One day last month (it happened to be Inauguration Day), my friend Alia Jones posted this on Facebook:
Something interesting happened today. A school visited our store on a field trip & the teacher read a story to her class (4th graders?). She picked Whoosh! from our shelves. In the story, Lonnie takes his robot to a 1968 Science Fair at Univ. of Alabama “where only five years earlier, African American students hadn’t even been allowed.” You can feel the tension in the illustrations…Anyway, this teacher, on the fly, edited the book to “where only five years earlier ALL students hadn’t even been allowed.” I turned my head real quick!! She made a decision not to mention race. As she discussed the book with her students, she said Lonnie overcame a lot, but did NOT mention racism/segregation. She was white and her class was mostly white students. I just thought this was fascinating…
A couple of weeks later (it happened to be Groundhog Day), I followed up with Alia:
I have been thinking about your anecdote about Whoosh! at the bookstore for two weeks now — a sure sign that my brain needs to write something about it. Would you allow me to share your original Facebook post on my blog, and/or would you be willing to have a conversation with me via email that I could publish?
Alia said yes to both. What follows is our ensuing email conversation (lightly edited for clarity).
Chris: Thanks for being willing to give some more time/thought to that strange episode with Whoosh! in your store. My mind is still reeling. And I’ve got questions!
First off, do teachers often bring their students on field trips to the store? And did Whoosh! just seem to be a random selection on the teacher’s part?
Alia: No problem at all!
Field trips aren’t a regular thing at our store but when they happen, classes get a special story time.
The teacher decided to read a book while her students took bathroom breaks. 4th/5th graders maybe? I saw her walk over to our Non-Fiction/History bookshelf. I always display select books on top of the shelf and she picked Whoosh!
I think it was a random selection; she didn’t seem familiar with the story as she read it aloud.
Chris: So she got to the page in Whoosh! where the text alludes to the infamous — and historically well documented — episode in 1963 when Gov. George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door to try to prevent two Black students from entering the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. And this teacher spontaneously reworked the text so that, what — the governor of Alabama had been trying to keep any students from attending the state university?
Alia: Exactly. I don’t think she expected your book to have a “racial element” and when she got to the line:
“where only five years earlier, African American students hadn’t even been allowed,”
she made a quick decision to change it even though it makes no sense. Maybe she wasn’t expecting her impromptu story time to be a lesson on “race issues.” I think she made the story into what she needed it to be, one that didn’t mention racism/discrimination explicitly.
Chris: This makes no sense to me. I mean, none. Am I missing something?
Alia: I don’t think you’re missing anything. At first glance, your book doesn’t “look” like it will be historical; it just looks like a fun story about inventions and a guy with a water gun. She didn’t see it coming…
Chris: Did any of the kids ask about her nonsensical edit?
Alia: No they didn’t. She keep moving on with the story.
Chris: Were you tempted to say anything, or is this the sort of thing they cover in “The Customer Is Always Right” training for booksellers?
Alia: Oh yeah, I considered asking her why she did it as she walked by the counter on her way outside. I didn’t though…and got busy with something else.
After almost three years of bookselling/customer service, as a woman of color, I’ve learned to pick my battles. People often walk up to me and ask “Do you know a lot about the books here?” I’m starting to be more vocal about obvious bias/gatekeepers shutting down diverse books. Respectful…but more honest.
Chris: “Respectful…but more honest.” I like that.
My discussion of race and racism with student audiences has been much more blunt with regard to The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, since race and racism are central to the story that book tells of his life, both before and during Reconstruction. And they’re central to the echoes of that era found in Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement on up through voter-restriction laws enacted in America in the past few years. I talk about all of that when I talk about John Roy Lynch.
Alia: Yeah. In The Amazing Age, racism in the story is more “obvious,” so I doubt this teacher would’ve picked it up to begin with.
The cover of The Amazing Age tells the audience right away that “This is historical and therefore, IT MIGHT INVOLVE RACISM.” What people do with that visual information is their choice. Whoosh!‘s cover is deceptive when it comes race; a contemporary setting with rockets & water guns. It’s always interesting to see how people interact with covers…Will they pick up the book or walk away? If it has a brown person on the cover, it’s more likely they’ll walk away..BUT I’ve noticed that kids are more open-minded than adults.
Chris: In considering how the teacher in your store avoided the issues of race and racism, I see an opportunity to engage with them all the more — honestly, and with respect for my audience — when I share Whoosh! with students. I can pause at the science fair page, and take a moment to talk a little about George Wallace and that particular episode that occurred in Lonnie Johnson’s home state when he was around the same age as the students I’m talking to. [Note to Bartography readers: I did this for the first time last Wednesday, showing a few photographs from that June 1963 day that ended with Vivian Malone and James Hood enrolled as students at the University of Alabama. The second- through fifth-grade students I was presenting to seemed to handle that additional historical context just fine.]
So, I’ve got to thank you, Alia, for bringing that episode in your store to my attention. And I guess I’ve got to thank that teacher, too — her avoidance of any talk of race or racism is going to have the unintended effect of putting it front and center for a lot of other readers.
Alia: Oh good! I’m glad to hear that! Touching on that more will stress just how much Lonnie had to overcome. Kids of color in the audience, especially, might understand how he felt not being welcome in a white space (even after desegregation). I wonder what his experience was like at NASA. Hidden Figures has me thinking about POC [people of color] experiences there! :)
Thanks for having this discussion with me. Rarely do I get to talk about my bookstore experiences in such a thoughtful and detailed way! :)