November 17, 2007

Review: We Are One: The Story of Bayard Rustin

We Are One: The Story of Bayard Rustin
by Larry Dane Brimner
48 pages; for ages 8 and up
Calkins Creek Books

Available from or your local bookstore (BookSense) (Cybils affiliate links) or in Canada at Chapters
Review copy from the publisher

We Are One is the handsome new photobiography of Bayard Rustin (1912-1987), the American pacifist and civil rights activist. While Rustin is nowhere near as well known as the leaders he advised -- his mentor A. Philip Randolph and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. -- or the 1963 March on Washington he organized, he has in recent years been the subject of two biographies for adults (this one, and this one), two for high school students, a volume of collected writings, and several documentaries, including one devoted exclusively to his life.

We Are One is a strikingly designed book, inspired by the celebrated March on Washington poster (below) by artist Louis Lo Monaco, complete with matching color scheme and artful torn edging used for sidebars within the volume to highlight photograph captions, quotations, and lyrics from the Negro spirituals and gospel hymns that Rustin sang.

As I was admiring the look of the book, clean, spare, and sophisticated, I found myself wondering exactly for whom this picture book biography is meant. According to the publisher's website, it's intended for children ages 8 and up. But it's a sophisticated story, too, of the civil rights movement in general (including some of the most shameful periods in American history) and the life of Bayard Rustin in particular. For starters, Rustin wasn't one of the famous faces of the movement; organizers laboring behind the scenes rarely are, because all that organizing, while desperately necessary, isn't all that exciting to read about, especially for the younger set. All this organizing also means that We Are One is loaded with details, names, and dates, from the NAACP and Josh White and His Carolinians*, with whom Rustin sang briefly, to the Free India Committee, a good deal of information for anyone under the age of 12 to absorb.

Rustin labored quietly in great part because he was relegated to the sidelines by those in charge, who found troublesome and problematic his early work for the Young Communist League (though presumably not the American Communist Party's early support of civil rights); his refusal, as a Quaker, to register for the draft during World War II or to perform alternate service; and his homosexuality, a subject that Larry Dane Brimner touches on only briefly, in his author's note at the back of the book. Older readers able to appreciate and understand this complex period of American history might be put off by the picture book approach.

But my main reservation is about language. In his author's note, Mr. Brimner writes,
To be true to the times in which Bayard lived, and with the greatest respect, I referred to African Americans as colored, black, and Negro in this book. These were the terms that Bayard used to refer to himself and others of his race.
I do appreciate, very much, that Mr. Brimner didn't shy from these terms in their historical context. However, I found the mixing of the various terms, sometimes in the same sentence --
In the South following the Civil War, laws were passed to prevent blacks from voting, and throughout the United States, Negroes were discriminated against as a way to keep them from enjoying the benefits of freedom.
-- to be jarring verging on confusing. And, given current sensibilities, and for children of all colors who might not have encountered these words in a history book before, seeing them might raise concerns which should be addressed at the beginning of the story, perhaps as a "historical note to readers", rather than as a brief mention tucked in at the back.

As a suggestion to parents of younger readers, I found that my three had an easier time understanding the historical context of We Are One when we started first with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the March on Washington from the "All Aboard Reading" series. And if you let them hear and see Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, chances are they'll have a much clearer understanding of just why Bayard Rustin held fast to his ideal that "we are one", and just why he was willing to toil behind the scenes so long and so hard to make the March come to pass.

*A nice musical go-along while reading about the civil rights movement is Josh White's "Free and Equal Blues". And a bit of poking around at Amazon shows that some of the songs Rustin recorded while singing back-up with White's Carolinians appear to be on this CD.

Other Cybils reviews of We Are One:

KT at Worth the Trip

Mindy at Propernoun Dot Net

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