were not equipped with either the time or resources to administer RJ properly, victims will be left without adequate reparation for the harms they have endured.

Another key factor supporting the reparative qualities of restorative practice, is reconceptualising the central notion of “community”. It is important to understand the complex dynamics of “community” by recognising that it may have certain invidious qualities (that are causal to hate-motivated offences) as well as more benevolent virtues. Equally, “community” may provide a crucial conduit through which moral learning about “difference” can be supported and offenders can be reintegrated into neighbourhoods less likely to reoffend.

Although the notion of community is an elusive concept, it is important for the future use of restorative practices for practitioners to view community organisations as important components of local neighbourhoods. These organisations (including neighbourhood policing teams, housing associations, schools, colleges, and social services) have an important role to play in conflict resolution, and must work together using a multi-agency approach to addressing hate crime. Such an approach, if led by a restorative practitioner, allows the various agencies involved in tackling hate victimisation to combine their efforts in order to better support victims and manage offenders. Hence, Restorative Justice may have scope to not only mitigate against the traumas of direct victimisation but also some of the structural harms that marginalised groups continue to experience.

Dr Mark Austin Walters is a Senior Lecturer in Criminal Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Sussex, and the Co-Director of the International Network of Hate Studies. He is the author of Hate Crime and Restorative Justice: Exploring Causes and Repairing Harms, which includes a full analysis of the impacts of hate crime, the use of restorative justice, multi-agency partnerships and the importance of re-conceptualising “community” in restorative discourse in cases involving “difference”. A full text of the book’s introduction ‘Readdressing Hate Crime’ can be accessed online.

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Image credit: Southwark bridge at night, by Ktulu. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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5. Jeff Dunham and Bento Box Make Direct-to-Video Film ‘Achmed Saves America’

Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, whose primary skill is spewing hate speech without moving his lips, has brought his shtick to animation with an hour-length animated special called "Achmed Saves America."

0 Comments on Jeff Dunham and Bento Box Make Direct-to-Video Film ‘Achmed Saves America’ as of 3/25/2014 3:55:00 PM
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6. Looking In, Looking On

I remember back in the mid 90s going to buy a car with my then husband. While we were initially impressed with the presence of black sales reps who approached us, it didn’t take more than a couple of visits to realize that the black sales reps were assigned to black customers.

I was reminded of this experience when I read Walter Dean Myers’ recent editorial.

Years ago, I worked in the personnel office for a transformer firm. We needed to hire a chemist, and two candidates stood out, in my mind, for the position. One was a young white man with a degree from St. John’s University and the other an equally qualified black man from Grambling College (now Grambling State University) in Louisiana. I proposed to the department head that we send them both to the lab and let the chief chemist make the final decision. He looked at me as if I had said something so remarkable that he was having a hard time understanding me. “You’re kidding me,” he said. “That black guy’s no chemist.”

I pointed out the degrees on the résumé that suggested otherwise, and the tension between us soared. When I confronted my superior and demanded to know what about the candidate from Grambling made him not a chemist, he grumbled something under his breath, and reluctantly sent both candidates for an interview with the chief chemist.

Simple racism, I thought. On reflection, though, I understood that I was wrong. It was racism, but not simple racism. My white co-worker had simply never encountered a black chemist before. Or a black engineer. Or a black doctor. I realized that we hired people not so much on their résumés, but rather on our preconceived notions of what the successful candidate should be like. And where was my boss going to get the notion that a chemist should be black?

Publishing more books out by authors of color seems like such an obvious solution to so many problems, however the problem of not enough books with characters of color does not exist in a vacuum.

Numerous people have suggested ways to change what is published and many of these people work outside publishing as do I. I’ve never attempted to write a book, never visited a publishing house and have never tried to obtain an agent. My criticisms of this industry are a bit like Sandra Bullock cursing the universe when she realizes her spaceship had no fuel.

But, I see things and it makes me wonder.

I’ve read too many books by authors of color where the author is truly skilled, the story is fresh, entertaining and well developed. Yet there were shortcomings that ranged from flaws in world building, lacking character development, or the lack or a good sense of setting. Who edits these books?

I know that when artwork and teaching materials is needed for a book, the preference is to assign the project to a person of the same ethnic group.  I can’t identify the thought process behind this. Is a book so “Black” or so “Latino” that only people from that ethnic group will relate well enough to the story to develop it correctly? Or, do we just not work together if we don’t have to?

Isn’t it the oddest thing that we see so many creating ways to help Whites write books about people of color rather than identifying and publishing more authors of color and Native Americans? And don’t tell me authors of color don’t exist! Where are the new books by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich? Neesha Meminger? Sheba Karim? Padma Venkatraman? Derrick Barnes? Alex Sanchez? Kelly Parra? Torrey Maldenado?

Creating a culture inside any industry where people understand the advantages to themselves as individuals, their company and even society as a whole is something that no one outside that industry can force.

I don’t believe there will be more books by authors of color until those in publishing understand that they can mentor and edit someone of a different complexion, that they can be as demanding of these authors and have high expectations of them. Or unless more companies like Quill Shift Agency, 7th Generation Press, Cinco Puntos or Just Us Books exist to innovate alternative avenues of success.

When CBC Diversity first formed, I wondered why they didn’t reach out to those outside their industry to build an alliance. There are so many people who address diversity from so many perspectives that it would have to be empowering to bring them all together. But, as I’ve come to believe I understand problems within the industry, I can’t help but applaud these individuals for trying to do something that certainly will not increase their popularity in their own offices. They best know the limitations inside their industry and what changes need to be made.

How can I end this on a positive note? Well, I cannot ignore all the voices (predominantly female, I must add) that continue to fight the good fight. In many different ways and in many different corners, there are people who are passionately trying to make a difference for young readers. Because right there, those pages in the hands of a young child will color their entire worldview. We have to keep hoping because there is no change without hope. We have to keep our ear to the ground and listen for those who are beating a new path. We can move beyond talk and take action. And, we have to continue questioning this industry.

 

 


Filed under: culture, Diversity Issues Tagged: diversity, publishing, racism, walter dean myers

1 Comments on Looking In, Looking On, last added: 3/17/2014
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7. Writers Against Racism: Author Neesha Meminger Speaks About Trayvon Martin

Neesha Meminger was kind enough to Skype in an interview with me regarding the tragic death of Trayvon Martin.  Thank you, Neesha!

A special thanks and video credit goes to my niece, Kayla, who videotaped the Million Hoodie March in Union Square last night, and to my husband Mark, who videotaped this series of Skype interviews for me. Thank you!

