See the civil rights movement through children's books

In a green country setting, a weathered gray fence separates two girls, one black, one white. The black child reaches out as the white ...


In a green country setting, a weathered gray fence separates two girls, one black, one white. The black child reaches out as the white girl, already straddling the top rail of the fence, leans down. Although they barely shake their fingers, a viewer can sense their curiosity, their anticipation, their desire to overcome this barrier.

The Scene, a watercolor by E.B. Lewisis among the first works that visitors encounter in “Imagine the Dream: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Children’s Bookson view until July 24 at the New York Historical Society. Created for Jacqueline Woodson’s book “The other sidefrom 2001, the painting reflects two of the major themes of this exhibition: that progress is as much a matter of daily individual action as of collective effort; and that children, far from being mere witnesses to the civil rights movement, played a central role in it.

“These are children themselves who are on the sidewalks and in the streets, going to jail, being bitten by dogs, being attacked by clubs,” said Andrea Davis Pinkney, curator of the exhibition, in an interview at the museum. “And that’s what’s happening right now. This minute.

The show, which traces the civil rights movement from segregation to the present day, captures those terrible moments, as well as interludes of joy. Organized by the Eric Carle Picture Book Art Museum in Amherst, Mass., and the Top Art Museum in Atlanta, “Picture the Dream” is the first exhibit to tell that story through children’s literature, Pinkney said. When the show debuted at the High Museum in August 2020, she added, some visitors thought the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests inspired it. But while “Picture the Dream” had been planned much earlier, later events, including the racist massacre in Buffalo last month, have only sharpened its relevance.

“A picture book can never cure a tragedy,” Pinkney said, but “it can help us,” she added. The books allow families “to come together – an adult and a child – and say, ‘Let’s talk about this'”.

The potential to spark such conversations was key to selecting the art for the exhibit, which comes from 60 books, non-fiction and fiction. Pinkney, editor at Scholastic and an award-winning writer — she frequently collaborates with her husband, the illustrator Brian Pinkney — knew the show would commemorate landmark events, including the Montgomery, Ala. bus boycott. including young illustrators like Vashti Harrisonas well as renowned personalities such as Faith Ringgold and jerry pinkney (her stepfather).

The works of art, associated with an explanatory text, constitute themselves a kind of picture book. Pinkney wrote the words as if creating a story, urging young visitors to the museum to get ready to walk: “Look at your shoes. Are they solid?”

Pinkney and his collaborators have also divided the show into chapters: “A Backward Path” explores the Jim Crow era; “The Rocks Are the Road” focuses on the movement itself; and “Today’s Journey, Tomorrow’s Promise” celebrates its achievements, while emphasizing that much more remains to be done. Along with famous faces like Rosa Parks and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., each segment features surprises, not the least of which is seeing the large-scale artwork.

“The original artwork speaks with a different resonance”, the illustrator Brian Necklace, who has four works in the show, said in a phone interview. Because, he added, “it tells you a little bit more, it expands the idea of ​​what a picture book is”.

The collage and watercolor illustration that Collier created for a picture book from the poem by Langston Hughes”Me toodepicts a Black Pullman wearer in a striking close-up, staring resolutely through the translucent stars and stripes of an American flag. What visitors learn is that African-American railroad porters carried news to black communities across the country.

“When you say, ‘Pullman porter,’ you’re talking about a community organizer and a leader,” Collier said. Such a character, he added, was “a driving force in telling this poem”.

The exhibit pairs Collier’s illustration with a 1959 copy of “The Green Book of Black Travelers— a guide to safe places for black motorists — as well as a digitized version for visitors to read. The historical society completed the show with these and other items, including ‘white’ and ‘coloured’ segregation-era signs and a Stephen Somerstein photograph of children on a march from Selma to Montgomery. The full picture PJ Loughranillustration of a marching crowd for Lynda Blackmon Lowery’s gripping memoir, “Being 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of Selma’s 1965 Voting Rights March.”

“I think kids and adults sometimes go to a museum, and they see illustrations or pictures of things, and they think, ‘Well, was that real? Did this really happen? Alice Stevenson, Vice President and Director of the Historical Society DiMenna Children’s History Museum, said in a telephone interview. “And we wanted to be able to give touchpoints throughout the exhibit to really ground people in the reality of what these illustrations represent.” (Visitors can also view historical footage in a short film, “Picture the Dream,” on the Bloomberg Connects app.)

Added objects reinforce the impact of burning depictions like Eric VelazquezCharcoal drawing of white adults and children heckling black girls walking, from Angela Johnson’s book “A sweet smell of roses.”

“The story itself didn’t see fit to wrap itself up for me,” Velasquez said in a phone conversation. As a black man, he added, “I portray it as I remember it.”

The exhibit is unwavering in acknowledging that not all black children survived the struggle. The image of Philippe Lardy for the poetry book of Marilyn Nelson “A crown for Emmett Tillfeatures the face of Till, a 14-year-old murdered by white racists in 1955, encircled in thorns and chains. Tim Ladwig‘s illustration from Carole Boston Weatherford’s book “The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rightsis less stylized. He shows Till’s portrait and his coffin, but uses the raised lid – the boy’s mother insisted on a public viewing – to hide the brutalized body.

By choosing such images, “we were going to be leaning straight into the truth,” said Pinkney, who added that the educational organization Embrace the race assessed the accuracy and tone of the exhibit content.

The final section of the show strikes a more upbeat note, with illustrations like Velasquez’s portrayal of Barack Obama at a jubilant campaign rally, by Michelle Cook”Our Children Can Fly: A Celebration of Rosa, Barack and Pioneers of Change.” The historical society, however, also interspersed three works created by children in 2020 – not for picture books but about Black Lives Matter protests.

“We want kids to be able to react to the past in their own lives,” Stevenson said.

Perhaps the best call to action is the books themselves, all tucked away in a reading nook in the show’s final segment. Here, too, an outstretched hand appears, part of a cheerful enlarged illustration that Collier painted for Useni Eugene Perkins’ book “hey black kid.”

“That’s always the point — reading books, embracing them, loving them,” Pinkney said. “And knowing that a picture book can be your North Star.”

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