The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963

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The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963
The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 book cover.jpg
AuthorChristopher Paul Curtis
CountryUnited States
GenreRealistic fiction, Juvenile fiction
Publication date
1995/1997/2000
ISBN978-0385382946
OCLC32133739
LC ClassPZ7.C94137 Wat 1995

The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 is a historical-fiction novel by Christopher Paul Curtis. First published in 1995 by Delacorte Press, it was reprinted in 1997. It tells the story of the Watsons, a lower middle class African-American family living in Flint, Michigan in the early 1960s from the perspective of Kenny Watson, the middle child of three. The first part of the novel focuses on Kenny's struggles to make friends as a smart and thoughtful ten-year-old, then shifts in setting when his parents decide to deliver their oldest son, Byron, to live with his grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama. The family embarks on a road trip to the deep south, and while visiting in Alabama, they get caught up in a tragic historical event of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 communicates the realities of racial injustice to both adult and youth audiences. It has received many prestigious awards and honors for its themes of familial love and historical racism. The book was also adapted into a film for Hallmark Channel in 2013.

Background[edit]

The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 was Christopher Paul Curtis' first novel.[1] He originally planned for the Watson family to travel to Florida rather than Birmingham.[1] In an interview, Curtis stated that his son read him Dudley Randall's "The Ballad of Birmingham" while he was working on the book, and the poem inspired him to change the setting of his novel to focus on a pivotal moment of civil rights history instead.[2]

While the Watson family is fictional, characters and events in the novel are based on Curtis' childhood in Flint.[3] Like the narrator of the story, Curtis was also ten years old in 1963, and he remembers his parents’ involvement in civil rights demonstrations during that time.[2]

Plot[edit]

The novel is a first-person account narrated by Kenneth Watson, who lives in Flint, Michigan with his parents, Daniel and Wilona Watson; his older brother, Byron; and younger sister, Joetta. Kenny is a bright and shy fourth grader at Clark Elementary School who is bullied for his intelligence and his lazy eye. He struggles to make friends until Rufus Fry moves to town from Arkansas. Rufus is also bullied by the other students for his "country" clothes and accent, which initially makes Kenny reluctant to befriend him, but they are soon inseparable. The boys are both bullied and protected by Kenny's 13-year-old brother Byron and Byron's friend Buphead. Byron has been retained twice because he often skips school and is, therefore, still in sixth grade. He invents a series of "fantastic adventures" that constantly get him into trouble, such as playing with matches in the house and setting things on fire, abusing his parents' credit at the grocery store to buy himself treats, and getting a conk hairstyle against his parents' orders.

Daniel and Wilona eventually become so frustrated with Byron's behavior issues that they decide to deliver him to Birmingham, Alabama to live with Wilona's mother, Grandma Gloria Sands, for at least the summer and possibly an entire year. As soon as the school year concludes, the Watsons ready their car ("the Brown Bomber") and embark on a road trip from Flint to Birmingham to deliver Byron and visit grandma. Kenny, who had been looking forward to the "battle royal" between his grandmother and Byron, is disappointed when just a few sharp words from Grandma Sands have Byron speaking respectfully and generally behaving himself, and he soon resolves to seek out his own "adventures."

Grandma Sands warns the children to avoid a local swimming hole because of a dangerous whirlpool, which Kenny mishears as "Wool Pooh" due to her thick Alabama accent. Kenny wants to swim there anyway and is frustrated when Byron and Joetta refuse to go along. Ignoring the warnings of both Grandma Sands and Byron, Kenny wades too deeply into the seemingly tranquil water and is caught by the whirlpool, which almost pulls him down before Byron jumps in to save him from drowning. Remembering his grandmother's words, Kenny imagines that the Wool Pooh is a strange monster ("Winnie the Pooh's evil twin") that grabbed his ankle and tried to pull him down. Byron insists that there was nothing else in the water, but Kenny remains convinced the Wool Pooh exists.

