by Sam Juliano
Fannie Lou Hamer is an obscure name when one chronicles the forerunners of the civil rights movement in an elementary school classroom. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks have been the subject of picture books, biographies and historical surveys, but other figures have been lamentably relegated to either scant discussion or footnote status. Carole Boston Weatherford and Ekua Holmes’ Fannie Lou Hamer: The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement fills a vital gap in the literature with a work heavily indebted to Hamer’s own diaries. Weatherford’s spirited free verse poetry is presented in twenty-two titled pieces that tell the story of a courageous woman who was to become one of the civil rights movement’s most renowned adherents. Like virtually all African Americans who were born during first decades of the twentieth century Hamer was born into squalor, the last of twenty children born to sharecroppers living in the Mississippi Delta, a place says Weatherford where the soil was as rich as black folks was poor, where cotton was king and Jim Crow the law. Hamer’s birth resulted in a fifty dollar dividend to her parents for “producing a future field hand.” The symbolically titled “Delta Blues” paints a picture of the most demanding kind of physical labor in the hundred degree cotton fields from dawn till dusk. One can recall Big Sam in Gone with the Wind announcing to the workers as darkness sets in at Tara: “It’s quittin’ time!” Indeed, the author relates Hamer’s recollections as a situation without an alternative as factories were new then, and not present in Sunflower County. Sharecropping was a gentler name for slavery, and Frances gets to the crux of the situation when she sizes up the situation of the blacks never gaining enough money for their share of the crop to pay for necessities borrowed from the owners when she laments Black people work so hard, and we ain’t got nothin’ to show for it. The cotton field workers picked fifteen tons of cotton a season and incurred cut knuckles and wrists from dried bristles, yet there was no end in site, and no chance for relocation, an option available for the Dust Bowler Oakies in the 1930’s.
Weatherford relates stories about Hamer’s mother spoiling her because she was the youngest, among other examples making her sisters and brother give her piggyback rides (though she says she weighed more than some of them) and averted a spanking from Dad for spilled a pot of boiled rice, due to Mama’s intervention. In the verse titled “My Mother Taught Me” Weatherford poignantly asserts that the Mom “wore rags patched by rags” so her children could look passably dressed. Frances observed at that time that whites “had food, clothes, everything” while blacks often went hungry and wished Why wasn’t I white, so that we could have some food? The mother is undaunted and develops self-esteemed among her children, obtaining a black doll for Frances, and tells her that black is beautiful. The four month school year (December through March) allowed only the time of the year the children weren’t needed in the fields. The squalor was related in uncompromising terms:
Not much food and rarely meat on our table- often greens with gravy or onions with bread or cornmeal/Neighbors gave my mother chitlins, pig’s feet, and hog heads for helping with the slaughter./Our beds were cotton sacks stuffed with corn shucks and grass./We had no electricity, heat or plumbing, and no money for a doctor to look after whatever caused this limp or to save my mother’s sight when a wood chip hit her eye.
One heartbreaking story relates the times the family was knocked right down to dirt poor after resentful white neighbors poison their livestock after the father managed to buy a wagon, plow, three mules and two cows (one a milker named Della). Thereafter, some of the family members moved north hoping for a better life and a high salary, but Hamer stays back to attend to her mother, then in her eighties, who was going blind, and worn down from all the strenuous labor she accomplished. Hamer often read to her, but confessed she never regretted staying behind (Not a single minute, not a single note) in good measure for the powerful message songs her mother sang to her.
Then our future freedom fighter married Perry Hamer (known as “Pap”), a quiet man as “steady as a rock.” They worked at the Marlowe plantation where he drove a tractor and she took down rows. They canned produce, shot rabbits and squirrels and caught fish, while selling bootleg liquor on the side to avert going hungry, but they were still poor. Then Weatherford relates the worst kind of demeaning regard:
We couldn’t stand that the Marlows’ dog, Old Honey, had its own indoor bathroom while me and Pap used an outhouse because our toilet stayed broken. The owner wouldn’t fix it. Said we didn’t need it.
And then they were even cheated by the bosses, who rigged the scales. An unconscionable Mississippi law stated that poor people “had no business making babies” and Hamer found herself losing more than just the benign tumor she was tricked into removing. This inhuman act But that occurred in 1961, which was seven years after her and her husband had adopted two little girls. In any event the destruction of her procreation capacity was an act of inhumanity that can have no equal.
