We had just begun the second chapter of a book about a poor family and their beloved coon dog, and some of my 4th-grade students and I were seated around a table in a small corner of the classroom. The father had just been brutally arrested and chained to the back of a wagon by the sheriff:
The wagon started, and the sheriff rode behind it on his horse. Sounder made a great lunge forward, and the boy fell against the corner of the porch. Sounder raced after the wagon. No one yelled after him. The mother stood still in the doorway. The deputy who wasn’t holding the reins turned on the seat, aimed his shotgun at the dog jumping at the side of the wagon, and fired. Sounder fell in the road, and the sheriff rode around him. Sounder’s master was still on his back in the wagon, but he did not raise his head to look back.
At the end of this scene, all of my students looked up from the book in horror. This isn’t supposed to happen, they said. You can’t begin a book like this. They were actually angry at the book itself.
I learned an important lesson the year that I decided to read with one of the three literature groups in my class William Armstrong’s Newbery Award-winning children’s book, Sounder. I was teaching at an independent school in Cambridge, Mass., where the majority of the students were from middle- to upper-middle-class families.
Although Sounder is considered to be a 5th- or 6th-grade level book, I had some strong readers and I felt that they were up to the challenge. Yet I had some doubts about the book, particularly about the fact that it was written in the late 1960s about the black sharecropping experience during the Depression. Although based loosely on a true story, Armstrong’s portrayal seemed flawed; I didn’t feel comfortable with the overall tone of the story and its simplistic portrayal of the family involved. This reminded me of a metaphor that Clem Marshall, an associate with Enidlee Consultants introduced me to. That organization, worked closely with the Cambridge Friends School on anti-bias teaching practices during my years as a teacher there. Marshall encourages teachers to “Follow the flame, not the ashes,” meaning that educators need to help students learn about achievement and resistance and not just about suffering and victimization. Still, I thought that Sounder could be instructive in helping students to analyze a text critically. What I did not consider was the fact that my experience of the book as a white teacher might be vastly different from how some of my black students would experience it.
This literature group had seven children in it, two black and five white, and almost immediately all of them were uneasy with the book. By the end of the second class period, the students began questioning me about the content of the book—something that had never happened for me before. My white students said that a children’s book isn’t supposed to start off with such horrible things happening. The book was too sad, they said. However, my black students appeared to experience the story on a more personal level. James, for instance, was shaking his head and repeatedly saying, “That’s not right.”
James was so upset by the book that he asked if he could speak with me privately. The next day, I set aside some time to meet with him. He was visibly agitated, but he spoke passionately about his feelings. The book didn’t match his experience as a black person, and he was worried that the white students in the group would view him differently because of the book. He said that in the book, people are poor and sad, and bad things happen to them. He told me that the book scared him.
After some thought, I decided to stop reading Sounder with the group. I explained to students that James helped me realize that Sounder was too one-dimensional: that it focused only on racism and suffering and not on the other parts of people’s lives.
To replace it, I chose Francie by Karen English, a contemporary black author. The novel is set in the sharecropping South, nearly 20 years after the events described in Sounder, yet Francie’s tone is different. In the midst of dealing with racism and economic injustices, the individuals in the protagonist’s family find ways to resist the inequities around them while working hard and overcoming obstacles. It is about racism and suffering, but also about the fullness of the characters’ lives and the complexities of the white and black communities in the town. Sounder reads like a religious allegory in which the characters accept their fate in an almost saint-like fashion and just hope that things will turn out all right in the end. Francie is neither sentimental nor romantic. It simply tells a story of racism and resistance through imperfect and very real characters.
Another dimension to Francie is the presence of a hesitant white ally named Clarissa, who slowly moves from being a passive bystander to someone willing to take action against injustice. Although Clarissa perhaps never fully realizes her potential as an ally, she offers readers, particularly white students, insight into the struggle to find a voice that is different from a dominant group. Francie and her family are primarily responsible for the positive changes that they make in their lives, but the presence of Clarissa reinforces the idea that all people are responsible for bringing about racial and economic justice.