Shortly afterwards, a bomb explodes at a nearby church where Joetta is attending Sunday school. Kenny wanders into the smoldering church building in the immediate aftermath of the explosion to look for his sister and is convinced that he sees the Wool Pooh lurking in the smoke clinging to Joetta's torn shoe. He takes the shoe and walks back to Grandma Sands' house in shock before anyone notices him at the church. Kenny is confused to find Joetta already at the house and assumes that she must be an angel. Joetta is disturbed by her brother's behavior and claims that she'd followed him home from Sunday school after he'd called to her from outside. Kenny soon realizes that his sister is fine and has no idea that a bomb went off in the church minutes after she'd left.

The Watsons start driving back to Flint that afternoon, with the parents reluctant to explain what happened to Joetta. Kenny is unable to process the events in Birmingham and avoids his family and friends over the ensuing weeks, instead spending many hours hiding behind the sofa. Byron eventually coaxes him out and gets Kenny to talk about what happened, which finally brings a flood of tears from Kenny. Encouraging his younger brother to "keep on stepping," Byron explains that although the world is not perfect, he has to keep moving on.

Genre[edit]

Professor Rachelle Kuehl posits that The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 expands beyond the typical historical fiction genre by contextualizing the events of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and providing readers the opportunity to learn about social injustice.[4]

Analysis[edit]

Setting[edit]

The events of the book occur from approximately January to October 1963, a turbulent time during the Civil Rights Movement.[5] The climax of the story centers around the historic 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham in 1963, soon after the civil rights protests had resulted in successful negotiations with white city leaders for integration.[5] Ku Klux Klan members bombed the church on September 15, 1963, killing four girls and injuring many more.[6] In the novel, the incident occurs a bit earlier than the historical date to allow the Watson family to be on summer vacation in Birmingham when it takes place.

Racial Injustice[edit]

Professor Jonda C. McNair asserts that humor serves as an important literary device in The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 to expose the racism experienced by African Americans in the 1960s.[7] More specifically, she finds that the novel uses four categories of race-related humor to reveal racial oppression in a subtle manner: exaggeration, sarcasm, the anticipation of racism, and mocking white people.[8] For example, Daniel jokes about how the Watson family cannot just stop at any establishment during its road trip to Birmingham; these comments, though communicated in a humorous manner, point to the discrimination faced by African Americans in the South.[8]

Professor Jani L. Barker argues that the narrative techniques in The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, specifically the first-person narration from Kenny, allow the novel to truthfully communicate the harsh realities of race-based violence without traumatizing its young, vulnerable audience.[9] Since Kenny offers the innocent perspective of a child, younger readers can identify with Kenny and learn about racism from a protective distance that still offers them hope for the future.[9]

Professor Barker also points to the story arc of the novel as an essential element in indirectly combatting racist mindsets.[10] The early chapters of the story depict the everyday life of the Watson family and, thus, allow readers — both Black and non-Black — to recognize the Watson family’s humanity and identify with the protagonists.[10] Race slowly becomes more central as the story progresses until it reaches the climax of race-based violence with the church bombing.[10] This progression fosters a sense of resilience in Black readers as well as empathy for the struggles of Black Americans in non-Black readers.[10]

Gender and Sexuality[edit]

Professor Amina Chaudhri states that The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 fails to question the sexism and heterosexual norms that pervade American society.[11] She argues that Daniel's and Byron's performances of black masculinity throughout the novel resemble hegemonic masculinity.[11] For example, Byron's recurrent disobedience, such as straightening his hair against his parents' orders, represents an attempt to assert his superiority and power over others.[11]  

Reception[edit]

The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 was generally well received after its publication.[12][13] In The New York Times, Jabari Asim described the novel as “lyrical, engrossing and of sufficient emotive power to sustain the attention of adult readers as well.”[12] In The Guardian, Lindsey Fraser praised the book for tackling “‘big issues’ but [relating] them to a value system, if not an environment, which is readily accessible.”[13]

The book has also been named to the American Library Association’s list of Best Books for Young Adults.[2] It has received over 25 awards and honors, including the Newbery Honor and the Coretta Scott King Honor.[2][14][15]

Adaptations[edit]

