Keep Climbing, Girls

KeepClimbingGirlsIn Keep Climbing, Girls, LisaGay Hamilton provides a delightful introduction to her mentor and friend, Beah E. Richards.  Hamilton wrote the informative one-page introduction that appears at the beginning of the book.  But the book itself serves as an introduction to Richards, a significant figure who was brand new to me.  Beah Richards (1920-2000) had a successful stage, film and television acting career that spanned 50 years.  LisaGay Hamilton is a contemporary television, film and theater actor. And with this book, young readers get not one, but two role models.

In her introduction, Hamilton describes her reaction to Richards, whom she met when both worked on the film version of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. (Hamilton played young Sethe; Richards played Baby Suggs.) Hamilton’s words fit my own reaction to Beah Richards:  “I was amazed to learn of her accomplishments as a poet, a teacher, a dancer, and a political activist, and of her lifelong commitment to the African-American community and to all oppressed people.”

LisaGay Hamilton receiving 2010 Peabody Award -photo from Wikipedia

LisaGay Hamilton receiving 2010 Peabody Award -photo from Wikipedia

Keep Climbing Girls is culled from Richards’s only published volume of poetry, A Black Woman Speaks.  The plot is a simple one.  Despite her caregiver Miss Nettie’s warnings, a fearless little girl persists in climbing “…right up to the toppermost bough/ of the very tallest tree.” With its playful, unpredictable rhymes, Miss Nettie’s monologue of threats and proclamations, and the little girl’s unsquelchable determination, the text translates effortlessly into a picture book.

But that’s only half the story.

I have to admit that I’m not always the ideal audience for R. Gregory Christie’s illustrations.  Art that I would describe as more realistic (if less original and risk-taking) tends to appeal to me more often.  (Clearly I’m no professional art critic.) But Christie’s paintings in Keep Climbing Girls really captured my heart.  The paintings are saturated with the intense bright colors that draw young readers to his work. The expressions on Miss Nettie’s face are so expressive; and the little girl’s boundless enthusiasm and “childish glee” so triumphant! The horror of Miss Nettie’s friends is well conveyed by just the posture of their bodies, as the three women worry and wail like tiny dolls, far below the branches.  I love the final illustration when it’s a new day and, despite the chastisement of the night before, the little girl is thoughtfully eyeing another tree.

R. Gregory Christie

Image from R. Gregory Christie’s website at

So let’s make that not two but three role models for kids.  Or perhaps we should include the tree-climbing little girl, as well as R. Gregory Christie, and bring that count up to four.

In the last year of Beah Richards’ life, she and LisaGay Hamilton collaborated on a documentary about Richards, Beah: A Black Woman Speaks.  The film ends with Beah’s words, quoted in the book’s introduction, which could easily be addressed to the child reader:

“The world you want to create needs you.  It needs you to create it.  It needs to hear what you have to say.  The last word has not been spoken.”

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Middle Grade Novels about African American Girls, Part Two

MiddleGradeGirlsNovels2In Part One, I showcased half a dozen middle grade novels about African American girls that I’ve read and enjoyed as an adult.  Here are half a dozen more.  These are also all by African American writers. Suggested Reading Grade Levels are from Scholastic’s online Book Wizard. However, a book’s interest level often includes older or younger grades.

Spending the time that it took to put together this list has been delightful.  As I read a couple of the books for the first time, reread others, and didn’t read much of anything else, I had an experience that I might describe as “total immersion.”  Being a middle grade African American girl began to seem like a normal, typical, mainstream, majority identity—one that I could assume for the main character whenever I picked up a book.  I’ll write more about “total immersion” in a later post.  And maybe there will even be a Part Three.

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia (2010)
Suggested Reading Grade Level: 4.6

One Crazy SummerDelphine, age 11, and her younger sisters Vonetta and Fern are sent to spend the summer of 1968 in Oakland, California with the mother they One Crazy Summer paperbackhaven’t seen since Fern was an infant and Delphine was four years old. They are not prepared for the  person they find, who calls herself Nzilla, prints radical poetry on a hand set letter press in her kitchen, doesn’t cook them meals, and sends them to a summer camp run by the Black Panthers. Written in Delphine’s voice with plenty of humor, this Coretta Scott King award winning book and its two sequels explore and expand the meaning of family.

Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper (2015)
Suggested Reading Grade Level: 4.8

22546133In 1932, Stella Mills is 11 years old, and growing up in the (fictional) town of Bumblebee, North Carolina. Stella by Starlight (which borrows the title of the jazz standard sung by Ella Fitzgerald) opens as Stella and her brother witness a gathering of white robed and hooded figures burning a cross. Fortunately, Stella is grounded in a loving family and a strong, supportive community, and Stella by Starlight comes across primarily as a family story, cheerful, optimistic, and affirming, the kind of middle grade novel I sought when I was Stella’s age. Read my full review in an earlier post. Sharon Draper is the author of the Sassy series (also middle grade) and of highly acclaimed young adult novels.

Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson (2009)
Suggested Reading Grade Level: 5.3

FeathersEleven year old Frannie and her sixth grade classmates aren’t sure how to respond to a white boy who is a new student at their all black school. Because of his looks, he acquires the nickname Jesus Boy, but some kids begin to wonder if there’s more to that than a nickname.  Though it is set in the 1970s, this beautifully written, deeply thoughtful novel has a timeless quality, as it shares insights about Frannie’s older brother Sean, who is deaf, about their family’s fears and loss, and about faith, belief, and hope. Listen to a passage on the video.

Woodson has written many books about African American girls, including a trilogy that begins with Last Summer with Maizon, and she has also won many awards.

The Mighty Miss Malone by Paul Christopher Curtis (2012)
Suggested Reading Grade Level: 4.6

MightyMissMaloneDeza Malone, who made a cameo appearance in Curtis’s Newbery Award winning Bud, Not Buddy, is now the star of her own novel, also set in the 1930s.  The four Malones seem like a typical African American family in the urban north, not wealthy but intact and happy.  Deza, who is twelve, is concerned with things like continuing to get excellent grades in school, having a best friend, and trying to cover for her brother’s misbehavior. As the depression tightens its hold, the family loses its hold.  They are separated, and Deza must face hard times and homelessness, and draw on every scrap of character she has.

Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes (2010)
Suggested Reading Grade Level: 3,3

Ninth WardBecause her mama died in childbirth, Lanesha is being raised by Mama Ya-Ya, the midwife who delivered her, in the Ninth Ward neighborhood of New Orleans. Mama Ya-Ya is a spirit worker with second sight, and Lanesha also has supernatural gifts.  The story takes place in the few days before, during and after historic Hurricane Katrina of 2005. Jewell Parker Rhodes’s story covers the gamut of Katrina experiences, from the superbowl to the levees. Twelve year old Lanesha is a resourceful, brave, and determined survivor, and we’re with her all the way from careful preparation to desperation, from tragic times to triumphant. Other middle grade novels about African American girls by this award winning author are Sugar and Bayou Magic.

An Angel for Mariqua by Zetta Elliot (2014)
Suggested for Readers Age 8+

Angel for MariquaEven though she starts fights, gets suspended, and is constantly in trouble at school, we find ourselves caring about 8 year old Mariqua.  Mariqua’s mother has gone to jail, and she has only seen her daddy a handful of times in her life, so she’s come to live with her grandmother.  It’s a few weeks before Christmas, but Gramma isn’t even planning to get a Christmas tree.   When Mariqua makes a new teenage friend, Valina, who nicknames the younger girl “Scrappy” and treats her like a little sister, Mariqua’s life begins to turn in a new direction. Could this be the magic of the wooden angel that she received from a stranger as an early Christmas gift? Most of Zetta Elliot’s books are published by an independent press, Rosetta Press.  They may not be available in all libraries, but are well worth the purchase price.   Her first picture book, Bird, was an honor winner of the Lee and Low New Voices Award.

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Something I Believe In

NorthamptonFlierThe year was 1983.    I was in Montpelier, Vermont, in one of the two week residencies of the MFA program at Vermont College. My first book had just been published, and I had been invited to do a reading at a women’s bookstore in Northampton, MA, on my way home to Philadelphia.  A few days before the residency ended, I received a call from the bookstore.  “We still want you to come and read,” they told me, “but we thought you should know….”

What they thought I should know was that, ever since they’d announced my reading and hung up fliers with my name on them all over town, the bookstore had been receiving bomb threats.  It seemed a white supremacist, homophobic, neo-nazi type group had reemerged in the area, and was making the threats.  If I didn’t want to appear, they would understand.

I was reminded of that episode in my life this past Independence Day, when I was invited to20150704_143351 participate in a reenactment of the first gay rights demonstration, 50 years later.  While I contemplated my 1965 outfit, the radio repeatedly warned of increased terror alerts for the Fourth of July, and my partner started wondering if it would be safe for me to take part in the event.

