I read Toni Morrison’s “Remember: The Journey to School Integration”, a Coretta Scott King Winner book. I have to preface this brief review by stating that Toni Morrison, in my opinion, is one of America’s living treasures. I have read all of her adult books (The Bluest Eye, Sula, Beloved, Song of Solomon), and her simplest phrases are like poetry. She is fiercely supportive of the black American and the struggles endured by her people, and can at times seem angry at white people. This can be difficult, as a white reader, to feel that someone is fed up with you or even disgusted with you for something you didn’t do. This anger, however, is sadly understandable. This book contains photos of unimaginable hatred and ignorance and the pictures are not that old! It is absolutely shocking to see how African Americans were treated in this country in many of our lifetimes.
I have seen the iconic image of the African American and white child regarding each other warily across the aisle in the Virginia school on the first day of integration. I have seen the disturbing images of the ‘white’ and ‘colored’ water fountain. While a bad story, it was one I thought I already knew. Nothing, however, could prepare me for the emotional wallop packed by this book. There is little text, but the photos selected tell the story all too well. The black childrens’ school without desks, books or chalkboards still has pupils with their heads bent over their books, eager to learn. These brave girls who went to school when the whole school didn’t seem to want them, were obviously dressed with love and care, lovely dresses, hair bows, and new shoes that must have meant an incredible sacrifice for their family. Imagining the parents thoughts as they did their best to present their children to a crowd of angry children and adults was almost too much to bear. Ms. Morrison doesn’t even need to say anything for the reader to feel revolted on behalf of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, as she is on her way to school being followed by ignorant, angry and ugly people shouting at her. She seems serene in her neat hair, stylish dress and sunglasses, but what must have been going on in her head and her heart at that time? The photos selected and the captions written by Ms. Morrison from the point of view of the subjects are powerful, poignant and upsetting.
I would recommend that this book be used for display purposes during a week which was themed for Civil Rights, Influential African Americans or Photography. The book needs to be picked up and looked through individually, as some people will react strongly to certain images and want to linger there while others might be more interested in another part of the book. Reading this book is a very private and emotional experience.
Morrison, Toni Remember (2004) New York, Houghton Mifflin.
Part history, part current events, and part imagination, Toni Morrison’s look at school desegregation in the 1950s and the civil rights movement that followed is all about people: those who put themselves on the line to correct unfairness, to challenge accepted values, and to change the way things were, as well as all of us who benefit from those changes today. The photographs and spare text invite us to put ourselves into this era of change and understand how it felt. They challenge us to ask ourselves how it still feels. And they remind us to remember.