Study Guide

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 Race

By Christopher Paul Curtis

Race

"Oh yeah," Dad interrupted, "they're a laugh a minute down there. Let's see, where was that 'Coloreds Only' bathroom downtown?" (1.36)

One thing's for sure: Momma really misses home. But this comment sheds some light on how Dad feels about Birmingham. It's starting to make sense why he would want to raise his family in Flint instead, don't you think?

"I've often told you that as N****es the world is many times a hostile place for us." I saw Mr. Alums walking back and forth whacking a yardstick in his hand. "I've pointed out time and time again how vital it is that one be able to read well." (2.18)

Newsflash: race is a big issue out in the real world. Even though it doesn't seem to be affecting most of the kids in Flint now, the adults around them want them to be prepared to face these struggles later in life. How is being able to read well going to help them survive in a prejudiced world?

We'd seen the pictures of a bunch of really mad white people with twisted-up faces screaming and giving dirty finger signs to some little N**** kids who were trying to go to school. I'd seen the pictures but I didn't really know how these white people could hate some kids so much. (8.16)

When you think about it, a lot of the racial violence and discrimination in the book has to do with kids. We tend to think of children as innocent, but it's clear that people with racist beliefs don't think any African American is innocent—not even young kids.

"Byron is getting old enough to have to understand that his time for playing is running out fast, he's got to realize the world doesn't have a lot of jokes waiting for him. He's got to be ready." (9.18)

Once again, the grown-ups want these kids to be "ready" for something they don't quite see yet. Byron's foolishness would be a bad start for any kid becoming a grown-up, but Dad seems to think that it will be especially challenging for him because he's African American. When Dad says the world doesn't have a lot of jokes waiting for Byron, he's talking about the extra struggles that African Americans face because of the racist attitudes and discrimination of the time.

I could tell there was something that Joey wasn't too happy about. [...] Mrs. Davidson had bought Joey a little angel that was kind of chubby and had big wings and a halo made out of straw. The only thing about it smile that looked like Joey to me was that the angel had a great big dimple too. I was made out of white clay and it looked like someone had forgotten to paint it. The only thing that had any color on it were its cheeks and its eyes. The cheeks were red and the eyes were blue. (9.60)

Why do you think it bothers Joey so much to be compared to a white angel? Would it bother you to be compared to an angel of a different race?

Dad did an imitation of a hillbilly accent. "'Cuz, boy, this he-uh is the deep South you-all is gonna be drivin' thoo. Y'all colored folks cain't be jes' pullin' up tuh any ol' way-uh an be 'spectin' tuh get no room uh no food, yuh heah, boy?" (9.112)

Oh Dad, always the jokester. He doesn't want to scare the kids, but the reality is frightening. Once the Watsons get into the South, they can't stop just anywhere to stay or to eat. There's a real danger to this trip that Momma and Dad constantly downplay but that begins to foreshadow the danger they'll face in Birmingham.

"Man, they got crackers and rednecks up here that ain't never seen no N****es before. If they caught your ass out here like this they'd hang you now, then eat you later." (10.70)

Watch your mouth, Byron—those are some derogatory words you're using. He's comparing white people to cannibals, saying they wait around to eat black folks for dinner. He's clearly exaggerating, but is this racism, too?

Grandma Sands called a couple of times and told them that the police thought two white men drove by in a car and threw [the bomb] in during services, or that they'd already hidden it in the church with a clock set to go off during Sunday school. (15.1)

Okay, now we know that the bombing really was racially motivated. Does that impact how you feel about the event? How would the tragedy be different if it had nothing to do with race? P.S. This bombing was a real historical event, make no mistake.

I ain't never heard of no sickness that makes you kill little girls just because you don't want them in your school. I don't think they're sick at all, I think they just let hate eat them up and turn them into monsters. (15.75)

Sounds like a pretty good explanation of what being racist can do to a person. Put yourself in Byron's shoes. How would you try to explain why someone would kill those girls? Can you think of a different way to try to make sense of their actions?

"How's it fair that two grown men could hate N****es so much that they'd kill some kids just to stop them from going to school? How's it fair that even though the cops down there might know who did it nothing will probably ever happen to those men?" (15.94)

This one's tough to read, huh? Usually when kids say "It's not fair!" they're talking about their little brother getting the last Oreo. This time, Byron is making a really mature comment about the nature of racism.