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8. Writers Against Racism: A Guest Post From Dr. Mon’s Place

What Happens next? Trayvon’s Life Has to Count for Something!                                          By Monica Hayes, Ed.D., MAT, MSW (Health and Education Consultant)

The discussions inthe media and on line have focused on a variety of perspectives. There have been calls for investigations and arrests and in too many cases calls for caution, so that we do not rush to judgment. The major judgment has already been made and acted upon.  Young Trayvon Martin is dead; there was no evidence gathering, no statements taken...just assumptions and tragically misguided and unwarranted action. We have seen too many cases where the Black or Hispanci youth is arrested first, and questions asked later. Maybe.

The good news is that the loss of this young man seems to have touched millions and the parents are receiving much needed support in their quest for justice. The president's message gently reminded all parents about the senselessness of the act and the critical need for all of us to understand how such a tragedy could have happened.

On Meet the Press on Sunday morning, Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, his voice evincing both angst and rage, reminded those who haven't yet connected the dots that this loss is pervasive. The neglect by law enforcement and the lack of justice across this country, he said, in response to the deaths of Black you regardless of whom or from which race/ethnicity the perpetrator comes is staggering.

The quiet rage that has been rumbling in the Black community is building. Some in the Hispanic communities are looking at the enmity that too often exists among young Blacks and Latinos. Thoughtful and mutually respectful Whites are wondering aloud how this can still be happening. On Sunday's Meet the Press, Doris Kearns, the noted presidential historian spoike poignantly about the youthful innocence reflected in young Trayvon's face. She likened the situation the that of Emmitt Till! Remember that injustice?

~~~~There's more! To read the rest from Dr. Mon's Place, please visit her blog.~~~~

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9. Writers Against Racism: Suleiman Bakhit – Creating Arab Superheroes

Comic creator and social media entrepreneur Suleiman Bakhit, is not allowing racial attacks to break his creative strides. Bakhit’s characters and stories are his way of empowering the Arab youth see themselves.

Suleiman Bakhit is a TED FELLOW and shares his story >>>http://fellows.ted.com/profiles/suleiman-bakhit

Also, find out why he has a scar on his face.  So sad.

(photo comes via TED Blog POW! Agent Hero: Fellows Friday with Suleiman Bakhit)

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10. The Problem With Cartoons: They’re All Racist!

Author Stephen Marche has a problem: he wants to share comics and animated cartoons with his son, but everything is racist. He told the world about his predicament in the most recent issue of the New York Times Magazine. He used the words ‘racism’ and ‘racist’ nine times to describe everything from Asterix to Dumbo to Tintin. Amazingly, Babar gets a pass because, Marche explains, “my son won’t be turned into a more effective colonist by stories of elephants riding elevators.”

Marche seems to lack a fundamental understanding of the cartoon medium, an art form whose essence is rooted in caricature and exaggeration. He finds offensive stereotypes everywhere he looks, including Blue Sky’s Ice Age, DreamWorks’ Madagascar and Pixar’s Monsters, Inc.:

Sulley and Mike, on the way into the office, happen to pass an orange squidlike grocer with a handlebar mustache who kind of talks-a-like-a-this. Perhaps that kind of stereotype is not as gruesome or upsetting as the one in the original Fantasia, but I had the distinct impression, as my son laughed at the scene, that my Italian immigrant grandfather was turning over in his grave.

Asterix gives Marche the biggest headache. As he reads it to his son, he wonders:

What is [my son] going to ask when I explain that for 400 years, white people took black people from their homes in Africa, carried them across the ocean in chains, beat them to death as they worked to produce sugar and cotton, separated them from their children and felt entitled to do so because of the difference in the color of their skin?

Amazingly, this thoughtfulness comes from a man who admits in the article that he told his son, “I don’t know why the pirates have a gorilla,” when his son asked him about a black character in Asterix.

I can only imagine that Marche would have a coronary if he ever watched this piece of animation:

PS – Go here to read a blistering takedown of Marche’s piece.


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11. The Color of Bones by Tracy Edward Wymer

 5 Stars From press release:  Twelve year-old Derby Shrewd lives in a divided town.  Lights live on the Northside of the Line, Darks live on the Southside.  Hillside has been that way ever since the Line appeared naturally from the ground, much like a spring welling up from deep inside the earth. Now the Line [...]

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12. On Weird Tales

It was a sad day when Ann VanderMeer and the rest of the staff at Weird Tales were fired when the magazine was bought by people who wanted to change the direction away from the great innovations Ann et al. had brought to it and instead return the magazine to publishing, apparently, Lovecraft pastiches. Apparently, Ann and creative director Stephen Segal winning a Hugo for their work wasn't good enough. The new owners wanted, they said, to return the magazine to its roots.


Well, Lovecraft was a thoroughgoing racist, and apparently those were the roots editor/publisher Marvin Kaye had in mind, although in his mind it's actually "non-racist". Sure, keep telling yourself that. [Update: Weird Tales has taken Marvin Kaye's post down from their website, so the link there doesn't work. However, there's a Google cache. I'm happy the publisher has apologized, but I'm not a fan of memory holes.]

For a better chronicle of the awful, see Nora Jemison's post on the topic. I'm sure there will be more. I'll update this post as time allows.

For now, though, I'm going to follow Nora's lead and post my story "How to Play with Dolls" here on the blog. It was published by Ann in WT 352, and it is one of my proudest publications. But I want it to be free from association with Weird Tales in its current incarnation.

Update: Completely, totally, and hurriedly stealing some additional links from Shaun Duke:

Given that Revealing Eden would not generally fall under WT's genre purview and that the prose and story are hardly so transcendant as to justify making an exception, it’s impossible to read Kaye’s decision to reprint the first chapter as anything other than a defense of racist writing. It is just barely possible that Foyt may have had the best of intentions and been genuinely taken aback when her book was called out for displaying her unconscious racism. Kaye, however, has no such excuse. This is a calculated statement of scorn for non-white authors and readers and their allies, and it stinks.
Update 2: Weird Tales backpedals.

Update 3: Ann VanderMeer resigns as senior contributing editor of the new WT.

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13. The Lions of Little Rock - a review

Levine, Kristin. 2012. The Lions of Little Rock. New York: Putnam.

I talk a lot.  Just not out loud where anyone can hear.  At least I used to be that way.  I'm no chatterbox now, but if you stop me on the street and ask me directions to the zoo, I'll answer you.  Probably.  If you're nice, I might even tell you a couple of different ways to get there. I guess I've learned it's not enough to just think things.  You have to say them too.  Because all the words in the world won't do much good if they're just rattling around in your head.

The year is 1958, and 12-year-old Marlee is beginning West Side Junior High School.  An intelligent, but extremely quiet girl, Marlee is often at the mercy of her bossy and outspoken "friend," Sally.
    Judy sighed. "Why are you even friends with Sally McDaniels?"
      I shrugged.  Sally and I have been friends ever since were five and she pushed me off the slide at the park.
     "She likes to boss you around," Judy said.
     That was true.  But she was also familiar.  I like familiar.

