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When love was an ember about to billow
on April 16, 2005
When I was younger I used to love going to antique stores to buy old photographs. Usually these stores would have huge bins of old shots of families, individuals, and places. Finding the ones I thought were the most original, I bought them and gave each one its own name and history, entirely of my own making. I could pore over a single photograph for hours, enlivening it with a background that I myself would never be able to prove or disprove. But each photo was a staged affair. Its participants knew that they were being photographed. How different it would be to do the same thing, only with photos that highlighted a particular historical moment in our nation's history. In "Remember: The Journey To School Integration", authorial god Toni Morrison does just that. She takes photos that highlight the struggles and heroism of the civil rights activists (and their children) during the early years of southern integration and gives many of them their own little comment or story. Taken individually the photos are eye-opening affairs, even for adults that lived through those turbulent years. Taken as a whole they tell a tale that we should never forget.
The book is, in its own words, "a unique pictorial and narrative journey that introduces children to a watershed period in American history". In many children's books, such a title would begin with an Author's Note that speaks to adults about what the writer is attempting to accomplish. Morrison takes a different route. She speaks immediately to the child readers of this book. "This book is about you", she explains. She tells the kids about this dark period in American history. She gives them a briefing in the history and the multitude of reasons why we should never forget that this occurred. Then the pictures begin. They're all black and white images of a time long past. Segregated schools, dilapidated and far from equal. Small children like Ruby Bridges being led past screaming mobs of white people. Sit-in protesters smashed with eggs and glasses of water by red faced restaurant employees. Some of these pictures are familiar. The white and colored drinking fountains, for example. Some of them you'll have never seen before. White boys chasing a black one on the first day of integration at Central High School. An angry mob overturning a car containing black passengers. Children in Ku Klux Klan robes. But best of all are the photographs of the schoolchildren in the schools. The wary glances shared between white and black students (as displayed on the cover). The hand holding and learning under a single teacher. You can tell by looking that there's still a long way to go but that first step has already been taken. And Toni Morrison has helped to bring you there.
Morrison's words usually fit each picture perfectly. I thought she might have been giving a white boy carrying a boy carrying an anti-segregationist sign with his two friends a bit of a benefit of the doubt when she wrote, "I don't know. My buddies talked me into this". But it's nice of her to show that perhaps not all the white people presented here were evil. She also shows photographs of white people marching in protest with black, so you've a sense that the civil rights movement spanned all races and creeds. Her words give the child reader a chance to think and ponder what they see. Everyone here has a voice. Whether the reader agrees with that voice is not always a given.
"Remember" is an excellent way to introduce kids to a harsh moment in our nation's past. This type of format works perfectly with the subject matter. Better still, this is one way of showing to kids how children were the battleground of one of the nation's most contentious movements. Toni Morrison does their memory proud. A must for every library.