I was not actually out in 1965, when Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings were leading the first steps toward civil rights for lesbians and gay men. I was a teenage summer workcamper at Fellowship House Farm, learning how to bake bread, chop wood, live in community, and practice nonviolence training for an activist future that wasn’t expected to be safe.

Fast forward to 9/11/2001, when attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York left so many Americans shocked and outraged.  Fast forward again to 2012, and Trayvon Martin’s death, to 2013 and the Westgate Mall in Kenya, to 2014, and the shootings of Mike Brown in Ferguson, and 12 year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland.  Fast forward to 2015 and … am I Charlie?  I would not draw insulting cartoons of religious figures from other faiths, but I’m sure there are people who think that what I do publish is just as offensive. Fast forward one more time to Charleston, SC and the Emanuel AME Church where 9 people lost their lives.

Wait!  Can all these events really be lumped together?  Yes.  I’m doing so because of the shared reality in all of them:  People being killed simply for being who they were.  Why did I begin with 9/11?  Affluent and middle class white Americans (along with others) were killed simply for being Americans. For many, that was a rude awakening, a day that forever changed their sense of safety in their daily lives.

But for other Americans, including many African Americans, gay and lesbian and transgender Americans, Native Americans, Muslim Americans, Jewish Americans, Latino/a Americans, Asian Americans, and first generation immigrants, that sense of safety has always been fragile, tenuous, or non-existent.  If you’re a young black male, you can’t assume your life will be safe.  And if you’re female—you add another whole level of vigilance to your lack of safety in the world.

Nancy Kehoe-Troilo (L) & partner Becky Birtha at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, PA

Becky Birtha & partner Nancy Kehoe (L)  at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, PA, July 4, 2015. Photo Credit: LesBeRealMedia

Nothing dangerous happened during the 2015 July 4th reenactment.  As it turned out, I didn’t get to participate because my name had been added too late to the list to be approved by the tight security.  I did get to watch, from a front row seat. But let’s rewind back to that other threat of danger in 1983.  After I tell the story about the bomb threats, listeners always want to know what choice I made.  Did I go to the bookstore?  Of course, I did. Fortunately, the police got involved and the suspect was apprehended before I arrived in town.  But I didn’t know that when I made my decision to go. I was willing to take my chances. “After all,” I’d finish the story, “it isn’t every day that I get the opportunity to risk my life for something I believe in.”NorthamptonNewsCropped


In that case, the “something I believe in” was books. And women’s bookstores.  It was freedom of speech, and equal rights.  But it was also my inalienable right to be who I am.  “It isn’t every day…,” I joked.  But that’s no longer accurate, maybe never was.  As it turns out, for many of us, it can be any day.  Every day. And that’s not a laughing matter.

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To Make More Space for Diversity


Several years ago I was invited to give a presentation at a high school, and I read the short story “Johnnieruth,” from my second collection, Lovers’ Choice.  (“Johnnieruth” was republished in the currently available YA anthology, From Where We Sit, edited by Victoria Brownworth.) Johnnieruth is a young African American teenager who feels like she doesn’t fit in with either the boys or the girls.  She does odd jobs and saves to buy a ten speed bike, so she can ride out of her inner city neighborhood and search for somewhere different where she might fit in.

During the question and answer session that followed the reading, one brave young student raised a hand and asked the question everyone else was avoiding: “Is Johnnieruth gay?”

I began this blog with a post that attempted to articulate my literary mission: seeking to make more space for diversity.  I’ve watched space being made in the past two weeks, through the tragedy of lives lost at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and through the elation of the Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay marriage. I watched the confederate battle flag come down in South Carolina, and the rainbow flag go up all over the internet.  I know this mission is not just a literary one.

On the day of the Supreme Court ruling, one of our fourteen young adult nieces, Eliana, called to offer congratulations.  She was also celebrating.  She has recently come out as asexual, and recognized the decision as a victory for the entire queer community. I’ve had to admit that I didn’t know much about asexuality, and have begun working to educate myself. I hope I can be an effective ally.  I hope I will continue to be open to adding whatever letters are necessary to the end of LGBT….

Is Johnnieruth gay?  At the time of the presentation, several years had already passed since the story was first published in 1987.  Still, I surprised myself with the answer I gave to the question.  Suddenly, “gay” seemed only a small piece of a much bigger picture.  Yes, Johnnieruth could be gay.  “But today,” I told the students, “I think there are many possibilities of who Johnnieruth, and any of you, might be.”