So, when she is befriended by Liz, the affable newcomer to school, Marlee is most pleasantly surprised.  Marlee, who has a penchant for categorizing people as beverages, finally questions Liz as to why she is helping Marlee to overcome her debilitating shyness,

     For the first time, Liz was silent.  Behind her, the giraffes chewed their cud. "I thought it might be hard always being quiet," Liz said finally.  "I thought you needed a friend."
     She was right.  I did.
     "I needed a friend too," said Liz.
     And suddenly I knew what Liz was -- a cup of warm milk with a dash of cinnamon.
The two become inseparable.  But one day, after a chance encounter with Sally and her mother near the Baptist church in the "colored part of town," Liz stops coming to school.  Word leaks out that she's been "passing," pretending to be white, in order to attend a better school.  Central High may have been forcibly integrated last year, but change has not come to West Side Junior High, and Hall High remains closed, forcing Marlee's older sister to attend school out of town. The status quo sits well with Marlee's mother, but her father, a teacher in the district, is disturbed.  The tension in Marlee's household mirrors that of the town's.  Liz and Marlee's friendship is a cause for concern in Marlee's part of town and Liz's; the threat of violence looms ahead.

A stellar depiction of  "us vs. them" mentality, The Lions of Little Rock shows the awful consequences of race against race, neighbor against neighbor, even husband against wife. Betty Jean, the maid at Marlee's home and the wife of the pastor at Liz's church, creates the story's bridge between the two neighborhoods. The Lions of Little Rock offers no easy answers, no neatly wrapped happy endings.  Brave Marlee will risk anything to stand by her friend, but her brave actions do not right the wrongs of the world; rather, they place the life of her dear friend and others in grave danger.  Life is messy.  Neither life nor its people can be neatly separated into black and white.  There are always shades of gray.


Other reviews @

 An interview with Kristin Levine is at The Fourth Musketeer.

Note: The librarians of NJLA's Children's Services Section are discussing this book and others on their mock Newbery blog, Newbery Blueberry Mockery Pie. Please feel free to join them with your comments.

2 Comments on The Lions of Little Rock - a review, last added: 9/5/2012
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14. Glory Be, by Augusta Scattergood

It's summertime, and there's not much that Gloriana June Hemphill (Glory) looks forward to more than having her 4th of July birthday party at the community pool.  This is the year she'll be turning 12 so she won't have to be supervised by big sister Jesslyn every time that she and Frankie want to go swimming.

But it's the summer of 1964, and Glory's age isn't the only thing that's changing.  First off Jesslyn, who used to play junk poker and talk with Glory in their shared room, isn't really talking anymore.  She's busy dressing up, putting on lipstick and sneaking visits with new boy Robbie at the library.  And then there's Glory's best friend Franklin Cletus Smith (Frankie for short).  Sure he's always been pushed around by his big brother J.T., but now Frankie is seeming to spew the same kind of stupidity as J.T. and his Daddy.  After all, it's Frankie who tells Glory that the pool is closing.  He says he overheard his Daddy talking about it.  He said it has cracks and needs to be fixed.  Glory doesn't see any cracks...

Hanging Moss, Mississippi has to face the fact that just because things have always been one way, doesn't make that way right.  Maybe there shouldn't be a white fountain and a colored fountain.  Maybe the community pool shouldn't only be for white people.  Maybe the library should be open to all.

Augusta Scattergood tells one girl's story about a summer of change in the South.  Glory's world view is pitch perfect as she slowly starts to understand the bigger reasons for the pool closing, and her fellow townspeople's treatment of the Yankees who have come to town.  Glory is a white girl who has grown-up in the white part of town with a black maid employed by her preacher father.  She has all of the spunk and indignation of an 11 year old who can see right and wrong, but has a hard time seeing where she fits into the picture.  This is a great tween read that will get readers thinking about the big issues of social justice as well as the universal changes that come with growing up.

2 Comments on Glory Be, by Augusta Scattergood, last added: 10/9/2012
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15. Notes After a Viewing of Red Dawn (2012)



The question is not whether Red Dawn is a good movie. It is a bad movie. As the crazed ghost of Louis Althusser might say, it has always already been a bad movie. The question is: What kind of bad movie is it?

(Aside: The question I have received most frequently when I've told people I went to see Red Dawn was actually: "Does Chris Hemsworth take off his shirt?" The answer, I'm sorry to say, is no. All of the characters remain pretty scrupulously clothed through the film. The movie's rated PG-13, a designation significant to its predecessor, so all it can do is show a lot of carnage, not carnality. May I suggest Google Images?)

My companion and I found Red Dawn to be an entertaining bad movie. I feel no shame in admitting that the film entertained me; I'm against, in principal, the concept of "guilty pleasures" and am not much interested in shaming anybody for what are superficial, even autonomic, joys. (That doesn't mean we can't examine our joys and pleasures.) No generally-well-intentioned, "diversity"-loving, pinko commie bourgeois armchair lefty like me can go into a movie like Red Dawn and expect to see a nuanced study of geopolitics. I knew what I was in for. I got what I expected: a right-wing action-adventure movie based on a yellow peril premise. Red Dawn is an unironic remake of a 1984 movie predicated on paranoid right-wing fantasies; it's not aspiring to even the most basic Starship Troopers-levels of intertextuality and metacommentary. There's none of the winking at the audiences that fills so many other 1980s remakes and homages (e.g. Expendables 2, which relies on the audience's knowledge of its stars' greatest hits — the only convincing performance in the movie is that of Jean-Claude van Damme, who, apparently overjoyed to be released from the purgatory of straight-to-DVD movies, plays it all for real, and becomes the only element of any interest in the whole thing). The closest Red Dawn comes to acknowledging its position in the cinemasphere happens when it turns the first film's very serious male-bonding moment of drinking deer blood into a practical joke, giving the characters a few rare laughs.

What are we supposed to feel good about in this movie? The 1984 Red Dawn was not even remotely a feel-good movie, but it gave us a space in which to feel proud of an idea of America that could survive even the most devastating attack by the Soviet Union (and its Latin American minions). It made a point of showing concrete objective correlatives for the abstract idea that is "American freedom" — the one that was most impressed on me by my father when we first watched Red Dawn together was the scene where Soviet soldiers talk about going to a gun shop to collect the federal Form 4473s, and using them to track down gun owners. This, to my father and many other people, demonstrated exactly why even the most minimal type of registration of guns is not merely annoying, but a threat to freedom. I vividly remember my father saying, "If the Russians come, we burn those damn forms." Red Dawn was not merely an action movie; it was a documentary.

But Red Dawn was a movie made during a time when the U.S. was not officially at war. It appeared in U.S. theatres less than a year after the invasion of Grenada, and just at the time when the actions that would eventually become the Iran-Contra Scandal were making their way into the public consciousness. The hawks of the Reagan administration needed the public to be both patriotic and fearful of the Red Menace, because otherwise it was difficult to justify the massive transfer of wealth into the Pentagon. Red Dawn did that better than any other movie of the time. (For much more on this background, see the article by J. Hoberman in the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of Film Comment.)

