The Watsons go to Birmingham – 1963by Christopher Paul Curtis ELED 310 Project # 3 – Author’s Chair Sarah Marchman
Does the book tell a good story? • The book tells a mostly entertaining story, but with some sober truths mixed in. It begins by giving the story of a black family who lives in Michigan. The story takes place during the Civil Rights Movement, but the children are untouched by the ugliness of racism. • “I stood in the hall looking at the stuff they wanted me to read while Mr. Alums told his class, ‘All right, I have a special treat for you today. I’ve often told you that as Negroes the world is many times a hostile place for us.’” (23)
Is the story accurate and authentic in its historical detail, including the setting and the known events of history? • The story gives accurate and authentic details when addressing the happenings of the time period. There isn’t a lot said about the nature of white and black relations until toward the middle of the novel. For the most part, it is just a story about a family. • Dad did an imitation of a hillbilly accent. “ ‘Cuz, boy, this he-uh is the deep South you-all is gonna be drivin’ thoo. Y’all colored folks cain’t be jes’ pullin’ up tuh any ol’ way-uh and be ‘spectin’ tuh get no room uh no food, yuhheah, boy? I said yuhheah what I’m sayin’ boy?” (132)
Is the language authentic to the times? • Because the story takes place during the Civil Rights movement, and it is told from the point of view of a child, the language isn’t much different than it would be now. The transition is evident in the language, though, when the family travels from the North to the South. • Mr. Mitchell laughed. “Kenny, this isn’t a welfare list, it just means your daddy’s gonna pay all at once instead of a few times every week.” vs. “”Lona, what you teach these babies up North? Don’t they know how to give no one a proper hug?...You grew up to be a fine-lookin’ boy. You was so puny when you was born you nearly worried us crazy. Got strong too.” (159)
Is the historical interpretation sound? • As previously mentioned, the story is more about the Watson family and trying to keep the oldest child from getting out of control, but what historical references are included are sound. • The main historical event that is referenced is the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963. The tell the story of the aftermath of the bombing through the eyes of the Watson’s middle child who isn’t there for the actual bombing. The story really allows the reader to get a sense of the horror and confusion surrounding such a horrible act.
Whose voices are missing? • Since the story is told from the point of view of the Watson’s middle child, the voices that are missing are those of adults, both black and white. The child has been mostly sheltered from the racial tensions of the Civil Rights movement, so the ugliness of the time period doesn’t really come through until the end of the book.
Does the book provide insight and understanding into current issues as well as those in the past? • The book does provide insight and understanding into current issues as well as those in the past. One of the main themes of the story is family and that is a theme that remains insightful throughout time. The Watson family is struggling to keep the oldest son from getting out of control and becoming a delinquent. He is associating with friends who don’t make the best choices, so he is making poor choices. His parents think that if they take him to Birmingham and he can see how people in other parts of the country live, he will appreciate his own circumstances more. • “You’ve cut school so much that Mr. Alums has come here three times to see what’s wrong with you, you’ve been lighting fires, you’ve been taking change out of my purse, you’ve been in fights, you had that trouble up at Mitchell’s Food Fair,…There’s just too much, Byron. We can’t have all this nonsense going on.” (119)
What are the qualifications of the author? • The author grew up in Flint, Michigan and was about 10 years old at the time that this story takes place. This is right between the ages of the oldest and middle children of the Watson family, therefore, the point of view is probably pretty accurate.
How accurate and complete are the facts? • The facts in the book are reasonably accurate, though not extensively included. The author includes a factual Epilogue, describing the racial climate of the United States at the time that the novel takes place. He also discusses the bombings that actually took place in Birmingham and the lives that were lost in the bombings.
What literary distinction does the book have? • The book is distinctive because it uses a humorous voice to discuss the racial climate of the United States during the Civil Rights Movement. It is told from the point of view of a child who was very close to the author’s own age at the time the story takes place. The story has an accurate feel without being too overly dramatic or heavy, making it appropriate for students of all ages.
Learning Strategies • Because the story is told in a humorous way, without too many overwhelming details, I would use it as an introduction to a Civil Rights Movement unit. • The book could also be used to discuss families, and how they are the same and different across time and across races. • While reading this book to my class, we would also use it in relation to geography. Wilona, the mother of the Watson family, gives the family a little bit of information about each state they drive through. The students could look at maps and follow the route the Watson’s took, as well as do more research about each state.