Friday, February 20, 2015

Module 5--Remember: The Journey to School Integration: A Review

by Toni Morrison

*Author's note.  As I understand it, the Youth Literature class requires the Module Number to be listed in the title of the review and not within the review itself.  As a result, for the term I will add "Module X" in the title. 

Morrison, T. (2004).  Remember: The Journey to School Integration.  Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company.

Given how I detested The Bluest Eye, I was surprised at how I enjoyed Remember. The former horrified me and I grew to dislike Toni Morrison, thinking her reputation as this literary genius wildly overrated.  Remember, on the other hand, is a much better book.  I think it has to do with the fact that Morrison knows that her audience of children need a different tone and manner when speaking to them.  Remember has a very gentle tone as Morrison uses photos to tell the story, good and bad, of when schools were integrated.  A mixture of photos and brief commentary told through the viewpoint of the pictures' subjects make up the book, and Morrison combines both so well they flow naturally together.

We start with a brief opening where we are told the book is about "you", even though the reader is in a post-integration world.  We get a brief background about how before Brown v. Board of Education, schools were segregated (blacks and whites could not go to school, or anywhere really, together).  "Separate but equal" was not equal, and we get how Morrison herself felt in 1953 when she travelled South, a year before the Brown decision.

From there, we get the main text of Remember, which is divided into three sections: The Narrow Path, The Open Gate, and The Wide Road.  The first section presents how black children's education was pretty shabby: dilapidated schools, long walks to go to the 'Negro' school when whites-only schools were closer.  The second section, the longest, starts with the Supreme Court ruling and again with pictures and text we get the shock of integration.  Photos detail both the positives (children walked to school by their parents without incident, small children of all races calmly accepting their new classmates), and negatives (older students giving them the cold shoulder at best, their parents being downright violent at worst or simply boycotting the school).  The final section goes beyond school integration, touching on how the Civil Rights movement expanded to break down segregation throughout all sections of society. 

Remember is an excellent book.  The text is simple enough for children to understand without being patronizing.  I think it is a good idea to show that some people were violently opposed to integration and that their reaction is chronicled through the photos.  Sometimes Morrison doesn't write text to accompany the pictures.  Instead, she has the pictures compliment each other and let the reader draw his/her own ideas.  For example, on one page she has a group of teen white girls yelling in anger, and the other has a group of young black boys walking towards the camera, a little hesitant as they go to school.

While there is no way to know whether they were actually related in both incidents taking place at the same date and time, Remember mixes them so well that the underlying message (whites were displeased to see blacks going to the same schools whites attended) is made clear.  Contrast this with another set of photos, where small children, black and white, were sharing elementary school with nary a thought or interest in the differences between the two groups.  As far as they were concerned, the message the children are pointing to in one photo ("Let's All Work Together"), speaks for itself. 

Morrison also uses the pictures to allow us to read their minds, or at least give an interpretation about what could have been going through their minds.  One photo has a group of white boys holding signs opposing integration, but Morrison's text has a questioning style.  It suggests that it was peer pressure, not genuine belief, that motivated them coming down to protest integration. 

"I don't know.  My buddies talked me into this.  They said it would be fun.  It's not, but these guys are my friends and friends are more important than strangers.  Even if they're wrong.  Aren't they?"
This was an extremely bright idea.  It shows that perhaps the people opposing integration really might not have wanted to.  Again, it's impossible to know for sure without asking them, and even that might be suspect.  However, Morrison makes clear she herself doesn't know, but that she is taking creative license to make her point. 


I think Remember does an excellent job presenting a very difficult subject to younger readers of all races.  I think it goes beyond appealing to black audiences and can be appreciated by all readers of all backgrounds.    However, a reviewer commented that it was odd how events were placed out of order (the last part of Remember is on lunch counter protests and the bus boycott, which took place prior to the Brown decision).  The writer comments that this is a 'problem', suggesting that it is mixing history with fallible memory.

I did not think this was a major issue, though perhaps it might give young readers a misinterpretation of history.  However, given that Remember is not about the whole Civil Rights Movement, but on just one aspect of it (integration), particularly from a child's point of view, I think we don't have to worry too much on strict historic accuracy.  I think the book is suppose to be part history, part memory, and as such, the jumbled history structure is not a deal-breaker. 

The title is Remember, and memory emphasizes certain points while not focusing on others.  I think the point of Remember is about memory, about impressions, about feelings.  We go into the minds of the figures in the pictures, but its a fictional interpretation.  Morrison doesn't know exactly what they were thinking or feeling.  Instead, she just wants to convey impressions, suggestions, not strict history. I think it works, and while I'm normally a stickler for historical accuracy, I think Remember does a good job giving impressions, which again I think was its goal. 


A good program I think would be to encourage visitors to rope off a certain area and make it For Grumgrawls Only.  Obviously, there is no such thing as a Grumgrawl, but it might give people pause to wonder of when people were segregated.  I also think having students reenact the Little Rock Nine going into the high school would be a good presentation. 

I'm reluctant to have displays that openly present the ugliness of segregation, fearing people might misinterpret them.  However, perhaps a display where certain books are presented "For Whites Only" and "For Blacks Only" might drive the message home.  I would leave that to the librarians' discretion. 


Review of the book REMEMBER: The Journey to School Integration by Toni Morrison]. Retrieved from

Toni Morrison:
Born 1931

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