Now, though? The new Red Dawn comes as the Iraq war is winding down and the war in Afghanistan (our longest) may be nearing some sort of end. (And then, of course, there's Libya.) But these have been wars where we have been invaders fighting insurgents. They have been long, unfocused wars with no clear victory conditions. They began with some popularity and unanimity of public opinion, but the longer they went on, and the more that people learned about them, the less popular they became. They continued because the U.S. military is, while a huge part of the national budget, not a particularly concrete and visible part of everyday life and concern for many Americans. Without the threat of a draft, and with the rise of long-distance and drone strikes, most Americans can ignore the immediate reality of American wars, the hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries on every side.

It's in what the new Red Dawn makes us attach our feelings of pride, joy, and power to that it really differs from its predecessor, because the idea of America that it presents is neither particularly clear nor the product of much conviction. There are flags and some general genuflecting in the direction of "freedom", but the original Red Dawn offered a vision of how its idea of "freedom" actually works in the world, and what threatens it. There was an attempt at creating a certain amount of plausibility and verisimilitude — one of the advisors to the original film was Alexander Haig, Reagan's former Secretary of State, who worked with writer/director John Milius to craft what seemed to them a relatively realistic invasion scenario, the weapons and vehicles were as realistic as could be accomplished without being able to buy actually Soviet weaponry (the CIA inquired about the tanks after seeing them being moved to the set; later, the Pentagon used images of them to train the guidance systems in spy planes), and the tone is dark, with war presented as hell for both sides. Milius made numerous references to his masculine hero Theodore Roosevelt, and the vision he presented was stark, painful, and apocalyptic, more Hobbesian than Amurrican. It was Panic in Year Zero! by way of The Battle of Algiers.

Ours is the Age of the Tea Party, not the Age of Reagan, and so the new Red Dawn is closer to the ideological vision of The Patriot than that of its original source. The Patriot is the story of a man in Colonial America who doesn't see much point in fighting against the British until his own family is affected, at which time he becomes a psychopathic vengeance machine, and then at the end returns home to a small community not to help build up a new government or create the idea of a common United States, but to become the leader of a little utopian plantation. (He had already been leader of a utopian plantation before the war, because the black people doing work on his property were not actually slaves, but free employees. Really. As William Ross St. George, Jr. wrote in his review (PDF) of the film for the Journal of American History, this must have been "the only such labor arrangement in colonial South Carolina".) What matters in The Patriot is not country or government — all government is portrayed with contempt in the film — but rather self-reliance and, especially, family. Despite the movie's title, it's not about being a patriot, but about being a loyal, strong, independent, and avenging father.

The new Red Dawn, much more than the original, is also a movie about families and fathers. Jed, played originally by Patrick Swayze and in the new film by Thor, is now an Iraq vet who struggled to be a good son to his father and, especially, a good brother to Matt (originally Charlie Sheen, now Josh Peck). Lots of family melodrama is alluded to. The boys don't visit their father in a re-education camp; instead, the Evil Korean Guy (whose name I thought was Captain Joe, but IMDB tells me it's Captain Cho. I prefer my version), who for some unfathomable reason recognizes from the very first moment that Teenagers Are The Enemy (he was probably a high school teacher back home), rounds up their fathers, brings them to the Evil Dead Cabin where the kids had been hiding out, and makes the fathers plead with the kids to come in. Of course, the weak and collaborating mayor pleads with them to give themselves up, but the strong and noble father of Jedmatt (in a much blander performance than the clearly unhinged and perhaps psychopathic man portrayed by Harry Dean Stanton in the original) instead tells them to fight to the death, causing Captain Joe to channel his inner Nguyen Ngoc Loan and shoot him in the head. Oh dad, poor dad. Jed and Matt then go on to learn how to be good brothers to each other, just in time for— Well, you don't want to know the ending, do you? (For a moment, I thought it would turn out to be a movie climaxing with brotherly kisses and fellatio, but, alas, it did not. Well, not exactly. Although the more I think about it...)

We have to talk about the ending, though, because we have to talk about who lives and who dies. The original Red Dawn was not Rambo — while it certainly stirred up feelings of patriotism against the Soviet enemy, and admiration for the U.S. military, its tone isn't all that far away from The Day After. The end is a downer, but it's not nihilistic. We zoom in on a memorial plaque, its words read to us on the soundtrack: "In the early days of World War III, guerrillas, mostly children, placed the names of their lost upon this rock. They fought here alone and gave up their lives, 'so that this nation shall not perish from the earth.'" The memorial asserts that these lives were lost for a great cause, and by quoting the Gettysburg Address, it connects their sacrifice to that of soldiers who fought to preserve not just some idea of Americanism, but the union itself.

The remake turns patriotic tragedy into personal tragedy — Jed is killed just at the moment when he has reconciled with his brother. Toni (Adrianne Palicki in the remake, Jennifer Grey in the original) and Matt both survive in this version, along with many of the other Wolverines. Well, the white Wolverines.

The new Red Dawn isn't just a yellow peril movie, it's a vision of white supremacy. Only one nonwhite Wolverine has much of an identity (Daryl, played by Connor Cruise), and the others die pretty quickly. Finally, Daryl is, without his knowledge, injected with some sort of tracking device that can't be removed from his body, so he's given some supplies and left to wander away, probably to be killed by the North Koreans. Almost all of the white Wolverines survive, presumably with a new understanding of the miraculous powers of their skin color.


Remember what happened to (white) Daryl in 1984? His sleazy father (the mayor) forced him to swallow a tracking device. He knew it was in him. After barely surviving the assault that followed, the Wolverines take him to the top of a freezing mesa with a captured Russian soldier and get ready to execute him. Jed and Matt fight about it, with Matt saying it will make them worse than the Russians. Jed kills the Soviet soldier, but doesn't seem to be able to kill Daryl. Robert, whose experiences have fully brutalized him, shoots Daryl. It's a wrenching, disturbing scene. Again and again, the original Red Dawn says: War is a horrific, destructive experience for everyone involved, and it reduces us to our most animalistic natures — naming the guerrillas Wolverines was not merely the naming of a mascot or a rallying cry, it was a statement of what they had become.

The new Red Dawn doesn't hurt. It's superficially entertaining in a way that the original is not. Sure, it's shocking that Jed dies, but the way that scene is set up and edited highlights the shock, not the pain. In the original Red Dawn, Jed and Matt know they're heading out on a suicide mission. Jed survives a little while longer only because the Cuban Colonel Bella (Ron O'Neal) feels some respect or sympathy for him and is tired of the whole war. Jed1984 kills the Super Nasty Russian Bad Guy, just as Jed2012 kills Capt. Joe (with his father's gun, because they just happen to be in Dad's Police Station!), but the original film then takes the brothers to a frozen park, where, mortally wounded, they sit together on a bench and drift off to eternity.

The new Red Dawn instead puts its concluding weight on the idea that you probably shouldn't trust the black guy, even if he's friendly and well-intentioned. He's probably got a tracking device in his blood. Even though he doesn't want to be, he's a traitor. Best to leave him in the wilderness. This in a movie that begins with a montage showing us that President Obama and his minions are ineffective at defending us from the North Koreans (and their secret Russian puppetmasters).

