Saturday, September 07, 2013

Birmingham, 1963: 50 years later

This week I am honored to feature Carole Boston Weatherford and her award-winning book, Birmingham, 1963, in memory of the bombing of the Birmingham church fifty years ago (September 15, 1963) that took the lives of four little African American girls. Carole's book is a beautiful, moving tribute and has been recognized with several awards:
  • Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award
  • The Jefferson Cup Award
  • Jane Addams Children's Book Award, Books for Older Readers Honor Book
  • Kirkus Reviews' Editor's Choice list
  • Best Children’s Books of the Year, Children’s Book Committee of Bank Street College of Education 
  • Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry Honor Book
  • Best Children's Books of 2008 — Christian Science Monitor

Carole was kind enough to answer a few questions about her book (below). She'll be appearing on a variety of blogs this month with even more information, too.

Why did you decide to write this book?
I don’t want young people to forget the sacrifices made in America’s freedom struggle. I’ve written a few books with that mission. One is even titled Remember the Bridge. In Birmingham, 1963, I offer an elegy to the four girls who were killed in the church bombing: Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley.

Can you share a bit about your research and writing process?
After writing Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-ins, I wanted to tackle another watershed event in the Civil Rights Movement. I chose the church bombing because, at the time, there was not children’s book devoted to the subject. The death of the four girls turned the tide of public opinion against white supremacists and the systemic racism that they avowed.

I began research using primary sources in the Birmingham Public Library  collection. I read newspaper accounts of the event, viewed news photos, and read responses by President John F. Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. I also referred to secondary sources. An article that interviewed the girls’ families helped me to humanize and personalize the victims.

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.

Why did you use poetry to tell the story?
Most of my books are poetry or are a hybrid genre blending poetry, biography, fiction or nonfiction. For example, I, Matthew Henson, Jesse Owens: Fastest Man Alive, and Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane are poetic biographies. Becoming Billie Holiday is a fictional verse memoir. The Sound that Jazz Makes and a Negro League Scrapbook are poetic informational books. Birmingham, 1963 is an elegy. But it is also a narrative poem, a historical fiction. Poetry allows me to conjure images and distill emotions that make the story powerful.

Why did you create an anonymous narrator?
The historical events are true, but the first-person narrator is fictional. I used a narrator 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.  

Why did you structure the book with an “In Memoriam” section?
The book has two sections: a longer opening poem with a first person narrator is followed by four short “In Memoriam” poems—one about each of the four girls. The tributes read like incantations. I could not have written this book without honoring Cynthia, Denise, Carole and Addie Mae. I felt that it was important to spotlight their individuality. I did so by revealing their pastimes, personalities and passions. I tried to show not only who they were but who they might have become. In May 2013, the four girls were posthumously awarded Congressional Gold Medals.

This fall, Carole is offering FREE Skype visits to schools that read Birmingham, 1963.  Click here for more information. There's also a discussion and activity guide for the book here and more information at the publisher's link here.

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

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

Eyes on the Prize (PBS) – For Teachers 

Library of Congress Teacher's Guide Primary Source Set Jim Crow in America

Photographs of Signs Enforcing Discrimination (Library of Congress) 

Special thanks to Carole for gathering all this information for us-- and for her beautiful, moving book-- and a reminder of the price children often pay for our collective ignorance and stupidity. Look for many more wonderful works by Carole Boston Weatherford at her web site here


Anonymous said...

THANK you for this behind-the-scene look at an important book.

Lee Bennett Hopkins

Charles Waters said...

This was needed, I enjoyed it SO MUCH!!!! Can't wait to look at her other books as well. She's written so many!