Until relatively recently, I had never encountered poetry that told uncomfortable stories from real life, stories that captured painful events from history. Then I started reviewing poetry books and I came across a few such titles, books in which the raw truth from the past is shared and explored. Today's poetry title is an example of this kind of book, and the poems it contains are powerful and honest.
We troubled the waters
Illustrated by Rod Brown
Poetry Picture Book
For ages 8 to 10
HarperCollins, 2009, 978-0-06-133735-2
The history of the African American people is peppered with stories of struggle, loss, landmark moments and people of great courage. We know some of these stories well and think about them as the year rolls around, remembering how Rosa Parks took a stand on a bus, and how Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech on a hot summer’s day in Washington D.C. However, there are many stories that we do not know, and in this book big stories and small ones are told to help us get a truthful picture of what it was like to be an African American in the days when people of color were discriminated against.
The first story we encounter is about the schools Booker T. Washington founded, schools that gave black children the tools, it was hoped, that would allow them to succeed in the world. Not many years before, the children who attended the schools would have been horribly punished for trying to get an education, but now the door to the world of books, words and numbers was open to them.
Soon after we read this story of hope we meet a woman sitting in the middle of a floor. She is a “Cleaning Gal” and she knows that she could get into terrible trouble for resting when she should be working. She knows that many tasks await her in the hours and days ahead, and that she has to work, and work hard, to provide for her family. She knows that while she labors away, her employers will live a life of leisure, a life she can only dream about.
Though this is painful and sad picture, it is nothing compared to the one we come across later in the book when we read about how a group of boys are lynched, left hanging in trees for the their family members to find. Often these acts of barbarism were the work of the Ku Klux Klan, a group who “terrorized” African Americans for generations. Wearing their white robes and head coverings “they took no responsibility for the heinous reign of death they dealt.”
We read too about how many brave souls refused to accept the “WHITES ONLY” signs. They protested peacefully against segregation in five and dime stores and other places where they were not welcome, and were attacked and imprisoned for their pains.
This powerful collection of poems will give readers a sense of what African Americans went through, and how they suffered over the years, oppressed by violence and Jim Crow laws. They were not beaten though, and rose up to march and sing, to speak and to shout out for justice.