Remembering Birmingham, 1963

15 09 2013

Birmingham16thStBaptistChurch This week in September reminds us of sadness and tragedy. Earlier in the week, we recalled 9/11. Today marks the 50th anniversary of another bombing in our country – the Birmingham church bombing in 1963. Both incidents have taught us that, through this pain and devastation, we as a nation need to pull together because we are all one.

BirminghamBookCoverSo as we think back on September 15, 1963, I wanted to host Carole Boston Weatherford today. Carole has written many books that deal with civil rights, and her picture book Birmingham, 1963 is a must-read. Hauntingly and beautifully, she retells the story through the eyes of a ten-year-old child.

Paired with Carole’s poignant free verse, the illustrations and photographs from that era tell the heartrending story of how hatred and cruelty destroys lives. Four young girls lost their lives that day. Their deaths shocked the world and shone a light on the injustices ripping society apart. The Birmingham explosion, which occurred less than a month after Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, became a catalyst for change and turned the tide in the struggle for equality.BirminghamPoliceBrutality

Although we still have many hurdles to overcome to make this a true land of equality for everyone, I have faith, as MLK did, that “unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

So today, I’ve invited Carole Boston Weatherford to share her creative process with us. She has also generously provided many resources for teachers, and her publisher Boyd’s Mills Press has given us a copy of one of Carole’s books, Becoming Billie Holliday, as a giveaway. Anyone who comments on the blog or on Facebook, will have a chance to win this beautiful book. And this fall, Carole is also offering free Skype visits to any schools that read Birmingham, 1963.

Birmingham Childrens March Because today is my birthday and this story is told from by a girl celebrating her 10th birthday, I chose this as my first question for Carole:

Why did you set the tragedy on the narrator’s birthday?

In the eyes of children, turning ten is a big deal, a childhood milestone bordering on a rite of passage. The bombing actually occurred on the church’s Youth Day. To compound the irony and up the emotional ante, I made the bombing coincide with the narrator’s tenth birthday. The main character is looking forward to singing a solo during worship service and to celebrating her birthday. Instead, she survives a church bombing and mourns four older girls. That setting dramatically juxtaposes birthday candles and the bundle of dynamite which sparked the explosion. The milestone resonates like a mantra, beginning as The year I turned ten and building to The day I turned ten.

Do you have a favorite passage from the poem?

The last stanza is my favorite.

Birmingham Birthday Candles

Why did you choose historical fiction and create an anonymous narrator?

The historical events are true, but the first-person narrator is fictional. I use historical fiction to give young readers a character with whom to identify. In so doing, young readers grapple with social justice issues. I did not want names of fictional characters to stick in readers’ minds or to take the focus off the real victims. Also, the narrator’s anonymity draws readers even closer to the action. In this scene, she struggles to get out of the church after the blast.

Smoke clogged my throat, stung my eyes.
As I crawled past crumbled plaster, broken glass,
Shredded Bibles and wrecked chairs—
Yelling Mama! Daddy!—scared church folk
Ran every which way to get out.

The flow of your free verse is beautiful. Can you tell us why you chose it to tell this particular story?

From the start, I used poetry to tell the story. My early drafts in third person, however, lacked immediacy. So I decided on historical fiction and created a fictional first-person narrator. To layer the plot a bit, I set the action on the anonymous narrator’s tenth birthday. For rhythm and resonance, I employed repetition: “The year I turned ten…”; and “The day I turned ten….” What would have been a childhood milestone, she remembers instead for violence.

Birmingham, 1963 is an elegy. But it is also a narrative poem of historical fiction. Poetry allows me to conjure images and distill emotions that make the story powerful.

Did you see yourself in the four girls? How much of you is in the anonymous narrator?

In 1963 I was seven years old and had already written my first poem. I grew up in Baltimore and did not experience the degree of discrimination that they did in Birmingham. But In many ways, I was those girls.

BirminghamInMemorianCaroleRobertson

CaroleRobertson

Like Addie Mae Collins, I drew portraits, played hopscotch and wore my hair pressed and curled.

Like Cynthia Wesley, I was a mere wisp of a girl who sometimes wore dresses that my mother sewed. I sang soul music and sipped sodas with friends.

Like Denise McNair, I liked dolls, made mud pies, and had a childhood crush. I was a Brownie, had tea parties, and hosted a neighborhood carnival for muscular dystrophy. People probably thought I’d be a real go-getter.

Like Carole Robertson, I loved books, earned straight A’s and took music and dance lessons. I joined the Girl Scouts and was a member of Jack and Jill of America. I too hoped to make my mark. We are both Caroles with an “e.”

As an author/illustrator myself, I’m fascinated by the cover and page design, particularly the red marks on the page and the juxtaposition of photos and paintings. Can you tell us more about that?

