March 2017 Round Up: Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice

claudette-colvin-cover-imageFor many weeks before we read Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, the Books Unbound (B.U.) members had been requesting that we discuss a nonfiction book. After mulling over content possibilities for what seemed like an eternity (there are so many wonderful options!), a B.U. member’s own reading about the Jim Crow era in the South inspired my decision to choose this book. While race and history definitely topped the list of motivations to read Claudette Colvin, I was also interested in sharing a female perspective of the Civil Rights movement. In addition to sparking conversations about the justice system, youth incarceration, education and many other timeless subjects of social justice, reading Claudette’s story would illuminate issues that can be particularly painful for girls and women, such as teen pregnancy out of wedlock and the pressure to fulfill the norms of the white aesthetic. To see highlights from our Books Unbound discussions, creative projects, and how the B.U. members rate the book, check out the round up below!

Main Discussion Topics

Rosa Parks : MLK :: Claudette Colvin : Malcolm X

Anyone who worries that contemporary youth know and care nothing about history would have been pleasantly surprised at the B.U. members’ knowledge of social justice in America. They were so competent that they even compared historical figures not just across time and space, but also in reference to their nuanced approaches to changemaking. While the B.U. members granted that Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Claudette Colvin, and Malcolm X all fought for the rights of African Americans, they felt that Rosa Parks and MLK were more alike in their composure and gentility, while Claudette’s fiery anger was reminiscent of — though definitely not as extreme as — Malcolm X.

One example they cited was that Rose Parks and MLK sought to make change by starving the segregated Alabama bus system of paying passengers; they discouraged African Americans from riding. In other words, they rejected the system by turning their backs on the it. On the other hand, Claudette’s rejection of her oppression was manifest in staying on the bus as long as she could before being carried off by security. Perhaps the B.U. members saw something of Malcolm X’s militant approach to social activism in Claudette’s steadfastness. Whether or not you agree with the analogy, the B.U. members’ comparison demonstrates that their critical thinking gears are turning and that they are trying to make connections.

Inequality in the Justice System

“I was tired of hoping for justice. When my moment came, I was ready.”
— Claudette Colvin*

That’s how Claudette Colvin told author Phillip Hoose she felt after the barrage of daily injustices she experienced collided with her academic education about racism and slavery in the United States. Perhaps when star high school student and model citizen Jeremiah Reeves was condemned to death row, Claudette decided she had had enough. Enough of back row seats and outdated textbooks. Enough of flat irons and being too black. Most of all, Claudette had had enough of being treated unequally, especially in the eyes of the law.

Jeremiah’s case was exemplary of how race dictated — and was dictated by — inequality in the justice system — particularly, within the penal system. Even though slavery had technically been over for decades, Claudette’s story is chockablock with instances of how race could determine how the law treated you, from the back of the cop car all the way to the courtroom. Beyond race, Claudette also relates how gender and age affect your experience with the justice system.

The B.U. members and I discussed how Claudette’s story reveals the flaws of the justice system, which, in turn, reveals the flaws of its creators, who are, after all humans. We also talked about how important it is not to rely on institutional systems to be perfectly fair, and the importance of individuals taking a stand with their communities for what they believe is right.

Social Justice Today

Not long after I discussed Claudette Colvin with the B.U. members, I had the privilege of attending Jacqueline Woodson’s Arbuthnot Honor Lecture at the Darla Moore School of Business in Columbia, South Carolina. During her presentation, the Young People’s Poet Laureate noted that just as African Americans were discriminated against in bathrooms during the Civil Rights era and for so many years prior, mainstream society still uses bathrooms as weapons of oppression — currently, against transsexuals.

Listening to Woodson’s argument, I heard echoes of my conversations with the B.U. members when we discussed what pressing social justice issues exist in contemporary society. Interestingly, when asked why they think someone might want rules in place to restrict transsexuals to using restrooms aligned with their sex at birth, they answered that it’s probably to protect them from encountering ill-intentioned individuals who do not accept them. In short, maybe, the B.U. members posited, we restrict transsexuals in order to keep them out of harm’s way.

Their argument’s inherent duality simultaneously warmed and chilled me. Part of me softens at the notion that maybe they speak from experience, from having wished that at some point in their pasts, they could have been protected from a harmful situation. But another part of me wonders if this is an example of how oppression can be so entrenched as to have its victims and advocates alike regurgitating the same manipulative argument, which states that the rules exist not to protect those in power, but instead those who are disempowered.

After explaining the latter interpretation of rules, I challenged the B.U. members to always try to see if an alternative agenda might be masked under the guise of good intentions. I hope they will practice this in the future without losing hope for humanity.

Favorite Moments

As is common, I have more than one favorite moment from discussing a book with the B.U. members. This time, the first happened as soon as we all sat down. Immediately, with no prompting from me, everyone launched into a steady, enthusiastic, and very intelligent discussion of the book, which continued right up until it was time to leave.

My second favorite moment occurred when one book club member compared Rosa Parks and MLK to Claudette Colvin and Malcolm X. Not only was this very insightful, it demonstrated a knowledge of history that runs counter to the sordid refrain of senior generations who lament that today’s youth care nothing for the past.

The third was when the B.U. members wondered if there were other histories of minorities during the Civil Rights movement. In particular, they were curious about Latino historical accounts from the time, especially given the present volatility of immigration in the United States. It was a treat to see that Claudette’s story had spurred their interest in other lesser-known histories.

Creative Project

Since Claudette Colvin is still alive, I asked the B.U. members to think about what it would be like to meet her and imagine what they would say. Then, we wrote a collective letter containing their thoughts. So if they had the chance to talk to Claudette, here is what they would like to tell her:

“Thank you for what you did. It made a difference in our lives. It took a lot of bravery, and without you, maybe this country would still be a place where segregation happens.”

Their words are simple, but their sentiments are huge. From all of us to Claudette — and to Phillip Hoose for sharing her story — thank you.

Books Unbound Member Rating

5 out of 5 stars.

The B.U. members had nothing but stellar compliments for this book. From the black-and-white photos to the little boxes of history sprinkled throughout to Claudette’s powerful first-hand accounts to Phillip’s concise narrative, they loved everything about this book. They especially loved that this was a history of someone less well-known than top figures like Rosa Parks and MLK.

*Quote taken from Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose


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