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In Honor of Fathers….


Excerpted from “Isaiah”

by Becky Birtha

                                My dad will read me any book
                                 I want to listen to:
                                dinosaurs and magic spells
                                and why the sky is blue,

                                      pirates, superheroes,
                                      football players, kings,
                                      silly monkeys wearing hats
                                      and the land of the wild things,

                                civil rights and freedom fights,
                                criminals and cops
                                until lights out—that’s nine o’clock—
                                and that’s when Daddy stops.

                                      He says it’s so I’ll get some sleep
                                      but that’s not really true.
                                      He just wants time so he can read
                                      his grownup stories, too.

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Middle Grade Novels about African American Girls, Part One

MiddleGradeGirlsNovels1At a picnic with my Quaker meeting, I was telling a friend about a blog post I had written, and commented that there are very few books written for kids in which African American girl main characters get to have magical adventures.  Her response was that there aren’t many books with African American girl main characters, period. My friend has a daughter who is entering sixth grade in the fall.  Neither my friend nor her daughter is African American. And that may be all the more reason that her daughter needs these books. A few years from now, when he’s a middle-grader, there’s no reason her son shouldn’t read them, too.

That conversation, and an article titled “Two Rules for My Daughter’s Library” by Mia Birdsong, which I read on the On Being site, inspired me to put together a summer reading list. This was actually a little harder than I thought it would be. It is not a comprehensive list.  The selections are books I enjoyed reading myself (as an adult– none of them were around when I was a girl). I also decided to limit this particular list by only including authors who are African American themselves. Middle grade (not middle school) usually refers to ages 9 to 12. Part One contains some oldies but goodies, still available in libraries and through online booksellers. Look for Part Two in an upcoming post.

SOLO GIRL by Andrea Pinkney, illustrated by Nneka Bennett (1997)
Suggested Reading Grade Level: 2 & 3

Solo GirlSolo Girl is a great beginning for kids just starting to read books with chapters.  It’s skinny and illustrated.  Cass, who will enter 3rd grade in the fall, is a whiz at math and a klutz at jumping rope.  In the new neighborhood she’s moved to with her brothers and foster mom, jumping double Dutch is the main activity of the girls her age.  The ropes are always turning, but there doesn’t seem to be a way for Cass to jump in. Maybe the poetry her brothers write and her lucky silver whistle can help.  Pinkney is a much awarded author, whose books include picture books, nonfiction and other middle grade novels.

A SIDEWALK STORY by Sharon Bell Matthis, illustrated by Leo Carty (1986)
Suggested Reading Grade Level: 3rd to 5th grade.

Sidewalk StoryIn A Sidewalk Story, another illustrated book, nine year old Lily Etta and Tanya are best friends.  Tanya’s mother, who is a single mom with seven children, has fallen behind in her rent, and is now about to be evicted.  Lilly Etta is determined to help her friend, and tries to think of a way to stop the inevitable.  But Tanya’s family’s furniture is about to be moved out onto the street, and the forecast calls for rain.  The highlights here are the girls’ friendship, and the message that a child can take action and make a change.  Matthis’s middle grade novel about a boy, The Hundred Penny Box, earned a Newberry honor.

A PIECE OF HEAVEN by Sharon Dennis Wyeth (2001)
Suggested Reading Grade Level: 5.5

Piece of HeavenHaley, just turning 13, lives in a city apartment with her mother and older brother.  Her family situation quickly goes from stable and functioning, to falling apart, as her mother is hospitalized for depression and her older brother gets involved in illegal activity. Despite all the chaos in her life, Haley finds an area in which she can make order and beauty.  I liked this book for the way it clearly portrayed how a child living an everyday life, through circumstances beyond her control, could end up in foster care.  A Piece of Heaven offers an explanation for children who have not had experiences like Haley’s, and affirmation for those who have. Sharon Dennis Wyeth has written picture books and other middle grade novels.

ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY by Mildred Taylor (1976)
Suggested Reading Grade Level: 6.9

Roll of ThunderAlthough Mildred Taylor really intended her stories to be for all ages, they are perfect for middle graders. This book is the centerpiece of a series that Taylor continued both forward and backward in time. Cassie Logan is growing up with her three brothers in the deep south of the 1930s.  Her family owns land and manages despite the depression, but still must deal with everyday racism and  some frightening episodes.  Cassie is a fun, feisty fourth grader who is not afraid to face up to trouble. Roll of Thunder was the Newberry Award winner for 1977.  It has been in print for close to 40 years, and there have been over 50 editions, including several translations.

