I used to watch documentaries all the time. It was a pastime of sorts. I would come home from school, and after watching my 4 to 6 Oprah-Tyra block (which I still contest is the best block of television EVER), I would change the channel to PBS or the History Channel, and watch whatever documentary they had on that afternoon. There were a few of them that really stuck with me. With the History Channel, I was obsessed with “World War II in Color”, and with PBS, I was captivated by any and all of their “This American Life” documentaries, specifically anything that had to do with the Civil Rights Movement. Those moments were markers of my childhood, and reading Brown Girl Dreaming and We’ve Got a Job, I was reminded of the stories that sparked my love for history, my obsession with books, and my passion for the arts.
Befriending strangers through literature
As a kid, I don’t think I had ever been touched by emotions very much. My emotions seemed to run in extremes; I was either extremely angry, positively happy, or decidedly indifferent. To me, emotions were something to conquer: if I was stubborn enough, I could bend them to my will and if ever I was moved by something either uplifting or disparaging, it was a sign of weakness. Sure, I’d always loved art, movies, books, video games, and music, but I’d never been moved by them—never let them move me—until I read the Diary of Anne Frank in eighth-grade.
(The first painting I ever made was a recreation of this picture)
We hadn’t read it for class, I remember that. Instead, we’d been reading the play in my English class. At the same time, we had been learning about the Holocaust that year in Social Studies.
They showed us gruesome images of the Holocaust, had played the documentaries and explained to us what life would have been like as a Jewish child back then. I had thought it was all very horrible, all very sad what a person could do to another person. I understood, I told myself, I got it, but still, I hadn’t truly grasped the gravity of their suffering, hadn’t felt a fraction of their pain as my own.
It wasn’t until I’d read Anne’s account for myself, that I really felt what I had thought I had understood.
Reading Anne’s diary, I found myself. I found a best friend. I saw pieces of myself in a girl who had been forced to leave her school, her friends and relatives behind as her family fled from the war outside their door. In two days I read her diary. When I got to her final entry before she was taken by the Nazis, and later arrived at the images of her on the beach with her sister, teasing her family and playing with her friends—when I saw the photographs—I sobbed.
I remember it clearly, laying in my bed, covering the blanket over my head, and wringing the fabric as I chocked down tears. Anne, my best friend, was dead.
It was history come to life for me. It was generalizations, overviews, and political injustices embodied in a girl who I had found kinship with. It was the first time I had truly empathized with the suffering of another person. It was the first time I could sympathize with the frustrations, the sadness and the pain of people in the present. These realizations hit me for the first time in eight grade, and when I watched the PBS Civil Rights documentaries, they came again.
Finding a Connection through History
In my history classes, all of the mentions of slavery and the civil rights had always been very detached. My teachers talked about the political climate of the 1800s, spending days, long, arduous lessons, debating whether or not the Civil War was caused by slavery or states rights.
When it came to the Civil Rights movement, and as AP tests dawned closer, they emphasized bills and court cases: Brown v. Board, Plessy v. Ferguson which led to separate but equal–you know the drill. We memorized their dates, studied how the rulings effected national and local laws, but we didn’t touch the people. We never touched the people, not unless they’re names cried out to us. ROSA PARKS, MARTIN LUTHER KING, J.F.K. Malcom X.
It wasn’t until I went home one day, watched my Oprah-Tyra block, and then caught a PBS Documentary streaming called “We Shall Overcome“, that I saw the people.
(Trailer for the Freedom Riders, another moving documentary about the Civil Rights Movement)
I learned the names of the people who sang the songs, the people who had marched on the streets, had held hands, prayed in the parks, and rode on buses together into the deepest heart of the south. I watched black-and-white images of children, younger than me—my brother’s age even—being hosed down by firefighters, their clothes being torn off their backs as they marched for freedom. I listened to their stories, took in their songs, and I saw the faces behind the bills, the stories that made up the history that had seemed so distant from me.
Brown Girl Dreaming and We’ve Got a Job
I picked up both audiobooks a few months ago, back when I’d first started this new illustration.
(WIP of the drawing I did while listening to Brown Girl Dreaming and We’ve Got a Job.)
I’m writing this now because I’ve finished Brown Girl Dreaming and after it—maybe because of it even—I starting reading We’ve Got a Job. Now, after completing the illustration as well, I finally wanted to post my thoughts on these pieces.
I’m not sure if this is a review, or a personal essay, but after reading these works, I remembered those moments with Anne Frank and those sweaty summer days watching marchers walked hand in hand, singing We SHALL Overcome.
It’s easy in a way, to detach ourselves from history, to remove ourselves from people’s suffering, joy, and pain when we see it as a generalization—a list of facts and dates that happened to some bodies, some time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. But when we see their faces and hear their stories, the past doesn’t seem so far way, their problems not so remote from our own.
In the audiobook, Jacqueline Woodson recounts her childhood through whispered and spoken word, song, and whimsical rhyme. She does it with an intimacy, one that reminded me of my own home in the same way she spoke of hers. I remembered my father and all the stories he told me of his life growing up in Ghana, and I remembered all the documentaries I watched of the Civil Rights Movement, the American history I thought of as mine as much as my Ghanaian one. As I listened to her recount her days in school and her afternoons playing in the streets, I found a sort of peace in her words.
Her story isn’t my story, her songs not my own, but they’re familiar. Her verses speak to something deeper than experiences, they ring of a melody that calls to feeling, and memory, and heart. Woodson’s words move me not because I relate to them, or even because I understand them, but because I can feel them.
The intimate and honest nature of Woodson’s prose, and the heartfelt accounts of children like Audrey Faye Hendricks, Washington Booker, Arnetta Streeter in We’ve Got a Job, allowed me to befriend strangers again, in the same way that at 13, I had found a friend in Anne.
I love knowing that even now, when I’ve reached a point where I’m comfortable with myself and who I surround myself with, I can still find new friends in stories, and they can still inspire and teach me about myself.