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  • Spaces of the Ancestor:Jacqueline Woodson and the Long Civil Rights Movement
  • Samira Abdur-Rahman (bio)

In recent years, protests by young black people have connected places as wide ranging as Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore, Maryland; and Chicago, Illinois.1 Young activists bring into sharp focus their shared experiences of racism and police brutality. This map of black protest reveals commonalities and disjuncture within and between black spaces within the United States, illuminating the contemporary and historical importance of place to young people's grass roots activism. These sites of activism issue a stinging critique of discourses of post-racialism and also compel interrogation of historical narratives of black protests and activism.2 The contemporary map of young black people's activism, while speaking to the complexities of the contemporary moment, also reveals that black liberation struggle has always been a regionally complex story. Constructions of civil rights memory continue to impact how we understand contemporary black children and youth's experiences of racism in their communities. As a rich site of civil rights memory, children's literature about the Civil Rights Movement allows readers to engage with narratives about young black people who inherited and responded to racial inequality. As today's young people inherit the legacies of long civil rights struggle, children's literature can aid in the construction of a capacious portrait of young people's experiences of race, activism, and place.

In her award winning memoir-in-verse Brown Girl Dreaming (2014), Jacqueline Woodson produces an aesthetics of a long Civil Rights Movement by using an extended metaphor of dreaming to connect the midwestern, southern, and northern landscapes of her childhood.3 Carole Boyce Davies writes that it is through autobiographical subjectivity that black women articulate "speech" and redefine geography (21). Woodson's memoir suggest that we can use autobiographical black girlhood to explore civil rights memory, migration, and place. Born in 1963, Jacqueline Woodson's [End Page 180] memories of her family's migrations within the United States are interwoven with her recounting of the Civil Rights Movement, as the memoir tells a multiregional and extended story of civil rights childhood. Woodson's recounting of her childhood in Columbus, Ohio; Greenville, South Carolina; and Brooklyn, New York aestheticizes what Jacquelyn Dowd Hall has termed the long Civil Rights Movement. According to Dowd Hall, the long Civil Rights Movement links the "classical phase" of the 1950s and 1960s to the labor rights movement of the 1940s and to the black political struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, which are commonly misunderstood as an abandonment of the integrationist appeals of the classical period (1235).

Conceptualizing a long Civil Rights Movement has allowed scholars to think critically about the perils of consensus memory of the movement. Leigh Raiford and Renee C. Romano write that consensus memory represents the "dominant narrative of the movement's goals, practices, victories and, of course, its most lasting legacies" (xiv). Consensus memory asserts that the movement "began in 1954 with the Brown v. Board of Education and ended in 1968 with the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and the rise of Black Power in the country's northern and western cities" (Raiford and Romano xiv). Notably, a consensus narrative of the classical phase has regional implications. As Jeanne Theoharis explains, between the 1940s and the 1980s, "tens of thousands of people were active in civil rights struggle outside the South"; Theoharis contends that in the popular imagination civil rights struggle in the North is relegated to the "later 1960s" (32–33).4 The consequence is an entrenchment of a narrow temporal and spatial paradigm that simplifies the lived experiences of children who experienced the movement.

The plethora of autobiographical works about the experience of segregation and desegregation from the perspective of black children and youth include Melba Pattillo Beals's Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High, her more recent March Forward, Girl: From Young Warrior to Little Rock Nine, Ruby Bridges's Through My Eyes (1999), Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story (2003), and Ellen S. Levine's collection Freedom's Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Story...


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pp. 180-197
Launched on MUSE
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