A television film based on the book, produced by Walden Media, premiered on the Hallmark Channel in 2013.[16] It was directed by Kenny Leon and starred Anika Noni Rose, Wood Harris, Latanya Richardson, Skai Jackson, and David Alan Grier.[17] The movie condensed events and characters in Flint from the first half of the novel and added new scenes of Kenny and Byron helping local youths organize civil rights events in Birmingham.[citation needed] Walden Media also collaborated with the Southern Poverty Law Center to develop educational materials that would help teachers in Alabama teach their students about the Civil Rights Movement through the film.[16]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Kelati, Haben (Nov 30, 2020). "How a simple story about a road trip became a kids' classic". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 7, 2022.
  2. ^ a b c d Curtis, Christopher Paul; Morgan, Peter E. (2002). "History for Our Children: An Interview with Christopher Paul Curtis, a Contemporary Voice in African American Young Adult Fiction". MELUS. 27 (2): 197–215. doi:10.2307/3250608. JSTOR 3250608.
  3. ^ "Curtis, Christopher Paul 5/10/1953-." Encyclopedia of African-American Writing. Ed. Shari Dorantes Hatch. Amenia, NY, USA: Grey House Publishing, 3rd edition. 2018.
  4. ^ Kuehl, Rachelle (2021-07-29). "Through Lines: Exploring Past/Present Connections in Middle Grade Novels". The Reading Teacher. 75 (4): 441–451. doi:10.1002/trtr.2041. ISSN 0034-0561. S2CID 237650427.
  5. ^ a b "Chronology of black civil rights in the United States, 1954–90." The Longman Companion to Slavery, Emancipation and Civil Rights, Harry Harmer, Routledge, 1st edition, 2001.
  6. ^ Hohenstein, Kurt (2005). "Civil Rights Movement." Encyclopedia of African American Society, edited by Gerald D. Jaynes, Sage Publications, 1st edition.
  7. ^ McNair, Jonda C. (2010). "Classic African American Children's Literature". The Reading Teacher. 64 (2): 96–105. doi:10.1598/rt.64.2.2. ISSN 0034-0561.
  8. ^ a b McNair, Jonda C. (2008). ""I May Be Crackin', But Um Fackin'": Racial Humor in The Watsons Go To Birmingham—1963". Children's Literature in Education. 39 (3): 201–212. doi:10.1007/s10583-007-9049-1. ISSN 0045-6713. S2CID 145480461.
  9. ^ a b Barker, Jani L. (2013). "Naive Narrators and Double Narratives of Racially Motivated Violence in the Historical Fiction of Christopher Paul Curtis". Children's Literature. 41 (1): 172–203. doi:10.1353/chl.2013.0002. ISSN 1543-3374.
  10. ^ a b c d Barker, Jani L. (2010). "Racial Identification and Audience in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and the Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963". Children's Literature in Education. 41 (2): 118–145. doi:10.1007/s10583-010-9101-4. ISSN 0045-6713. S2CID 143511984.
  11. ^ a b c Chaudhri, Amina (2011). ""Straighten Up and Fly Right": HeteroMasculinity in The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963". Children's Literature Association Quarterly. 36 (2): 147–163. doi:10.1353/chq.2011.0019. ISSN 1553-1201.
  12. ^ a b Asim, Jabari (Dec 2, 2001). "The Washington Post Book Club: The Watsons Go To Birmingham–1963. Christopher Paul Curtis. A Reader's Guide, Presented by Jabari Asim". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 7, 2022.
  13. ^ a b Fraser, Lindsey (Dec 16, 1997). "Education: Children's Book of the Week". The Guardian. p. 4.
  14. ^ "The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 | Awards & Grants". American Library Association. Retrieved May 7, 2022.
  15. ^ "The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 | Awards & Grants". American Library Association. Retrieved May 7, 2022.
  16. ^ a b "'The Watsons Go to Birmingham' Wraps Filming in Atlanta". Atlanta Daily World. May 11, 2013. Retrieved May 7, 2022.
  17. ^ Stuever, Hank (September 19, 2013). "'The Watsons Go to Birmingham': Hallmark's warm but bumpy road trip to history". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 7, 2022.

External links[edit]