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."