Monday, December 30, 2013

Warriors Don't Cry by Melba Patillo Beals

Genre: Nonfiction, memoir
Rating: *****
Pages: 290
The year is 1957. The place: Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas, the Jim Crow South. Melba Patillo is one of the first nine black students to enter the school. While the white kids are trying to pass math, she's just trying to walk from one class to another without getting killed.
Though I never knew much about Central's integration, I somehow assumed that the first day was the worst. Things got better as the year went on. The white students would get used to having black people in their classes. That's not at all how it went. The attacks only got worse as time went on.
At the beginning of the year, the governor's tactics to keep them out are so ridiculous, I almost felt like I was reading a dystopian novel. Thousands of civilians turn up to form a mob in front of the school. Then the Arkansas National Guard gets called in. President Eisenhower has to bring in reinforcements. No one should need a jeep convoy, a helicopter, and a thousand trained soldiers to escort them to school.
But it's not an adventure. This was more trial than triumph for the Little Rock Nine. Melba has nails, rocks, rotten eggs, flaming paper, acid, and dynamite thrown at her in the halls. The teachers are worse than useless. When a boy pulls a knife on her during an assembly, the teacher tells Melba to sit down and stop disturbing the other students.
By the end of the book, I was tired. I just wanted Melba's year to be over. And all I did was read about it. This was her life. You have to admire her courage. I know people who switch schools because first graders taunted them on the playground. Melba had death threats. Halfway through the year she considers suicide-until her grandma points out all the white kids would throw a party. That's the point when Melba decides to stop being a victim and become a warrior.
The most interesting thing: Melba never paints herself as a hero. She may be a 'warrior on God's battlefield', but she's the wounded, muddy, battle-weary kind. The people she does heroize are the ones who helped her out. Danny, her bodyguard, who helped her wash acid out of her eyes. Link, a white student who loaned her his car to escape attackers. Marissa, a mentally handicapped girl who saved her from rape. By clubbing her would-be rapist with a metal lunchbox.
Warriors Don't Cry is a searing memoir that will strike anyone who's suffered racism, bullying, or loneliness. It's a book for our generation to learn about the past. It's a book for older people to see what they never could before. It's not a pretty story. But it's one that needs to be read.