Week-end Book Review: Black and White: A song that is a story about freedom to go to school together by David Arkin

Sunday, May 8th, 2011

David Arkin, text and illustrations, with introduction by Pete Seeger and musical score by Earl Robinson
Black and White: A song that is a story about freedom to go to school together
New Street Communications, 2011.

Ages 6-10

With an introduction by the beloved Pete Seeger, New Street Communications in Providence, Rhode Island, has reissued David Arkin’s also beloved 1966 illustrated text and music for the award-winning song, Black and White. Arkin, father of actor Alan Arkin, co-wrote the song with Earl Robinson in 1956 to celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown vs. the Board of Education, which outlawed segregation in American public schools. The song was a top-ten hit for the U.K. reggae group Greyhound in 1971 and reached the top of the U.S. charts in a 1972 version by Three Dog Night. The reissue of Arkin’s book is a slender unpaginated volume that treats each lyric line to its own black-and-white (naturally) illustration. Beginning with “the ink is black, the page is white,” the lyrics contrast, and bring together, black and white in simple images relevant to all school children.

“The world is black
The world is white
It turns by day
And it turns by night
It turns so each and everyone
Can take his station in the sun!”

Charcoal drawings accompanying the lyrics feature such images as black and white children, the nine judges with their black robes and white hair, the white chalk on the black board. At the end of the book, Robinson’s score is printed with the complete lyrics in verse form.

Along with Pete Seeger’s introduction, the front matter includes an explanation “About this book and the people who made it” (with the unfortunate grammatical error: “by he and …”). The beneficiary of all royalties on this publication, the Central Asia Institute, is also described briefly. CAI is the non-profit organization that funds Greg Mortenson‘s (Three Cups of Tea) admirable work to create schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Black and White is a moving and appropriate tribute to that work. Parents and teachers who know the song will be delighted to introduce it to their children and students through this inspiring little book, and it will doubtless win new fans among adults as well.

Charlotte Richardson
May 2011

Books at Bedtime: Viola Desmond Won’t be Budged

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

February is Black History Month in Canada so I trundled off to the library to find some good books on the topic.  The librarian showed me a new book they had just received for their collection: Viola Desmond Won’t be Budged by Jody Nyasha Warner and Richard Rudnicki (Groundwood Books, 2010)  This book tells a little known story of a black woman, Viola Desmond, in 1946 who refused to move out of her seat on the main floor of a movie theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia to the balcony where, as the usher tells her, “your people have to sit.”   Viola, however, does not budge.  Eventually she is arrested by the police, put in jail over night, and fined twenty dollars for her resistance.   Clearly, Viola’s act of defiance  was in reaction to racist treatment, but the people of the time somehow could not articulate this second-class treatment of her as such.  Viola was jailed and fined, ostensibly, for not paying the higher ticket price for sitting on the main floor, even though she offered to pay the extra one cent in tax required for such a privilege.  When the black community of Nova Scotia rallied around Viola to appeal her conviction, the case was thrown out of court on a procedural technicality.  The battle was not won; however, the point was made.

When I read this book to my daughter, the moment the theatre usher says to Viola  “You people have to sit in the upstairs section,”  she sensed something was wrong, but had trouble articulating it.   Finally, she said “It’s racism, isn’t it?”  stumbling a little over the R-word.  She could hardly believe that Viola had to go to jail and be fined twenty dollars (which at the time would have been a significant amount to pay,) for not going upstairs to the balcony.   As obvious as the racist treatment was in the situation, the word ‘racism’ somehow just didn’t seem to come up in the text or in the story — it was like the white elephant in the room.  Racial segregation, did in fact, exist in Nova Scotia, but no one wanted to acknowledge it in this situation but Viola herself, by refusing to budge.  And that was what made her rather singular much like Rosa Parks in the U.S.

This is a story Canadians need to know about themselves.  I’m glad to have read it to my daughter whose eyes were opened to the history and experience of black Canadians in Nova Scotia.