The original Red Dawn had an unabashed political purpose — it warned us not to let our guard down, it encouraged us to support massive increases in defense spending, it encouraged us to stockpile guns and canned goods. It especially wanted us to call our congresspeople and tell them to support funding for the Contras and similar anti-communist forces. The September 1984 issue of Soldier of Fortune magazine includes an article about Red Dawn's production, particularly its weaponry, that begins: "Military strategists have often discussed the repercussions of a communist takeover of Central America. One worst-case scenario has the Soviet Union training Cubans and Nicaraguans in the offensive use of advanced weapons such as the MiG 25 and T-72 tank." The article ends:
Red Dawn seriously attempts realism. Milius spent $17 million trying to give the American public a taste of what Soviet weaponry, tactics and occupation practices are all about.

Liberal critics will howl about Reagan's deleterious effect on the creative arts and scream that Red Dawn is unabashed saber-rattling propaganda. It sounds like our kind of movie.

Red Dawn opens across the country on 17 August.
So yes, Red Dawn was propaganda in 1984. But it was not merely propaganda; there is cleverness and even humanity to it. It's an action/survival movie, so character development isn't a particular goal, but where it spends it moments of character development are telling. Instead of just building of family melodrama, the original Red Dawn gave humanity to some of the antagonists (particularly Colonel Bella). While the Soviet commanders are cartoons, the Russian soldiers are clearly just as trapped in the horrific logic of war as the Wolverines.

The new Red Dawn also wants to be propaganda, as the opening montage shows us. But there are more subtle connections to not just right-wing militarism, but extremist nuttiness. The key is three letters: EMP.

How do the bad guys invade North America? They wipe out the American defense infrastructure, and apparently the entire American military, by setting off at least one electromagnetic pulse (EMP). Now, EMPs are real. Boeing is even developing an EMP missile. But who gets really excited at the idea of an EMP knocking out electronic infrastructures? The apocalypse addicts at WorldNet Daily. Famed doomsayer Newt Gingrich brought it up during the Republican primary. Right-wingers get positively giddy at the idea. Why? Because it justifies lots of spending on missile defense. But according to the right wingers, President Obama is not spending nearly enough money to defend us from missiles. We could be wiped out at any moment by an EMP. But the weak, appeasing black guy in the White House is, whether he knows it or not, a traitor.

The politics of the new Red Dawn are about as coherent as those at a Tea Party rally, where really the only unifying theme is hatred of anything that can be called "government" (and doesn't contribute to the life and happiness of the complainer), hatred of the Socialist Kenyan Muslim Manchurian President Nazi Obama, and love of weaponry.

Whatever can be said about John Milius, at least he was committed enough to his concept to have thought it through. The new Red Dawn seemingly unintentionally opens itself to all sorts of odd moments, such as when Jed says, "When I was overseas [in Iraq], we were the good guys, we enforced order. Well, now we're the bad guys. We create chaos." In 1984, when the Wolverines went into the desert on horses, they evoked images of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. (The cover of that September 1984 issue of shows a guerrilla and the headline "Exclusive: Afghan Raiders on Russia's Border".) In 2012, when a character talks about the order enforced in Iraq, it's hard not to think about all the insurgents created by the chaos of the American invasion. When the Wolverines are called "terrorists" by their enemies, who doesn't think of the War on Terror? No wonder the U.S military has been disappeared by the new Red Dawn (instead of being assisted by active duty soldiers, the Wolverines are assisted by retired Marines). Nobody can forget that the U.S. military of the 21st century is an invading force. In 1984, the U.S. wanted to arm and train the "freedom fighters" of the world. In 2012, insurgents and terrorists "hate our freedoms".

In the nearly thirty years between the two films, gender roles seem to have become more confining. There weren't many women in the original Red Dawn, but Toni and Erica (Lea Thompson) in the original were interesting, active characters. They were stereotypically, tragically  traumatized by something that happened with the Russians (likely, rape), so much so that their grandfather hides them in the cellar, but though they remain traumatized and quiet, they also assert themselves against the assumptions of the men, and (like the women in Battle of Algiers) prove to be excellent, committed guerrillas, and more resilient than many of the men. When she dies, Toni makes sure she takes at least one Russian with her. The women of the original Red Dawn do not end up as objects of our pity or our lust, but rather of our respect.

Toni and Erica both survive in the new Red Dawn, but that's about all they have going for them. Erica is a sharp-cheeked blonde (Isabel Lucas) whose entire job in the movie is to be gawked at and pined for — Matt is so in love with her that he repeatedly risks the safety of the Wolverines to save her. (Girls are dangerous! They make boys stupid!) Once her role as the Imperiled Love Interest is over, she mostly disappears from the movie. Toni exists primarily to help Jed get in touch with his emotions. Her costumes tend to highlight her figure (the opposite of the costumes in the original film), and though she gets to shoot stuff and blow things up like everybody else, there's little sense of her as an integral member of the unit.

One of the problems for the new film is that it doesn't really know what to do with its characters. The mayor is set up to be just as sleazy and appeasing as the original, but nothing much is made of his story. He's just another weak, naive black guy. But that's what happens when you allow black people into government, as we should have learned from Birth of a Nation. While the original Red Dawn ended by invoking Abraham Lincoln, the new Red Dawn conjures the glory days of the John Birch Society.


But I'll end where I began: It is entertaining while it lasts. There's lots of action, lots of explosions. Some of the action is badly filmed — a car chase in the beginning is particularly incoherent, much to its detriment, because though part of the point of this action is to get us excited for our protagonists in peril, it also has some information to convey, and it can't do it because it's so badly shot and edited. There is moment-to-moment excitement. But though I went into the film determined to give it the benefit of the doubt, soon the entertainment was at least partially because of the film's idiocies. It's breathtakingly racist, but I also found it difficult to be disturbed by its racism, because it was so obviously stupid that it was comic, and my companion and I kept nudging each about the blatant, self-parodying silliness.

However, as Twitter showed, plenty of people found the movie inspiring, convincing, and powerful. Its political message got through. Its racism buttressed the inherent racism of many people who went to see it during its opening week. Its ideology did some work in the world.

Thinking about that fact is very far from entertaining.

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16. Talking About Race: A Workbook About White People Fostering Racial Equality in Their Lives

Kaolin, the author of Talking About Race (publisher: Crandall, Dostie & Douglass Books, Inc.), contacted me about her book, and I thought it sounded so interesting that I told her to send it to me. And I’m so glad she did. This post is going to be a little different than my normal posts about books you can use with students (you could probably use this with teens and college-age students)–I am going to share the book with you and tell you how to use it, but I will show you examples straight from the pages of the book. I also want to share with you a little of the author’s story. So, here we go. . .