When we began reading Francie, it was clear that every student was more comfortable with this text. However, although my black students were glad to leave Sounder for Francie, my white students felt that we were abandoning a story that they disliked but felt compelled to finish. I was hesitant about students finishing Sounder on their own without any guidance, but I came up with an idea about how we could process both books together when we’d finished Francie. I suggested that those who wanted to could finish Sounder independently. All five of the white students finished the book, but neither of my black students did. Meanwhile, our literature group continued reading Francie together in class. Two weeks later, we came together to compare and contrast the black experience in the two books.
On easel paper, I made a chart with Sounder and Francie as headings. Along the left side, I listed several categories: character names, community life, resistance to injustices, and other observations. I asked the students who had finished Sounder to summarize the rest of the book for the two who hadn’t. I then asked the students to fill in
the chart for each book. Although my black students had not completed Sounder, with the summary and their experience of the first third of the text, they were able to participate fully in the conversation. We began with Sounder, and I served as scribe as the students discussed the text.
In Sounder, my students noticed that the characters, with the exception of the dog, do not have names. For example, the main character is referred to simply as “the boy,” and his mother as “the boy’s mother,” etc. Next, I asked them to think about the community life. Several students pointed out that they didn’t seem to have friends—it was just their family—and that they seemed very alone. Finally, we moved on to the resistance category. None of the students were able to find any examples of resistance to injustices by anyone in the boy’s family. I pointed out that the boy taught himself to read and that he made sacrifices to go away to school, and that this was a form of resisting the powerlessness in his life, but agreed that it was otherwise not evident. They also thought that almost everything in the story was sad, which I noted in the “other” category, along with my observation that there was very little dialogue in the book.
When we moved on to Francie, they noticed striking differences. To begin with, all of the characters have names, and the students shouted them out as I recorded them on the chart. Not only did the students know their names, they knew who they were as people. When we moved on to the “community life” category, the students talked at length about about the characters—their hobbies and interests, pleasures and passions, virtues and faults. In other words, they felt like full human beings.
When we got to the “resistance” category, the students nearly jumped out of their seats with examples. James began with how Francie risked herself and her family when she helped to hide and feed a former classmate, Jesse Pruitt, who was wrongly accused of the attempted murder of a white farm manager. Another student talked about how Francie repeatedly stood up to Holly Grace, the daughter in a wealthy white family who bullied and harassed her. Several other students talked about Francie’s dream for herself and her family to leave Noble, Alabama, and move north to join her father, a Pullman porter in Chicago, where she felt she and her family would have a better life. The list grew as the students took turns sharing their observations.
As we neared the end of our discussion, I instructed the students to read through the two columns on the chart we’d just made. I then asked, “How are these books different from each other?”
They thought for a moment, then one student said that in Sounder, there is no hope. Another said that the characters in Sounder didn’t seem real. Everything in Sounder was sad, from the beginning to the end, another student offered. I pointed out that sometimes things are horrible, especially when we’re learning about racism, but that we only got to know about that part of the characters’ lives, not the other parts. I asked my students how this differed from Francie, and one student said that in Francie, even though bad things happen, she didn’t feel really sad as she read it. Also, the characters fought back some, another said. I then shared my observation that although Francie is primarily about racism, it is also about resistance and achievement.
Through this process, students were able to work through their feelings about Sounder and turn the experience into a powerful one. Although I may have made a judgment error when originally choosing Sounder, I was able to follow James’ lead and help my students refuse the victimization of the book. And ultimately, their experience of reading Francie would not have been as rich had they not read and rejected Sounder.
In the end, it was my students who led me back to Marshall’s metaphor of “Follow the flame, not the ashes.” If we observe only the “ashes” when studying racism, the experience is too much like that of reading Sounder—one dimensional and disempowering. But if we follow the “flame” of intellectual achievement and resistance to oppression, as in Francie, we honor the many dimensions of a group’s experience. Students like James, along with white students, learn that black people have not been helpless victims accepting their fates and hoping that things will work out, but that they have achieved in the face of enormous obstacles.
As I finish my 12th year of teaching, I find that I am still evolving and learning how to do this challenging antibias work. And, perhaps the most important lesson of all, I’ve learned that when I really listen to my students, they can be my most provocative teachers.