Frances soon found out that she had voting rights, and boldly traveled thirty miles by bus to the home of the violent White Citizens’ Council. They encountered ominous barking dogs and rife-toting men who were present to scare her and those who were with her. The group later paid a bogus fine for riding in a yellow truck that looked too much like a school bus, and narrowly eluded bullets fired her way by white Mississipians who wouldn’t accept her role in expanding black rights. Inevitably the father lost his job and Frances moved around to hide out from danger. She took a bus and became a leader who spoke at gatherings. Some began to label her “the spirit of the civil rights movement.” After a stop in Columbis, Mississippi enroute to South Carolina, she was jailed after being served a meal at a whites-only counter, and was nearly beat to death by other prisoners. Later she was told that her “singing” is what got her through the horrible ordeal, though there was permanent damage to kidneys and eyesight. But she was marching toward Promised Land, and remained undaunted, a bad leg and all. She ran for Congress, sustained death threats, was devastated over the killing of black students.
Frances traveled to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City and met with Dr. King and Vice-Presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey. Frances reflected on the colonial treatment of Africans by European powers and realized she was treated worse in the United States. She returned home and became with two others the first black women to sit in Congress on the House floor. She sued Sunflower County for blocking voter registration and helped to register thousands of new voters, helping to shame Congress into passing the Voting Rights Act.
“Say it loud – I’m black and I’m proud.” -James Brown
This credo became the battle cry of the movement, and Frances recruited people of color to institute it, even while lamenting the loss of beloved white staffers. She admitted “No race has a corner on decency. Further gains on the state and nationwide level and a rekindled commitment toward her fellow men and women brought Frances new-found relevance and no rest for her mission. She may have lost her bid for the state senate because the vote was rigged, but in 1976 the Congressional Black Caucus, made up of black congresspeople handed her a lifetime service award. Her story was an unlikely one, but one of the most inspiring of any American. Hamer spoke at rallies and colleges, and was known for her booming voice and soulful singing. She was a true original, the likes of which will never be seen again. In thoughts, words and deed she was a true American.
Holmes’ arresting art collage illustrations run the gamut from quilt design to pop art and they superbly evoke the southern milieu and familial affections that soon enough took on a more austere context during the Civil Rights Movement. The earlier predominance of yellow incorporated into the landscape and apparel served as a visual conscription of pride and hope. One joyful tapestry showing the cows that were later poisoned by a resentful white man is painfully ironic, overseen by flower bursts. The impressionist “Motherhood” panel is one of the book’s most magnificent. Showing Frances and her two adopted daughters in a phantasmagorical terrain denotes hope and togetherness, framed by doves and green leaves, yet swirling oranges and purples portend the social turbulence ahead. The drawings of Hamer -upbeat with her husband in the field, raising her right hand in the church and speaking in her yellow, cherry embroidered dress underline a woman of faith and resilience, who will carry her intentions through. The colorful African collage is an absolute stunner with hands and the much loved boiled green peanuts extended across many shapes and designs dominated by various shades of red and yellow. The minimalist black power configurations make excellent use of design and silhouette, and the melting pot of illustrative sign posts accompanying the “America’s Problem” verse is extraordinary is documenting a tumultuous era. Another of the book’s most exquisite panels is the early three-quarter design for “Delta Blues” which envisions the cotton field slaves as joined at the hip with the cotton bags, while at the forefront Frances and her mom are pictured in more scene-specific terms. Throughout, Holmes’ art is strikingly immediate befitting a life and a time of injustice, unrest and the road to freedom. The swirling design of the cover picturing our fearless protagonist and some of her supporters in obfuscated silhouette is one of the year’s finest in that category.
Weatherford and Holmes have made a vital contribution to the civil rights movement with this wrenching and inspiring story of one of the movement’s greatest adherents. The Caldecott committee ought to look very closely at Holmes’ transcendent collage work.
Note: This is the twenty-fifth review in the 2015 Caldecott Contender series that will be published at this site over the coming months, up until the January 11th scheduled awards date. The books that will be examined are not necessarily ones that are bonafide contenders in the eyes of the voting committee, but rather the ones this writer feels should be. The order they will be presented is arbitrary as some of my absolute favorites will be presented near the end.