Kaolin was born Patricia Anne Graham, and she legally changed her name to Kaolin with no surname in 1991. She has had many jobs in her life: a waitress, a singer, a writer, and a teacher. She’s worked in adolescent programs with teens with disabilities and in politics. She has also worked on a tree farm. In 1994, she designed and taught a course titled, “Let’s Talk About Race: Confronting Racism Through Education,” which after many years became this book I’m talking about today.

The book is divided into seven chapters with a “writing interval” at the beginning. It is written for “white people working to achieve racial equality in their lives, and to readers of color who would like insight into psychological and social experiences white people encounter.” Personally, I find this perspective fascinating–as a white woman, I never thought it appropriate or even necessary to address the concerns and topics that Kaolin discusses in her book. But after reading it, I see that it is, and I saw myself and my feelings in the pages of her book–especially when I was younger. I can see youth groups, book clubs, college classes, and more reading and studying this book. It will start conversations that need to be had. I hope that I can discuss these issues with my stepson soon and with my daughter when she is older. And as the cover states, it does not just have to be white people–it can be all races working together.

As Kaolin states in her introduction about why she wrote it: “Because learning how to talk about racism is hard. Most of us ‘react’ to it first. . . The lack of thought that has gone into many white people’s position about racism is amazing to me. . . Talking About Race meets that need.”

She begins with recognizing racism with lists that describe what a racist believes and with a section that even addresses, “How do you know you whether or not you are a racist?” The next chapter is titled “Resisting Racism,” which can actually bring up many uncomfortable feelings–especially when children/teens are faced with racism from parents or other loved ones, and they don’t know how to confront these beliefs or even act around the person. Kaolin gives some ideas for figuring this out. She continues this theme in the “Defenses and Insecurities” chapter.

The book goes on through real-life examples and encouraging prose, as well as pages of thinking questions with room to write answers, to face racism head on and understand how it can affect people in a family and in a community. Kaolin forces people to also look at themselves and how behaviors can either promote or stop racism. It’s not a book intended for people to feel bad about themselves or members of their family. It’s a book written to get people talking and thinking and hopefully changing hurtful behaviors.

I highly recommend using Talking About Race with teens and college-age students. I think it is perfect for a home school group, a church youth group, a community group like Boys and Girls Club, and more. It’s well-done!

Here are a few of the questions from it that get adults and children USING the book:

  • If you woke up this morning and there had been no racism in your life, how would your life have been different?
  • Have you ever feared someone because of his or her color? Have you been fearful of anyone because of your color?
  • With respect to your own color, would you say you were born lucky?
  • Do you think white people have no problems?
  • In order to correct a racist situation, I would need. . .

Check it out on Amazon or at Kaolin’s website if you don’t believe me! :)

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17. Censoring a Children’s Book - John Dougherty

Censorship is a tricky area, isn’t it?

Generally speaking, it’s a Bad Thing. I fume as much as the next author when I read one of those articles about a US school board voting to remove To Kill A Mockingbird or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the library because of some imagined unsuitability. I thought the Daily Mail was a bit off with its recent suggestion that teen fiction dealing with issues like terminal illness or self-harm qualifies as “sick-lit” (and, no, I’m not going to provide a link; it’ll only encourage them to do it again).

And yet, occasionally, I’ve found myself censoring children’s books.

I don’t mean that I go through them with a marker pen deleting the ‘unsuitable bits’; and I certainly don’t mean that I remove books from my children’s book shelf, but… well, let me give you the most recent example.

I’m currently reading Watership Down with my kids (they’ve got older since the photo was taken, as have I). My daughter, now aged 10, wasn’t sure about it at first, but they both seem to be really enjoying it now. And so am I; I loved it when I was about their age, and I’m loving reading it again. But a few nights ago, I ran into a sentence that made me feel a little odd when I first read it, and makes me feel extremely odd now.

For those of you who know the book, when Hazel & his companions are in Cowslip’s warren, their hosts ask if one of them will tell a story. And the next sentence reads:

“There is a rabbit saying, ‘In the warren, more stories than passages’; and a rabbit can no more refuse to tell a story than an Irishman can refuse to fight.”

When I encountered this sentence as a child - well, I can’t remember exactly how I felt, but I know it made me pause. I’m Irish - Northern Irish, to be specific - and I’ve never felt particularly inclined to physical violence. Yet here it was, in a book - a terrific book, at that: just an aside, here’s something we all know about Irishmen. They’re violent. Why on earth should the author say that?

So it made me a bit uneasy then. It makes me more uneasy now, not least because in my first proper job - in England - I worked with a colleague who was convinced that Ireland, and especially Northern Ireland, was a horrible violent place. A lot of our clients were troubled young men, but my colleague took it as read that being Irish - or, in the case of one client, merely having an Irish father - would mean a particular predisposition towards violence. It was a dreadful belief to find in someone who was generally thoughtful and intelligent, and in the end it rather poisoned our working relationship.

So the sentence I’ve quoted above is, for me, problematic - as problematic as would be a sentence suggesting that Jewish people are prone to parsimony or black people to idleness. But I’d forgotten about it until… well, until I reached it.

If either child had been leaning on my shoulder, silently reading along with me, as they sometimes do, I’d have had no option. But it so happened that they were reclining at opposite ends of the sofa with their feet on my lap. Which gave me a choice, and a second in which to make it.

I went for the easy option. I censored. I read the second half of the sentence as “no rabbit can refuse to tell a story” and read on.

Did I do the right thing? I don’t know. Perhaps I passed up an opportunity to talk about prejudice. My children are sensible enough to question this sort of statement. Probably both of them would say, “that’s silly’; my son, now at secondary school and becoming more interested in societal issues, might say, “that’s racist, isn’t it?”

And to be honest, I still don’t know quite why I did it, or even for whose benefit it was - theirs, or mine.

What would you have done?


John's website is at www.visitingauthor.com.
He's on twitter as @JohnDougherty8

His most recent books include:







Finn MacCool and the Giant's Causeway - a retelling for the Oxford Reading Tree
Bansi O'Hara and the Edges of Hallowe'en
Zeus Sorts It Out - "A sizzling comedy... a blast for 7+" , and one of The Times' Children's Books of 2011, as chosen by Amanda Craig

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18. The strange career of Birth of a Nation

By Jim Cullen


Today represents a red letter day — and a black mark – for US cultural history. Exactly 98 years ago, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation premiered in Los Angeles. American cinema has been decisively shaped, and shadowed, by the massive legacy of this film.

D.W. Griffith (1875-1948) was one of the more contradictory artists the United States has produced. Deeply Victorian in his social outlook, he was nevertheless on the leading edge of modernity in his aesthetics. A committed moralist in his cinematic ideology, he was also a shameless huckster in promoting his movies. And a self-avowed pacifist, he produced a piece of work that incited violence and celebrated the most damaging insurrection in American history.