So many children ask me whether racial injustices really happened. Children just can’t believe that grownups allowed such wrongs. Documentary photographs confirm for young readers that this history is indeed true. Just as childhood innocence confronted racial hatred that Birmingham Sunday, stark news photos contrast with snapshots of girly toys and trinkets in Birmingham, 1963. Powerful pictures speak to me. I hope that the images will affect young readers as well.

The designer, Helen Robinson, asked for a list of everyday items that the anonymous narrator might own. I thought back to my childhood in the Sixties. Armed by my list, Robinson had the text on verso pages overprint such props as barrettes, bracelets, Barbie doll clothes, birthday candles, 45 records, jacks, an eraser, embroidered white gloves, lace-trimmed socks, pencils, and a puffed heart locket. The commonplace items symbolize youthful innocence and serve as historical touchstones.

Birmingham Commonplace BarrettesBirmngham Commonplace Gloves

The red marks are also Helen’s conception. On their meaning, she is mum, but she allowed me this interpretation. The random red marks evoke broken glass, the shattering of innocence, and the shedding of blood.

It seems fitting that this anniversary falls on a Sunday because the bombings happened in a church so many years ago. Birmingham, 1963 is set in a church. Is it religious?

The tragedy occurred at a church, so prayer, psalms, and religious songs go with the territory. That said, the freedom struggle is a battle of good versus evil. My grandfather was an activist preacher, and I wonder if I’m channeling him when my writing wades into spiritual waters. Though not overtly religious, Birmingham, 1963 would nevertheless be at home in a Sunday School lesson.

I wanted to close with one final image that I thought was the most powerful. You said that the stained glass window of Jesus almost survived the blast intact.

10:22 a.m. The clock stopped, and Jesus’ face
Was blown out of the only stained glass window
Left standing—the one where He stands at the door.

It is ironic that Jesus was left faceless—as if He couldn’t bear to witness the violence. Here’s a photo.

Is the bombing still relevant more than 50 years later?

Nowadays, racism is usually more subtle and less definitive. Even hate crimes are more difficult to pinpoint and to prove….As long as racism persists and this nation exists, stories from the African-American freedom struggle will remain relevant.

So as we move beyond the tragedies of the past, what lessons can we learn and teach our children? In the words of MLK, “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.” So love is what we must pass on the the next generation, and that can only be taught through actions.

What lessons are you teaching through your life?

Here are some resources for anyone who wants to learn more about the church bombing:

Dr. King delivered the eulogy. He called the girls “martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.” Read the entire eulogy here.

Four days after the Birmingham church bombing, the president met with civil rights leaders at the White House. Among them was the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. who warned, “Birmingham has reached a state of total disorder.” Hear the White House tape.

Links to Classroom Resources

Free Film Kits (from Teaching Tolerance Magazine) – Mighty Times: The Children’s March and America’s Civil Rights Movement: A Time for Justice

Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections – Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Collection

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

The King Center
The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow (PBS) – For Teachers

Eyes on the Prize (PBS) – For Teachers

Teachers Guide Primary Source Set – Jim Crow in America

Songs of the Civil Rights Movement (NPR)

Photographs of Signs Enforcing Discrimination (Library of Congress)

Win a FREE Book:

To win a free copy of Carole Boston Weatherford’s touching biography, Becoming Billie Holliday, leave a comment below or on Facebook to be entered in the drawing any time until September 30, 2013. A winner will be announced on October 1, 2013.

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Are You Living Your Purpose?

18 02 2012
Photo Credit: antibarbie

Three deaths in the past month has made for a rough start to the year. Two were expected; both family members were older and had health problems, and in some ways it was a blessing. But we still miss them and weren’t ready to see them leave this earth.

The third death was totally unexpected. A neighbor  and friend died of a sudden heart attack. Because she was close to my age, her death affected me the most.

When things like this happen, it makes you re-evaluate your life. If it had been me rather than her, what would I regret leaving undone?

I read recently that most people in nursing homes say they wish they’d taken more risks. It would be sad to get to the end of life and realize that while you were busy with mundane tasks, the important things of life passed you by.

What words or acts have you avoided saying or doing that you might someday regret? What dreams have you been putting off?

What were you put here on earth to do? Make that your first priority.





There I Go Again, Being Rude…

18 12 2011

Shoppers

As we’re hustling and bustling to get the last of the holiday shopping done, it’s so easy to get annoyed with slowpokes who block our speed-walking through  a store on our lunch hours or with rude people who push ahead of us in line. But recently I heard a suggestion that totally revolutionized how I feel when that happens.

Whatever label you’ve just given that person who’s upsetting you–irritating, pushy, nasty, inconsiderate–put it into this sentence: There I go again, being…

There I go again, being pushy.

There I go again, being rude.

Wait a minute, you might say. I wasn’t the one who was doing that. Ah, but if you believe, like I do, that we’re all interconnected and that what you see is a reflection of what’s in your heart, then it’s easy to see that you made the choice to see rudeness or unkindness. And I find when I say that, it reminds me that I’ve done the same thing at times.

