The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963
by Christopher Paul Curtis
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Joey the Angel
When we think of angels, we usually think of guardian angels, right? You know, the kind that are supposed to follow you around or sit on your shoulder and make sure nothing bad happens to you. Well, the angels that show up in Watsons seem to be doing just that.
Angels first appear when Mrs. Davidson gives Joey the little angel figurine as a gift. She names the angel Joetta because it reminds her of Joey, but Joey is a little upset about this because the angel is white with blue eyes—translation: it doesn't look like her at all. Joey feels that she couldn't be a little white angel, and that the white angel couldn't be named Joetta Watson. We're starting to scratch the surface of racial tensions here.
But when Kenny is drowning, he sees an angel—and sure enough, it's Joey:
When the Wool Pooh pulled me closer I could see that it was a little angel, and wait a minute, it was Joey looking just like the angel Mrs. Davidson had given her! Joey had wings and a halo! Her face was real calm too, but she was pointing straight up like there was something important I should look at. The angel that looked like Joey was telling me I had to swim up one more time. (13.52)
No matter the color of her skin, Joey the angel is there to help save Kenny when he needs her. Maybe Momma was right after all when she said, "an angel's an angel" (9.77).
Kenny the Angel?
Kenny wouldn't let a favor go unreturned, right? So if Joey saved him, that means he has to save Joey. And sure enough, the only reason Joey isn't in the church when the bomb goes off is because a phantom Kenny lured her away. That's right: Kenny was never there. We know for a fact that he was napping in the yard back at Grandma's until the sound of the bomb woke him. He didn't go to that church until after the bomb had already exploded.
Weird, right? So who was Joey following?
This might just be another guardian angel moment. Obviously, Joey wasn't really under the water with Kenny, but he really saw her there and she helped save him. And Kenny isn't really across the street, but Joey really does see him, and he saves her. How is any of that possible?
Well, whether or not you believe in the angel thing, Byron and Kenny sure do. Byron says it was a part of Kenny who took Joey out of the church, and Kenny says, "I'm sure there was an angel in Birmingham when Grandma Sands wrapped her little arms around all of the Weird Watsons and said, 'My fambly, my beautiful, beautiful fambly" (15.106). To these boys, angels are all about love.