The source material for Birth of a Nation came from two novels, The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden (1902) and The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905), both written by Griffith’s Johns Hopkins classmate, Thomas Dixon. Dixon drew on the common-sense version of history he imbibed from his unreconstructed Confederate forebears. According to this master narrative, the Civil War was as a gallant but failed bid for independence, followed by vindictive Yankee occupation and eventual redemption secured with the help of organizations like the Klan.

But Dixon’s fiction, and the subsequent screenplay (by Griffith and Frank E. Woods), was a literal and figurative romance of reconciliation. The movie dramatizes the relationships between two (related) families, the Camerons of South Carolina and the Stonemans of Pennsylvania. The evil patriarch of the latter is Austin Stoneman, a Congressman with a limp very obviously patterned on the real-life Thaddeus Stevens. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Stevens comes, Carpetbagger-style, and uses a brutish black minion, Silas Lynch(!), whose horrifying sexual machinations focused, ironically and naturally, on Stoneman’s own daughter are only arrested by at the last minute, thanks to the arrival of the Klan in a dramatic finale that has lost none of its excitement even in an age of computer-generated imagery.

Historians agree that Griffith, a former actor who directed hundreds of short films in the years preceding Birth of a Nation, was not a cinematic pioneer along the lines of Edwin S. Porter, whose 1903 proto-Western The Great Train Robbery virtually invented modern visual grammar. Instead, Griffith’s genius was three-fold. First, he absorbed and codified a series of techniques, among them close-ups, fadeouts, and long shots, into a distinctive visual signature. Second, he boldly made Birth of a Nation on an unprecedented scale in terms of length, the size of the production, and his ambition to re-create past events (“history with lightning,” in the words of another classmate, Woodrow Wilson, who screened the film at the White House). Finally, in the way the movie was financed, released and promoted, Griffith transformed what had been a disreputable working-class medium and staked its power as a source of genuine artistic achievement. Even now, it’s hard not to be awed by the intensity of Griffith’s recreation of Civil War battles or his re-enactments of events like the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

But Birth of a Nation was a source of instant controversy. Griffith may have thought he was simply projecting common sense, but a broad national audience, some of which had lived through the Civil War, did not necessarily agree. The film’s release also coincided with the beginnings of African American political mobilization. As Melvyn Stokes shows in his elegant 2009 book D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, the film’s promoters and its critics alike found the controversy surrounding it curiously symbiotic, as moviegoers flocked to see what the fuss was about and the fledgling National Association for the Advancement of Colored People used the film’s notoriety to build its membership ranks.

Birth of a Nation never escaped from the original shadows that clouded its reception. Later films like Gone with the Wind (1939), which shared much of its political outlook, nevertheless went to great lengths to sidestep controversy. (The Klan is only alluded to as “a political meeting” rather than depicted the way it was in Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel.) Today Birth is largely an academic curio, typically viewed in settings where its racism looms over any aesthetic or other assessment.

In a number of respects, Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln is a repudiation of Griffith. In Birth, Lincoln is a martyr whose gentle approach to his adversaries is tragically severed with his death. But in Lincoln he’s the determined champion of emancipation, willing to prosecute the war fully until freedom is secure. The Stevens character of Lincoln, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is not quite the hero. But his radical abolitionism is at least respected, and the very thing that tarred him in Birth — having a secret black mistress — here becomes a badge of honor. Rarely do the rhythms of history oscillate so sharply. Griffith would no doubt be bemused. But he could take such satisfaction in the way his work has reverberated across time.

For Jim Cullen’s selection of films all history and film buffs should see, watch his video syllabus.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Jim Cullen teaches history at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City. He is the author of  Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions (December 2012), The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation, and other books. Cullen is also a book review editor at the History News Network. Read his previous OUPblog posts.

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Image credit: Birth of a Nation film poster, 1915, public domain in Wikimedia Commons.

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19. Black History Month – The Double V Campaign: African Americans and World War II by Michael L. Cooper

February is Black History Month and I thought I would take another look at the African American heroes in World War II. These were men and women who fought for victory for their country and for their own equality in the Armed Services.

In January, 1942, the editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, a leading, well-respected African American newspaper, posed the question “Why should I sacrifice my life to live half American?” Beginning in February, the Courier ran the Double V Campaign, demanding equality for all. The campaign received overwhelming support from black leaders and readers all over the country.

Racial discrimination had always been practiced in all branches of the Armed Forces in this country even after World War II had been declared. But African Americans began to question why they should fight in a war for a country that treated them like second class citizens. Black soldiers were housed in substance conditions, often far from base conveniences, such as churches, movies and even the Post Exchange or PX. They were given menial jobs working as janitors or in the mess halls, and not really trained for any kind combat duty.

And yet, right from the beginning of the US entrance into the war, in 1941, African Americans began to distinguish themselves in battle. For example, Dorie Miller was a messman on the USS West Virginia when it was bombed by the Japanese in Pearl Harbor. Dorie ran up on deck, found his wounded commander and carried him to safety. He returned to the deck, picked up an antiaircraft weapon he had never been trained to use and managed to shoot down four enemy aircraft. When the Courier tracked down the identity of the “Negro messman,” as he was called in all the newspaper articles, and printed his name, Dorie was finally awarded his well deserved Navy Cross for heroism. But if the Courier hadn’t printed his name, Dorie’s brave actions and quick thinking would have gone into obscurity, but now his heroic legacy lives on.

Michael L. Cooper traces the history of the campaign from it beginnings to the end of the war and beyond. Change first began with the construction of Fort Huachuca in Arizona, an all black base that was at least built on the same standard as the white bases. There, the Ninety-third Division was first formed and trained for combat in the Pacific against the Japanese. He tells about other heroes who performed so gallantly on both the Western and the Pacific fronts. Cooper ends with the awarding of the Medal of Honor, the country’s highest honor, to seven African American soldiers from World War II. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen until 1997, when President Clinton had the honor of recognizing their contributions. It was a long time coming!

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20. Books at Bedtime: Viola Desmond Won’t be Budged

