Wellesley Students Write Children's Books to Explore Nontraditional Narratives From the Civil Rights Movement

February 22, 2016
A display of children's books written by Wellesley students for "HIST 252 The Modern Black Freedom Struggle"

Students in Professor Brenna Greer’s class HIST 252 The Modern Black Freedom Struggle explore the Civil Rights Movement beyond the traditional narratives of the era. "I wanted students to get away from the idea that "the struggle" only happened in The South," Greer said, and "question the 'classic' periodization of the CRM."

Greer, who is Knafel Assistant Professor of Social Sciences and Assistant Professor of History, studies race, gender, and culture in 20th century United States. For the last two years, the final exam for the course has been to produce a book meant for children under ten. "A common point of introduction to the simplistic civil rights narratives, it seems, based on my students remembrances, is children's books," Greer said. 

Students spend the first five weeks of the class studying people and events commonly associated with the CRM, and the latter half of the semester exploring alternative sites of action and actors and popular narratives to interrogate how and why they obscure certain people, places and activities. Greer said she likes to encourage final projects to take alternative, creative forms that ask students to flex different muscles. The children's book, she said, pushes students to consider the topics under study in a different manner from the other writing they do for the course.

"What I have found most useful about this assignment is, whether or not students produce well-crafted, authored books, the process of attempting to do so requires them to recognize and wrestle with narratives and ideas they did not realize were working on them so completely," Greer said. "The discussions during office hours about this assignment are some of the most rewarding teaching moments I have had."

This month, students from the Spring 2014 and Fall 2015 semesters agreed to share their final works with the College community through a display in the library. Among the books included in the display are works by Leah Abrams '16 and Huiying Chan '16, both of whom were students in the Fall 2015 session.

Abrams' book is about a little girl named Mabel who loves painting and colors, and wants to be an artist. In the story, Mable learns about museums and is eager to visit but learns she can only go on Thursday. Her mother explains segregation to her, relaying that the other six days of the week the museum is open only to white people. This news upsets Mabel, so she decides to create paintings depicting the lives of black people to put on the walls of the museum.

"Initially, I struggled with the prompt of creating a children's book documenting a underrepresented aspect of the 'modern black freedom struggle,'" Abrams said. She drew on lessons from her own childhood. "Because the cultural and creative experience of visiting a museum was a foundational part of my childhood, I began to wonder about the history of museums and segregation."

Through research, Abrams found the specific example of the Brooks Memorial Art Gallery in Memphis, T.N., which, following the 'separate but equal' ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), opened their doors to Black residents only on Thursdays. "Herein lied a space that was physically shared between black and white citizens, yet was still unequally used," Abrams said.

She explained, "I thought the backdrop of a little girl and a museum would be a great way to explore a motivator of the civil rights movement that is not typically discussed, or even documented. From this project, I gained a greater knowledge of the extent of segregation. In my mind, segregation was black and white photos of water fountains and libraries and schools, but the extent of it was much more far spread and deep rooted than I even realized during this class."

Abrams said the class is one of the toughest but also "most illuminating" classes she's taken. "It forced me to confront privilege, take ownership of my actions, and admit to prejudices I did not even realize I had," she said. "This class gave me the tools to start conversations about race that are tough, but necessary. Even more importantly, it taught me how to become an engaged learner, thinker, and listener."

Chan's book, Kim Learns to Read, focuses on the role of children in the Civil Rights Movement and is based on the true story of Kim Holder, who joined the Harlem, N.Y., branch of the Black Panthers when he was just 12 years old. "It tells the stories of the New York Black Panthers, specifically the Harlem Branch, through the lens of the youngest member to ever join," Chan said.

Chan had the opportunity to interview Holder twice during the semester. In her story, Kim is frustrated with the conditions he and his community face in Harlem. She chose to tell his story through his process of learning how to read Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung. "With the help of his friend Billy Tucker, Kim is able to read despite his dyslexia," Chan said, "In the process, his friend Billy is also politicized and together they join the Black Panther Party." Chan said she hopes readers realize the true history of the Black Panthers and that youth always have an active role in movement building.

Regarding the library exhibit, Greer thanked Laura Reiner, research and instruction librarian, and Siena Harlin '18. She also said she wanted to thank the students for their willingness to share their work with the college community. "Essentially, they've put their final exams out on a table for their peers to evaluate," Greer said, "And each of them agreed to their books being handled, despite the risk to what I consider to be pieces of art—they understood that others needed to be able to read, not just see the books."

Greer said she believes that the students' books have lessons and histories to impart that many of their peers do not know. She added, "I hope the display has people consider how they have learned about the black freedom struggle and why it matters."

The book exhibit will be on display in the Margaret Clapp Library for a short time longer.