My husband recently wore to work the “I Am, A Man” T-shirt he had purchased last year at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. He works mostly with 20-somethings and they were all baffled by the slogan. We were baffled by their bafflement but shouldn’t have been. The civil rights era is rapidly fading into the remote past and we have elected our first African-American president.
Yet this slogan still gives me chills. That in my lifetime, growing up as I did in Memphis, black sanitation workers would demand to be treated simply as men. “Garbage men” in Memphis at that time made 25 cents an hour. The white man’s dogs chased and bit them. At night, when they went home, they shook maggots from rotting garbage out of their clothes.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis in 1968 to support the sanitation workers strike, which escalated in late March after a policeman shot and killed a black striker. On April 4, King was assassinated as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. As the news went out that night, black communities across America went up in flames.
I have written about growing up during desegregation in my novel Mr. Touchdown. And I’ve also blogged about the time I was caught up in the March Against Fear and had a face-to-face moment with Stokely Carmichael.
But few middle-grade or young adult novels deal with that turbulent period in American history. Many kids today are so beyond racism that skin color is almost meaningless for them. And they find novels about “the black problem” preachy and depressing. I can get with that, yet …
It’s a cliche to quote George Santayana for the millionth time that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But it’s true. And perhaps this era is becoming so remote that readers, students of history, can once again reverberate to the passion of that plea: I Am, A Man.
In the deep South in the 1950s and 1960s, a white man had the right to vote; a black man did not. A black man could not eat with white men, could not use whites-only restrooms, could not sit in the same waiting rooms in the train station with white people, could not send his children to school with white children. The injustice of this is incomprehensible now. Isn’t it?
In the course of writing and visiting schools and book festivals with Mr. Touchdown, I have collected this list of novels for young readers that deal with Black History Month topics.
Let’s keep reading about the past, lest we forget and are doomed to repeat it.