HOME IS WITH OUR FAMILY by Joyce Hansen, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (2010)
Suggested Reading Grade Level: 5 to 8

Home is With Our FamilyHome Is with Our Family is set in 1855 in a place that I did not know the existence of– Seneca Village– an African American community in the location now occupied by New York City’s Central Park. Maria Peters is a 12 year old daughter in a large free black family that lives there. Hansen provides rich historical detail and a story-line that picks up in speed and adventure as Maria’s home is threatened by the plans to build Central Park, as she begins to take interest in abolitionist activities, and with the arrival of a new student at her school with a past very different from those of the other girls. Hansen is the author of other books, including I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl…. in the Dear America series.

ZORA AND ME by Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon (2010)
Suggested Reading Grade Level: 5.6

zora and meThe authors of this novel really did their homework, and managed to write a fictional story about the childhood of author Zora Neale Hurston and her best friend Carrie Roberts, growing up in the all black town of Eatonton Florida, at the turn of the 20th century.  Although thoroughly researched and based on the autobiography and biographies of the Harlem Renaissance author, zora paperbackit works beautifully as a novel, told from 10 year old Carrie’s point of view about her adventurous, curious, and creative friend Zora. I loved the portrait of a young African American girl on the cover, but noticed that it was replaced on the paperback edition by a picture that gives no indication of the race of the characters. Debut authors Bond and Simon received the 2011 John Steptoe New Talent Award for Zora and Me.  I discussed it in more detail in my Goodreads review.

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Dear Mr. Rosenwald Reviewed

Dear Mr Rosenwald

To learn about something you know nothing about, search for a children’s book. It’s the best place to get a clear, concise, accessible explanation of just about anything. And the book doesn’t even have to be nonfiction.

I wasn’t searching, but I got quite an education from Carole Boston Weatherford’s Dear Mr. Rosenwald. In 14 short, unrhymed poems, young Ovella tells the story of how a Rosenwald school is built in her rural southern community between 1920 and 1921.

In the one room church that houses the eight grades of her school, the roof leaks, the floor creaks, and the wind whistles through the walls. School is interrupted for weeks at cotton harvesting time. (As sharecroppers, her family is never able to make a profit.) One day a professor from the local normal school speaks at Ovella’s church. He describes how Julius Rosenwald (the son of German Jewish immigrants who became president of Sears, Roebuck) was inspired by Booker T. Washington to contribute money to build schools for black children. There is an opportunity to build a new school for Ovella and her classmates.

Uncle Bo won a hand carved dancing doll at the box party. Image from

Uncle Bo won a hand carved dancing doll at the box party. Image from

Stipulations of Rosenwald’s philanthropy were that the community must raise matching money, the local white community also contribute, and the state maintain the school. Weatherford provides a wide slice of rural life as Ovella’s community begins to pull together to raise money for a real school. The ushers pass the plate on Sunday mornings. A black farmer agrees that neighbors can work a plot of cotton on his land, to be sold for the new school. At box party fundraisers, neighbors bid on closed boxes, winning prizes like a hand carved dancing doll, or Ovella’s Mama’s apple pies.

As the story approaches its triumphant end, blueprints arrive, used desks and books are donated from the white school, a playground is added and, finally, the roof and walls are raised. Ovella’s consistent, childlike, optimistic voice carries us throughout, to the speech she makes at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, and her final letter of thanks to Mr. Rosenwald.

R. Gregory Christie’s vibrant palette and unmistakable figures bring Ovella’s community to life, with broad swaths of bright background color, and a range of skin tones for the characters.

From the Author’s Note, I learned that more than five thousand schools were built with the help of the Rosenwald fund. According to internet sources, by Julius Rosenwald’s death in 1932, Rosenwald elementary and high schools enrolled about one-third of all black students in the South. I’ve just begun researching the history of one branch of my family, but it seems very likely that some of my forbears studied and taught in Rosenwald schools in the Carolinas.

Postcard of a Rosenwald School, from correspondence in my family's files

Postcard of a Rosenwald assisted school, from correspondence in my family’s files

Description on back of postcard describes Mr. Rosenwald's gift.  Click to enlarge.

Description on back of postcard describes Mr. Rosenwald’s gift. Click to enlarge.

I’m grateful to know of this collaboration between Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington, a Jewish man and a black man, coming together to bridge the educational gap between reconstruction and the Civil rights era for southern African American students. And I’m grateful to Carole Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie for bringing their story to light, in a format so accessible to young readers.

