Study Guide

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 Society and Class

By Christopher Paul Curtis

Society and Class

I knew they weren't going to waste any time with this new guy, it was going to be real easy and real quick with him. He was like nobody we'd seen before. He was raggedy, he was country, he was skinny and he was smiling at everybody a mile a minute. (2.50)

Kenny certainly seems eager to see what the other kids do to Rufus on his first day. Why doesn't Kenny feel sorry for Rufus here? Isn't he supposed to be the nice guy?

Most of the kids were just staring. Then Larry Dunn said, "Lord today, look at the nappy-headed, down-home, country corn flake the cat done drugged up from Mississippi, y'all!" About a million fingers pointed at the new kids and a million laughs almost knocked them over. (2.52)

Rufus and Cody aren't from Mississippi, but they are from the South. Why do the kids at Clark see that as a negative things? Could this be a little history alert? (Think: how does that relate to the historical context of the Civil Rights Movement?)

"You see? You see how you kids is? This boy shows some manners and some respect and y'all want to attack him, that's why nan one of y'all's ever gonna be nothin'!" The bus driver was really mad. (2.55)

Okay, so apparently manners and respect aren't qualities that will advance a kid in the social order of Clark Elementary. But in other types of communities, these qualities would be desirable. Can you think of social groups where manners and respect would be admired? What about intelligence? Why do you think different communities have different social rules?

It didn't take people too long before they counted how many pairs of pants and shirts Rufus and Cody had. That was easy to do because Rufus only had two shirts and two pairs of pants and Cody only had three shirts and two pairs of pants. They also had one pair of blue jeans that they switched off on. (3.97)

Shmoop loves our favorite jeans, so we're not sure what the issue is here. Why do the other kids pay such close attention to this detail about Rufus and Cody? How does this affect their place in the social order at Clark?

Most of the other kids had to wear cheap plastic mittens that would start to crack up after two or three snowball fights or one real cold day. Some of them had to wear socks on their hands and some of them just had to scrunch their arms up in the sleeves of their jackets. (4.72)

Nobody at Clark seems to be rich, but there is still a class distinction between the poor kids and the very poor kids (like Rufus and Cody). Looks like kids will find a reason to pick on other kids no matter what. Ugh.

I don't know why bullies always have such a good sense of humor, but they do. Unless you were the one who was in the machine, you'd probably think that Larry Dunn's Maytag Washes were pretty funny. (4.117)

Do you have a theory on this? Why would a good sense of humor be important for a bully? And BTW, we promise we aren't bullies, no matter how hilarious we are.

The crowd of kids was getting bigger and bigger and was loving this. Not because they wanted to see Larry Dunn get jacked up, but because they wanted to see anybody get it, they'd have been just as happy if it was me or Rufus or someone else. (4.123)

Man, Kenny's impressive. How does he always know what everything's thinking?! This moment reminds us of Rufus's first day when Kenny was waiting to see what the kids would do to him. But here, Kenny doesn't want to stay and watch. What's the deal? Is Kenny different from the others or not?

Byron was the only person in the world who could make you feel sorry for someone as mean as Larry Dunn. (4.134)

Hmm, it seems there's a hierarchy to the bullies, too. Do you agree that Byron is the meanest of them all? Do you feel sorry for Larry here, or do you think he gets what he deserves?

"You really gonna start serving welfare food in this house? You really gonna make me go embarrass myself by signing a welfare list for some groceries like a blanged peon?" (6.17)

Why does Byron care so much if they're eating welfare food? What's the big deal?

"Listen here, Mr. High and Mighty, since you just go to know, food is food. You've eaten welfare food in this house before and if need be you'll eat it again." (6.19)

We've gotten a few clues that the Watsons aren't well off, but this lets us know for sure that they probably just make ends meet. Even though they aren't on welfare right now, they don't seem to have a lot of extra money. That means that for Momma to make lunch for Rufus and Cody every day and for the family to plan a major trip probably isn't easy for them financially.