Competing Narratives

I have been working on a picture book biography for children 7-9. I had written about Florence Price, an African-American classical composer, in one of my history books. She is relatively unknown but her music is beautiful. As I read about her life in Jim Crow Arkansas, I came across several lynching incidents and the “Arkansas race riots,” one of the most virulent in American history.

So I asked a writing group how I should treat lynching in a children’s book. Florence’s experience was extremely personal because the KKK threatened to lynch one of her daughters who was the same age as a white girl purportedly murdered by an African-American man. (We know the history of so many false accusations and, even today, the number of African-American men who have been imprisoned for crimes they never committed.)

The writing group’s opinions were mixed. Some said that children should learn about this important but ugly part of our history.  After all, there is now a museum devoted to this endeavor.  But others thought the history was too grueling.  This got me wondering about… protected most white kids are, as well as the historical knowledge African-American children learn.

In Price’s time, African-American parents warned their children about breaching the “racial etiquette” of the South. Children understood the consequences of not stepping aside or of not being deferential, as they witnessed violence, beatings, disappearances, and murders of community and even family members. Children understood that their actions could be misconstrued, as Emmett Till’s was. Further, they understood that the courts and all-white juries would not represent their side of justice.

So what about today? African-American parents teach their children about their rich cultural history. But they must still warn them about dangers of police, racists, and violence. I remember teaching kindergartners in north Memphis in a poor African-American neighborhood. I was teaching them phonics and how to sound out words. I loved those kids — so enthusiastic about learning, so excited to show their grandparents their artwork. When I asked for “g” words, one boy cried out, “guns. gangs.” One word for “b” was “bullets.” White kindergartners would probably have chosen other words.

When I taught 3rd and 6th graders in another poor African-American Memphis school, the students told me the narratives they learned.  About drugs sold on street corners, how they were approached to join gangs and sell drugs, how one or both of their parents were in prison, how gun shots were a common occurrence. And how school learning was meaningless, in light of all they had to face after school.

Yet the students told another narrative — one of pride and deep understanding. They knew about Martin Luther King and about the sanitation workers’ strike. They knew about the marches for justice and equal rights. And I am thinking…..white children don’t learn either of these narratives.

So back to the biography I am working on. So far I have described the fear and the violence. I have used the words “kill” and “murder.”  I may use “lynching” in the back matter. For those of you reading this post, what are your thoughts?

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