Thursday, October 29, 2015

Reviewing While White: The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch

by KT Horning

John Roy Lynch is hardly a household name but he should be. Born into slavery in Mississippi in 1847, by age 22 he was appointed Justice of the Peace by the governor of Mississippi and that same year he was elected to the state House of Representatives. At age twenty-five, he was elected Speaker of the House in Mississippi and later that year he won national office as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

And he truly did live in an amazing age, as referenced in the title of this new picture-book biography by Chris Barton with illustrations by Don Tate.

Most of the children's nonfiction books dealing with African Americans that we see these days are historical, and, of these, most are either set during slavery times or during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.  They are important stories to tell, to be sure, but the steady stream of them year after year contribute to a body of what one of my colleagues on the Coretta Scott King Award Committee once referred to as "a literature of despair." 

Because he was born in 1847, the first part of Lynch's story does take place during slavery times, but the narrative moves quickly to his life during the Reconstruction era where he learned to read, bought land, studied law, became a noted orator, and got elected to public office. The twelve years that followed the end of the Civil War did indeed make for an amazing age -- not just for Lynch but for African Americans throughout the South. From the author's note, we learn that there were sixteen African Americans from Southern states who served in the U.S. Congress from 1870 to 1877. For comparison, from 1902 to 1972, there were zero.

My question as I was reading this book is why have I never read anything about this man before? Or, for that matter, any of the nearly two thousand other elected officials?  It made me think of an episode of African American Lives, the PBS series about genealogy created by Henry Louis Gates, that I saw several years ago. I remembered seeing comedian Chris Rock break down and cry when he learned that his great-great-grandfather had been elected to  the South Carolina House of Representatives during this same era. He explained his emotional reaction: "If I had known this it would have taken away the inevitability that I was going to be nothing."

The man and his story are amazing, and it's a story all children should know. But what is equally amazing is the telling. Chris Barton pulls no punches when writing about the White resistance to change. He doesn't attribute racist actions to one bad slave owner or overseer as is so often the case in children's books depicting slavery.   Speaking of the vindictive wife of Lynch's owner, he writes: "She was not alone in rage and spite and hurt and lashing out. The leaders of the South reacted the same way to the election of a president -- Abraham Lincoln -- who was opposed to slavery." Barton describes the scene after Emancipation: "Freedom, however, soon turned sour. Mississippi whites passed laws to make Mississippi blacks into slaves under different names: 'Apprentices.' 'Vagrants.' 'Convicts.' " Later on, he refers to members of the KKK as "white terrorists."

I can't recall when I've seen a book for children that is so deliberate about calling out racism for what it is. And he does it with such clear, simple language, making this complex period in history accessible to young readers, just as Don Tate's clear stylized illustrations do.  Even though the illustrations use a cartoon style, there are no happy, smiling slaves here. What we see instead is the pain and suffering they endured and later, the look of pride and determination on the face of John Roy Lynch, a free man.

I have to admit, I was initially taken aback when I read about Lynch's father, an Irish overseer, "loving" Lynch's mother, an enslaved woman. These relationships could never really be equal. And loving? Hmmm. So I went directly to the source: Lynch's own autobiography,  Reminiscences of an Active Life, where he did characterize his parents' relationship as a loving one and described the struggles they went through to try to get married.  So if their love was a myth, it was one John Roy Lynch believed himself.

Although Lynch's story as presented here ends with Reconstruction, a detailed timeline at the book's end fills out the rest of his life, side-by-side with events occurring on a state and national level, such as the U.S. Supreme Court striking down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 eight years after it passed.

Taken as a whole, Chris Barton's book can serve as a model for White authors who choose to write about African American history for children.  He obviously respects the intelligence of young readers and he refuses to sugarcoat the uglier aspects of our history. And in bringing this story to light, he presents a truth that takes away that sad inevitability that Chris Rock and many others have grown up with.   Like John Roy Lynch and his age, they are filled with "amazing promise and potential."


Megan Schliesman said...

Another moment I appreciated in the book, related to that depiction of Lynch's father, is how the author noted that Lynch's mother, and their children, would still “belong” to him. The text goes on to say about Lynch's father, who worked as an overseer: “while he may have loved these slaves, he most likely took the whip to others.” That's incredibly honest speculation that I see as part of the book's intentionality to not ignore or make pretty the injustices and ironies. It doesn't bury the truth.

I contrast that to Hester Bass's "Seeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville, Alabama," about the desegregation of that city in the early 1960s. I really liked that account on first read, but then the more I thought about it the more I couldn't get over the fact that the economic motivation for that peaceful desegregation, which was huge, was not mentioned in the primary narrative, but only in the author's note. The city's White leaders knew if NASA pulled out of Huntsville, the economic impact would be devastating. So to talk about their willingness to work with the Black community without mentioning that in the main narrative ended up feeling like misrepresentation to me.

Chris Barton said...

Megan, it was important to me to not let John Roy Lynch's father off the hook for his participation in the system of slavery -- just as it was important to me not to let the North off the hook for Reconstruction's end before its necessary work was complete.

The tireless white terrorists in the South would not have triumphed if the general population of the northern states and their elected representatives had not grown weary and wavered in their support for Reconstruction's objectives. There's a lesson in there for us to heed today: When faced with hatred and injustice, we must be willing to outlast it.

Jen Abrams said...

KT, can you say what age range this book is intended for?

K T Horning said...

Jen, I would say ages 7-10.

Stacy Whitman said...

Now I want to go look for that Chris Rock episode. I love family history, and stories like that in family history make all the difference.

Debbie Reese said...

When I saw Don Tate's comment about depicting smiles on faces of enslaved people in POET: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF GEORGE MOSES HORTON (his comment is at Betsy Bird's post "you have to read the book":, I ordered his book right away.

It arrived yesterday. As I read it this morning, I had the same thought you shared: why don't we know about this person?

Nanette said...

I love this book (at least from the review of it) and really need to get it for my grandchildren. The honesty and context included are soooo important, and so very rarely included in part of the 'from slavery to freedom' narrative, not in a readable way, anyway.

Especially not when I was growing up. I'm sure I was a full adult before I learned about things like the Tulsa bombing of Black Wall St, or sundown towns, or the Black Codes. It helped so much to know that there were *reasons* various things happened as they did. Or didn't happen, or weren't allowed to happen. It's healing.

The illustrations are wonderful, too--I'm happy to learn of Don Tate and plan to get the POET book, which also sounds outstanding.