The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 is a gem worth everyone’s time and deserving of its many awards. The novel had been sitting on my shelf since 2007—unread. For one reason or another, I was unable to get myself to open the book and finish it. Had it not been for Gathering Books’ celebration of Black History Month I probably would have never discovered this wonderful book about growing up African American in the 1960s.
The story is told in the eyes of Kenny, the Middle Child of the Weird Watson brood. While the perspective may seem limited, it is the youthful tone which gives each memory its brilliance and impact. The book is set in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement in America. The idea of Whites against Black, while dwindling was still present in some parts of the United States then. However, our story begins in Flint, Michigan – for the first half of the book where our narrator, Kenny, gives us a glimpse of his family—his father Daniel, his mother Wilona, his older brother the juvenile delinquent Byron, and his younger sister Joetta/Joey.
The Weird Watsons weren’t really weird. They were like any typical family. They had their cold and funny moments, their crazy moments, and their happy moments. Through Kenny we pick up on the little bits that make each of the Watson members unique. We discover the funny and strict dad, the southern bred strong mother, the adolescent resident tough guy in his brother and the innocence and sincerity of the younger sister. At some points the reader could feel s/he was part of the story and knew the Watsons like s/he knew his/her family.
History & Humor
Reading this book in 2010 gives this novel a historical perspective from the things children enjoy—playing with plastic dinosaurs—to the existing technology. The author dedicates a chapter on describing the 1948 Brown Plymouth and the new player Mr. Watson had installed in the car. The player isn’t your usual CD player, it’s a record player. I can imagine it to be similar to the picture below.
There’s humor sprinkled throughout the novel whether it’s in Byron’s lips getting stuck one cold evening on the Brown Bomber’s side mirror (yes, he kissed himself) to Byron’s hair. The humor is in the happy accidents of daily life, things we take for granted. It is in these details that the youthful innocence of our narrator shines.
Adolescence and Brotherhood
Kenny’s memories/narrations if not predominantly about his own life was about his adolescent brother Byron. Through his eyes, we witness a young man struggle through his identity and his place in the world. Kenny does not leave out on the cruelty of his brother as he bullies him and people at school. At the same time, we get a glimpse of the heart behind the tough juvenile delinquent façade. What was evident to me through the first part of the book is that despite hurling insults to his younger brother and his attempts at disobeying rules, Byron wasn’t all bad. He was always keeping an eye on his brother in school.
Like normal brothers, as much as there was antagonism there was brotherly love. The older brother always looked after the younger one. It didn’t matter if that meant beating the hell out of his brother’s bully or saving him from drowning.
And we watch this relationship come to fulfillment at the latter part of the book. Byron, upon setting foot in Birmingham was growing out of the rebellious stage of his life—to Kenny’s confusion—into manhood. We discover the real Byron at the latter part of the book as he pulls Kenny out of his fear and doubt:
“If you [Kenny} hadn'ta been born who would have took her [joey] away from that bomb? No One. If you hadn’ta been born and she walked outta that hot church and saw some stranger waving at her from across the street you think she would have followed him? Hell no…If you hadn’t been born who woulda gone in that church to see if Joey really was in there? Me and Momma and Dad was all too scared, you was the only one brave enough to go there.”
It is rare among brothers to articulate things and offer such comfort, but Byron let his brother cry on his lap and give him the comfort Kenny needed.
Discrimination & Violence
The book progresses at the same pace as its characters. We watch the Watsons of Flint, Michigan evolve in Birmingham, Alabama. In the 1960 while some parts of the US were slowly easing into desegregation, the South had yet to fully incorporate this. Alabama was then a segregated state. The state then, despite requiring African Americans to pay taxes, gave little funding to African American communities and schools.
While majority of the discrimination was quiet, a few resorted to violence. In the latter part of the novel, we are told of a bombing in an African American Church/Sunday School—an event quite familiar in African American History during the 1960s. Curtis develops this story quite sparingly in the last few chapters of the book, but its impact is quite powerful as it involved little girls such as this:
After reading, I had a single insight, that is: Any form of discrimination is a form of ignorance. Had the reader not known that the Watsons were African-American their story is as similar as most Caucasians and Asians. A family is a family. The color of our skin, even our race, does not make the human dynamics any different. I do not know if the author intentionally made 3/4 of the book about just the family and 1/4 of the book about the impact of a single violent discriminatory act to put across that message, but I felt that taking the time to talk about an African American family’s life brought to the forefront the idea that we aren’t so different from each other.
The book is not a sad book. It is not a hateful book. It is a book that celebrates miracles, family, and maturity. The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 should find its place in everyone’s bookshelf.
Sources: Alabama: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alabama
Christopher Paul Curtis: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Paul_Curtis
POC Reading Challenge Update: 18 of 25