Perhaps that’s what’s meant by: There, but for the grace of God, go I…

Although some people use that to make themselves feel superior, if you think about it for a moment, you’ll realize you’re saying that any differences between you and the other person are because of grace. You are the same, but someone is looking at your actions through forgiving eyes. Now it’s your turn to do the same.

But the wonderful thing about this sentence is that you can use it when you see acts of kindness, generosity, and love.

There I go again, being generous and thoughtful.

There I go again, being helpful and considerate.

So while you’re shopping, which “you” will you see. I hope you have the special joy and privilege of seeing “you” through the eyes of a child, with all the magic and wonder that entails.





The Forgiveness Dilemma

10 05 2011

Talk about conflicting messages. After writing two posts about the benefits of not forgiving people, my Google alerts again misdirected me (or was that a nudge from a higher source?) to a self-help site where the presenter was detailing all the benefits of forgiveness. The speaker used the familiar description of holding a grudge as feeding yourself poison, hoping someone else would die.

So I guess my options seem to be–poison myself or poison them? Hmmm…





Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot? Definitely

1 05 2011

envelopesIn keeping with my theme of nonforgiveness (see previous post), I thought I’d think of people in my life I forgave, but probably shouldn’t have.  If I’d known about this research earlier in life, just think how many people I could have helped.

I’ll start with my high school nemesis who stole my almost-boyfriend. OK, so he and I had sort of gone on one date together. Or rather we tried to. Friends who know how directionally challenged I am will not be surprised to hear that instead of heading north on the highway to our destination, I accidentally turned south, and never realized my mistake until we crossed the state line. He had let me choose our destination (big mistake!), so he had no idea what I had in mind. So that semi-date plus one phone call the week before to let me know he’d flunked his driver’s test was the extent of our relationship to that point. Still I had high hopes.

The holidays were approaching, and I felt sure I’d have a date with him for the next big to-do. Because he didn’t have his license, I’d figure we’d meet there. So I dressed to kill and spent half an hour trying to discourage friends from taking the seat I was saving for HIM.

Meet there we did. And he was as romantic as I dreamed he’d be, except the person he was cuddling was not me. Yep, she was holding his hand, wrapping her arm around him, while I pretended I hadn’t been saving that seat for anyone special.

After crying for hours that night, I resolved to be nice to both of them. And I was. I never said a word to either of them about my broken heart (she’d known I had a crush on him), and I stayed friends with them.  Too bad I didn’t know about this grudge-holding research. I might have come up with some harsh consequences that would have made them both think twice about what they’d done. As it turned out, a few months later she broke my best friend’s heart when she stole her steady boyfriend. And then six months later cheated on him with my neighbor’s fiance. Who knows how much heartache I could have saved others by being unforgiving.

So what auld acquaintances in your life do you wish you could forget?





Don’t Forgive or Forget

20 04 2011

Forget me notForgiveness is a good thing, right? Not really…

Forgiveness has always come fairly easy for me. It’s tough for me to hold grudges. It may be because I know my faults, so I’m more than willing to give other people the benefit of the doubt. Plus, I know I’ve been forgiven, so I believe I should extend that to others.

It recently came as quite a shock to discover that what I’d always thought of as a virtue is actually not. According to a recent study, people who forgive are more likely to become victims of abusers. Researchers discovered that forgiving offenses means that other people learn there are no negative consequences for their actions, so they’re much more likely to behave badly again. Thus people who hold grudges are actually doing the world a service by helping others become better people.

So if I truly want to help others, perhaps my new slogan should be: Forgive and Forget? Never!

I posted a forget-me-not because I usually forget my resolutions within a few days or weeks at most. I wonder how long I’ll be able to keep this one. 🙂





Secret to Overcoming Obstacles

24 04 2010

Life throws you roadblocks all the time. Losing a promotion, a job, a spouse, a limb, your reputation… No one ever knows what they might be called on to face, but you have two choices:

You either let it throw you into despair and paralyze you OR you move on. Sure, I hear you saying, easy for you to say. You have no idea the horrible situation I’m facing right now.

And you’re right. I don’t. But my inspiration comes from Corrie ten Boom, who lived through the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp and watched her sister die. She lost her parents, relatives, and home. Yet she went on to become a motivational speaker. What made her story even more compelling is that she forgave her jailer–in person.

Many people move on from situations where they’ve been wronged or hurt, but they carry bitterness with them–a poison that eats at their hearts and ruins their present. To get beyond it, takes a new mindset. Reframe the situation until you can thank the person who caused it. Many times that can’t be done with human strength; it requires moving beyond yourself to the realm of the supernatural. Believing that a higher power knows what you are going throught and has a plan for your life is often the key to reframing situations.