Note: Since I posted this, a visitor has pasted into comment #1 a good short video about this book that lets you hear Claudette Colvin and see some of the excellent archival photos in the book. You can watch it without leaving this site. Jan
CLAUDETTE COLVIN: Twice Toward Justice. By Phillip Hoose. FSG/Melanie Kroupa, 133 pp., $19.95. 10 and up.
By Janice Harayda
Claudette Colvin brings down from the attic of American history a life that deserves a place on its front porch. The judges for the National Book Awards will announce on Wednesday whether this 2009 finalist is, in their view, the year’s best book of young people’s literature. It is certainly one of the most inspiring.
Beginning in late 1955, tens of thousands of black residents of the Alabama capital refused to ride the city’s buses after the police arrested Rosa Parks for not giving up her seat to a white passenger. The Montgomery bus boycott lasted until the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s ruling in Browder v. Gayle that segregated buses were unconstitutional. The decision strengthened the civil-rights movement and the career of the young pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery who had encouraged the protesters to remain nonviolent, Martin Luther King Jr.
A plaintiff in Browder v. Gale was Claudette Colvin, an intelligent and strong-willed teenager from a family who lived in one of the poorest sections of the city. Nine months before Parks took her historic stand, Colvin was arrested and jailed after she refused to give up her seat to a white woman on a Montgomery bus. At the age of 15, Colvin had studied black history in school and idolized the abolitionist Harriet Tubman. So she did not go gently, as Parks did, when ordered her to yield her seat. As the police dragged her backwards off the bus, she screamed, “It’s my constitutional right!”
But while Parks became famous, Colvin remains little known. Phillip Hoose shows the injustice of that neglect in this fascinating story of her early years – much of it told in her words — that combines oral history and pictorial biography. Colvin’s memories of growing up in segregated Montgomery are at times almost heartbreaking in their understatement. “My mother had always said, ‘If you can even talk to a white person without lowering your eyes you’re really doing something,’” Colvin recalls. And such comments are enriched by well-chosen black-and-white archival photos, including a copy of a Jim Crow–era sign that says: “NO DOGS NEGROS [SIC] MEXICANS.”
Claudette Colvin leaves unanswered many questions about Colvin’s later life, apparently because some events were too painful for her to discuss. But anyone would prefer to have this fine story of her life than none at all.
“The wonderful thing which you have just done makes me feel like a craven coward,” a man in Sacramento wrote to Colvin after hearing that police had arrested for her staying in a bus seat she had paid for. “How encouraging it would be more adults had your courage, self respect and integrity.” Indeed, it would.
Best line: One of many memorable details of life under Jim Crow laws, in Colvin’s words: “We could shop in white stores – they’d take our money all right – but they wouldn’t let us try anything on … When [my sister] and I needed shoes, my mom would trace the shape of our feet on a brown paper bag and we’d carry the outline to the store because we weren’t allowed to try the shoes on.”
Worst line: None.
Furthermore: Claudette Colvin is a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature. the winner will be announced on Nov. 18, and the prize sponsor has posted more on the book on its Web site.
You can also follow janiceharayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, which may have other comments on the National Book Award finalists.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.