February is Black History Month in Canada so I trundled off to the library to find some good books on the topic.  The librarian showed me a new book they had just received for their collection: Viola Desmond Won’t be Budged by Jody Nyasha Warner and Richard Rudnicki (Groundwood Books, 2010)  This book tells a little known story of a black woman, Viola Desmond, in 1946 who refused to move out of her seat on the main floor of a movie theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia to the balcony where, as the usher tells her, “your people have to sit.”   Viola, however, does not budge.  Eventually she is arrested by the police, put in jail over night, and fined twenty dollars for her resistance.   Clearly, Viola’s act of defiance  was in reaction to racist treatment, but the people of the time somehow could not articulate this second-class treatment of her as such.  Viola was jailed and fined, ostensibly, for not paying the higher ticket price for sitting on the main floor, even though she offered to pay the extra one cent in tax required for such a privilege.  When the black community of Nova Scotia rallied around Viola to appeal her conviction, the case was thrown out of court on a procedural technicality.  The battle was not won; however, the point was made.

When I read this book to my daughter, the moment the theatre usher says to Viola  “You people have to sit in the upstairs section,”  she sensed something was wrong, but had trouble articulating it.   Finally, she said “It’s racism, isn’t it?”  stumbling a little over the R-word.  She could hardly believe that Viola had to go to jail and be fined twenty dollars (which at the time would have been a significant amount to pay,) for not going upstairs to the balcony.   As obvious as the racist treatment was in the situation, the word ‘racism’ somehow just didn’t seem to come up in the text or in the story — it was like the white elephant in the room.  Racial segregation, did in fact, exist in Nova Scotia, but no one wanted to acknowledge it in this situation but Viola herself, by refusing to budge.  And that was what made her rather singular much like Rosa Parks in the U.S.

This is a story Canadians need to know about themselves.  I’m glad to have read it to my daughter whose eyes were opened to the history and experience of black Canadians in Nova Scotia.

0 Comments on Books at Bedtime: Viola Desmond Won’t be Budged as of 2/15/2011 2:07:00 AM
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21. Out of the Shadows by Jason Wallace (Carnegie finalist)

This book generated the best discussion so far, which surprised me as I really hadn’t been sure at all what the girls’ reaction to it would be. The school staff, whilst not disliking it as such, had found it quite a bleak read with nothing positive happening in it to draw you out of the misery.

This novel is set in Zimbabwean boarding school for boys, in the early years of the Mugabe government after a long, bitter struggle for black independence. Long held school traditions are being overturned by the admission of a few black teachers and students and this breeds resentment amongst many of the pupils.

New pupil, Robert Jacklin, freshly arrived from England, initially makes friends with a young black boy, the first pupil he meets there. But in the end, he turns his back on his friend in an attempt to avoid the vicious bullying of Ivan, and he is drawn into his gang’s violent and racist games.

The girls felt that they could empathise with Robert’s predicament and inner turmoil and felt greatly sorry for him as his home life was a mess too. Although they did not understand a lot of the history and political references, they felt that this did not detract from their enjoyment of the book. This scored the highest so far amongst the group.

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22. Review: Chasing the Nightbird by Krista Russell

Newcomer Krista Russell desires to expose children and young adults to the historical realities of the slave trade and the abolitionist movement. She skillfully weaves historical truths into her story, and the result pulls the reader deep into the not-so-distant past. Click here to read my full review.

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23. When Racism Comes Home

This past weekend some guy called me a gook. What was surprising is it happened right in my hometown. I have lived in my town for five years now and have never had any problems with racism. This came out of the blue and was totally unprovoked. I was on my way to pick up Indian takeout for my family’s dinner.From Baseball Saved Us

There were so many things out of the ordinary about this incident. The man who called me a gook was with his girlfriend and didn’t appear to be drunk. In the past, racist insults usually have come from groups of young men, late at night, after consuming 6+ beers each. It wasn’t late; it was around seven o’clock in the evening. And the part about the guy being with his girlfriend is significant because usually a person tries to conceal the less than desirable parts of his or her personality, like being racist, at least until after the third date.

What eats me up about this incident is that after all these years of being immersed in the diverse books we publish, all the self education I have undergone to become more culturally aware was completely useless. I was caught utterly flat-footed when it happened, with not one snappy comeback to show for myself. I stood there frozen in indecision. I did nothing. My lack of verbal Jujitsu kind of ruined my night.

I went back home with my take-out order and ate dinner with my family. I told them about the incident and we had a lively conversation consisting of woulda, coulda, shoulda scenarios and comebacks that made us all laugh. The reality is I haven’t been subjected to a racist insult in many years, which may be why this experience was so jarring and caught me off guard. The fact that the frequency of events like this has decreased so much is most likely a testament to the teaching of acceptance in our schools. I also hope that maybe the kind of books we publish are part of the solution.

You know what they say about sticks and stones. Well as an adult and parent, name calling still hurts.

Has anyone had a racist experience in the last year? If so, how did you handle it? Did you manage to fire off any memorable retorts? I need some verbal ammunition for my next trip into town.


Filed under: Dear Readers Tagged: diversity, Race issues, racism 10 Comments on When Racism Comes Home, last added: 11/3/2011
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24. Bigotry in America

On the way to school this morning, I heard a story about Lowes (the home improvement store) and the television series, All-American Muslim. You can listen to the story (about three minutes) here.

I've never watched All-American Muslim. I hadn't even heard of the show. I've shopped at Lowes before, but doubt I will again.

Evidently, "the conservative group that got Lowe's to pull its ads from a reality TV show about American Muslims has been fighting for more than two decades against gay rights, strip clubs and most anything else that offends evangelical Christians."

Well, Mr. David Caton of the "Florida Family Association," you offend me. You offend me with your hatred, bigotry and misinformation.

Several politicians called the Florida Family Association a fringe hate group, a title Caton shrugged off, saying the group aims to "defend traditional American biblical values."

Traditional American biblical values? What, like burning witches and lynchings?

Caton suggests "99.9 percent of Muslims agree with the principles of Sharia law" and by nature, Islam requires a follower to be an extremist.

You wouldn't know anything about extremism, would you Mr. Caton?

Take a gander at the truth about Muslims in America. Of course, it's all to easy for haters to ignore the truth, isn't it? Haters have been ignoring the truth for a long, long time. 

I love the country in which I was raised, a place in which different people have the right to be different--even if it requires struggle to gain and maintain that right.

The struggle is our greatest strength; the struggle keeps us honest.

I'm not sure where Mr. Caton lives, but it's not my America. If I had any advertising dollars, I'd call TLC right now and ask for an ad spot.

8 Comments on Bigotry in America, last added: 12/13/2011
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25. We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Levinson

 5+ Stars By May 1963, African Americans in Birmingham, Alabama, had had enough of segregation and police brutality.  But with their lives and jobs at stake, most adults were hesitant to protest the city’s racist culture.  Instead, the children and teenagers—like Audrey, Wash, James, and Arnetta—marched to jail to secure their freedom. At a time [...]

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