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Stella by Starlight Reviewed

22546133In 1932, Stella Mills is 11 years old, and growing up in the (fictional) town of Bumblebee, North Carolina—on the Negro side of town.Stella by Starlight cuts immediately to the heart of the small town southern black experience, with Stella and her brother witnessing a gathering of white robed and hooded figures burning a cross—on the first page! The novel continues to believably reflect its historical context. There is tension between the white and black communities, great disparity in their schools, continued threats and frightening actions from the Ku Klux Klan, and painful incidents of disrespect and discrimination toward members of Stella’s community.

But somehow Sharon Draper and her sparkling character, Stella, transcend all of these challenges. Stella is grounded in a loving family and a strong, supportive community, and Stella by Starlight comes across primarily as a family story, cheerful, optimistic, and affirming, the kind of middle grade novel I sought when I was Stella’s age. History lessons take a back seat as Stella goes about the more important pursuit of simply being herself.

Stella reads the articles on the newsprint that papers the walls of her home, struggles to become a better writer, and secretly slips outside at night to write her private thoughts. She hears stories from the teacher at her one room school, from her father, whose dream is to register to vote, and from the traveling peddler whose visit engenders a community celebration and potluck feast. Stella has moments of heroism, balanced by typical childhood frustrations and disappointments. Draper manages to weave in rich cultural details throughout.

I found Stella by Starlight wholly satisfying, and found it meeting a need I didn’t realize I still had. Some protagonists are too perfect, and some too flawed. Some leave me feeling awed, or envious, or excluded. I just really like Stella, and I’m sure we would have been friends.

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May Tree


“But it hasn’t got a may-tree,
+++++++++A may-tree
+++++++++A may-tree
+++It isn’t like a house at all.”

These lines come into my head in this month of the year, from the poem, “The Wrong House” by A.A. Milne.  The book containing it, When We Were Very Young, was given to me by my aunt for my fifth birthday.  At the time, and for many years afterward, I didn’t know what a may tree was.  I was delighted when a tree pruner identified the trees in our yard, and she casually mentioned that the hawthorn was also known as a may tree.

For weeks, the air has been full of the scent of may blossoms, and now we’ve moved on to a later verse of the poem:

+++“Slow white petals from the may-tree fall….”

Our may tree “hasn’t got a blackbird,” at least not yet, but we do listen to the birds (and fledglings) that we have—robins and wrens, cardinals and catbirds, finches and doves.


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We the People….

20150519_180500A book I’ve been returning to a lot in the past few weeks is an unpublished autobiography written by my mother about her early life.  Its four hundred plus pages cover the years roughly between 1920 and 1936, and are full of unexpected insights and illuminating moments of history.

Another book that crossed my path recently was a copy—actually several copies—of  a little booklet containing the U.S. Constitution.  Published by the ACLU, they turned up as we were weeding the library shelves at my mother’s house.   She kept one, and passed the others on to me.  I put them aside, to be given to Books Through Bars. Like my mother, I kept a copy for myself, and for a while it sat on the table in my bedroom.

From time to time, I thumbed through it. (I’ve never been much good at identifying the various amendments, or even the constitutional rights.)  I thought maybe I’d study it a little and learn something.  A friend whose age is nearing mine told me that, to keep her memory sharp, she sets herself the task of memorizing things—poems and other short pieces.  I decided to memorize the preamble to the constitution.

In spare moments I read it aloud and recited bits and pieces.  I could remember most of the phrases, but not in the right order.  I thought of the alphabet song.  That was the solution: I’d set the preamble to music.  I made up a tune to go with the words.  Then I couldn’t remember the tune.  But I kept working at it and gradually a better tune took shape, one that mirrored the words a bit, and stayed in my mind.

I am not really a patriotic person, so at the same time that I was learning it, I was also asking myself: the Preamble to the Constitution?  Why this?

I just got my answer—from my mother’s book.  This little self made challenge was a link to my history, a reminder that most of the rights I take for granted were not easily won. Around 1936, my mother wrote, her high school principal decided to test voting rights in the city of Norfolk, VA.  He sent three very professional, highly articulate teachers to register to vote.  One was light enough to pass for white.  The other two were not.

They reported back that the teacher who looked white was just given a pen and a form to fill out.  The other two were asked to recite the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States.  Could they do it?  They were southern African American teachers!  I’m sure they could.  And now, so can I.


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