“I don’t understand why people are so mean to each other, why one group of people can hate another group of people so much. It makes my head hurt to think of it, but I see it everywhere now. I can see it in the eyes of the bus driver who really doesn’t want me on his bus, and the man at the Rexall drugstore, who thinks I’ll probably steal something.I can feel it in the whispers of people who walk behind me on the street. I wish I was still young like Donna Jean, who is sitting in the middle of the living room floor, making long necklaces of Pop-it beads and only worrying about whether she’ll run out of red ones” (Draper 2007, p. 130).
Thus far in my “Youth Literature for a Diverse Society” class, I’ve been asked to read quite a bit of heavy material. This material has ranged from stories of abuse to stories about teenage pregnancy and the horrors of poverty. All of the literature on the list so far has helped to provide a window into the lives of others, whether they come from a unique culture (as in An Na’s A Step from Heaven) or from a lower socio-economic status (as in Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff). This week’s reading has been no exception to that rule, but it has been the first to discuss the hardships of integration in Southern schools. I found this book to be incredibly powerful and moving for many reasons, the most poignant being that this scenario actually happened. As Sharon Draper states in her author’s note at the end of the novel, “Sylvia Faye and her family are fictional, but the nine students who integrated the school are very real” (Draper 2007, p. 229). Though I’d heard of the Little Rock Nine before, I’d never given much thought to how difficult their journey to integration truly was… until now.
Fire from the Rock, though dealing with the very real issue of integration in public schools in the 1950s, focuses on the story of a fictional girl named Sylvia Patterson. Until now, Sylvia has only had to worry about doing well in school, navigating the social world of boys and school dances, and being a good daughter and role model to her younger sister Donna Jean. The novel begins in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, as the school district is beginning the process of integration. When Sylvia is recommended for the list of students who will integrate into Central, the local all-white high school, she and her family must make a crucial decision: Should Sylvia risk her safety (and the safety of her family) to help change the world, or keep things exactly the way they are?
Though this book does a wonderful job of describing the hardships of African Americans during the time of segregation and the Civil Rights Movement, I was impressed to see that this wasn’t the sole focus of the novel. Sylvia’s best friend is a white girl named Rachel Zucker, whose family fled from Germany during WWII. It is made clear throughout the novel that Rachel’s father survived the horrors of Auschwitz, only to come to America and be faced with more scorn from other white people. One of the white women on the school board actually remarks to Sylvia that she doesn’t have any “real” white friends, as there was heavy discrimination even within the white community during this time. In addition, Draper doesn’t paint all white people as being racist, bigoted and hateful; there are actually quite a few young people who are entirely willing to integrate, and only a few (specifically the Crandalls) who still see African Americans as being lesser than white people. I appreciated Sharon Draper’s ability to show the horrors of segregation without painting all white people as the enemy; I think she did an incredible job of portraying this difficult time in history accurately and fairly.
Along with portraying some of the white characters as helpful and sympathetic, Draper also added several African American characters who handled integration the wrong way as well. For example, Sylvia’s brother Gary, as well as her school crush Reggie, are both portrayed as being full of anger, willing to bomb stores and hurt people to enact change. Near the end of the novel, Reggie’s flirtation with violence comes to a head when he accidentally bombs the Zuckers’ store, nearly killing Sylvia and everyone else inside. Draper is clearly using this to show that violence is never the answer, and that answering hatred with hatred never works. Again, this was incredibly eloquent, wise, and fair to the time period, showing that things were not quite as clear-cut as we may believe. The addition of historical details (mentions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Little Rock Nine, Elvis Presley, etc.) help to paint a fairly accurate picture of what it might have been like to live during this tumultuous time in American history, and I feel as though I learned a lot more about integration and the conflicting politics of the time period.
Often when I read books set during particularly controversial periods in history, I can’t help but compare them to the political climate of today. It seems that history has a dangerous tendency to repeat itself, and I see many parallels between the civil rights movement for LGBTQ people and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. I often wonder what I would have done id I’d lived during the time of segregation. Would I have stood up for my fellow human beings, or would I have hidden on the sidelines, afraid to make waves? I’d like to think that I would’ve been one of the white people helping with the integration process, as I try my best to advocate for the civil rights of others today. The uncomfortable truth is, however, that I’m not sure how I would’ve reacted if I’d lived during the time of segregation; none of use really are. Reading books like Fire from the Rock help to propel us out of our privileged comfort zone, reminding us that things were far from equal not even a century ago in the United States.
It might be a tired old cliche to say that “those who do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it,” but I think there’s a reason this phrase has not died out over the years. It’s crucial that we never forget historical events like slavery, the Holocaust, and segregation; these are supposed to make us feel uncomfortable, because we now recognize how fundamentally wrong these things were. If we choose to ignore the historical truths that make us uncomfortable, we risk forgetting they ever happened, leading us to discriminate against others in entirely new ways in the future. It’s a dangerous cycle, and one that I think novels like Fire from the Rock are trying to end. By putting ourselves in the shoes of others, we can build empathy and understanding, helping us to work with other cultures, races, religions, and sexualities to create a world that is accepting of everyone, not just the majority.
I’m of the belief that we are far more alike than we are different, and I’m grateful to this book for reminding me of the privilege I’ve had for most of my life. I’ve never once had to fear for my life while heading to school, or worry that there might not be a school tomorrow for me to go to in order to get my education. I’ve never been discriminated against because of the pigment in my skin, or bullied and spat on because I’m part of a minority group. I think more people need to recognize that privilege does exist, and be empathetic to those who have not grown up with the same privileges. Reading diverse literature helps us to experience the hardships of others through the comfort and safety of our own homes, and open our eyes to the lives of those who are different from us. Sylvia and her family might be fictional, as Draper says, but the students who bravely faced the hatred and opposition of angry mobs to go to school every day were very real, and they have my full respect. This was an excellent work of historical fiction, and one that I would encourage everyone to read. If you’re willing to leave your comfort zone in order to face uncomfortable truths from the past, there’s no telling what you might learn.
Draper, S. M. (2007). Fire from the rock. New York, NY: Dutton Children’s Books.