leon’s story

Oh, hi! I’m still here. I’m still reading. I’m still saying fuck and shit a lot on Twitter and talking about social justice. But I also started my PhD in children’s and young adult literature, and one of my first semester courses is Critical Content Analysis of Children’s Literature. The first children’s book we’ve read is Leon’s Story by Leon Walter Tillage as told to Susan L. Roth, and I have Thoughts.

This is young middle grade, maybe for third graders or so, and it’s basically The Circuit or The Big Lie but about sharecropping and the South in the 1930s and 40s. It reads like somebody talking and giving an oral history, and the afterword says that yes, it’s basically a straight transcript of this guy talking, so points to me, I guess. It doesn’t hold back and very openly talks about random violence for sport enacted by whites, like the time some people came out with dogs and tried to Most Dangerous Game him, and he says “nigger” all over because that’s what people were saying to him all over, and non-black child readers shouldn’t be coddled or protected from that word, frankly. So yeah, the point-blank statement that back when he was a kid, people called black people “nigger” is on the first page, and I give him all the props. This book came out in 1997. Good luck getting publishers to get behind that now.

Each chapter is a vignette or ramble about whatever the title says, like going to school or running away from Klansmen. For what is likely to be a kid of any color’s first book about this corner of American history, which most people like to gloss over as if it was just a blip on the way to white America’s favorite dead black person, Saint MLK, it does a good job describing stuff. The conversational tone works for awhile until it starts to get real transcript-y, with all of the fillers and disfluencies that any journalist would delete out of courtesy and in the name of clarity. Sure, in some cases those things add authenticity and character, but in this book I think all they do is make what is already an unconventional (for a person who, based on their time spent on earth, has read fewer books than others of us) text hard to understand.

I am of two minds when it comes to books like these – transcribed oral histories for young readers. I strongly believe people should read widely in general, style, content, theme, etc, so I see nothing wrong with reading a few oral histories, even if they are not my personal favorite. But given that this is not a popular (especially not once the 90s were over) type of text, and this book is out of print, and it has a cover not likely to attract non-black readers because of internalized prejudices, I don’t see this getting picked up, which means it has to be required school reading if anyone gets exposed to it. That puts it at risk of seeming like Medicine Books To Make You Think You Can Be Postracial.

None of this is really my point. If kids read it, I think they will find themselves engaged, and hey, it’s also good prep for AP American Lit, where everything pre-1800 is journal entries and sermons.

My actual point is the afterword and then the author’s note (from the “collage artist” and transcriptionist, Susan L. Roth, who I think did collages only to be able to put her name on the book and feel legitimate – certainly not because the collages added anything worthwhile or could really be called collages in the first place) is terrible and ruins everything worthwhile in the preceding pages. If you could cut them out of the book altogether, especially Roth’s note, before giving the book to a student, that would be great, thanks.

Tillage catches us up on his life since the Civil Rights Act, including his 30 years of custodial service at a school and the very touching scholarship the school named in his honor. It turns out that a student at that school heard him talking about his life, went home, and told her collage artist mother that the janitor was a really interesting guy. Roth, then, tries to convince us what a benevolent, righteous white person she was (Tillage does a better job subtly reminding us that the people who did not participate in the horrendous treatment of black people were Jews and Greeks, and I don’t wonder why because I’m intelligent and already know) for inviting Tillage to tell his story in a book.

Look, I’m not trying to be a bitch. I’m glad she helped make this a book. Heaven knows we need more white people to convince editors to buy #ownvoices books when it comes to narratives of people of color. But instead of just telling us that she met him and this was how they sat down and did the interview and blah blah blah, she has to put this in:

What amazes me most about Leon is his prevailing optimism. When I ask him how he can stay as he is, he talks about his parents and his strong religious upbringing…

…”But, Leon,” I’ve said so many times, “You have no bitterness. How come?”

Leon smiles. “What good would that do? I know there were bad times,” he says. “But you know, there were rejoicing times, too.”

You could argue that he’s the one stressing the positivity, sure, and I guess he is, but it just stinks of internalized oppression and the internalized forced gratitude that comes with it. Anytime black people suffer injustice, violence, emotional pain, or inhumane treatment, the first thing the media or anyone else asks them is if they forgive the perpetrator. I could not find you a single instance of anyone asking a survivor of the Holocaust if they forgive the Nazis. Not sure anyone in Tucson forgives Jared Loughner for shooting a Congresswoman and eighteen others, and as far as I know nobody has asked us to. But just like Native/First Nations people are always asked to accept sports teams’ slurs as “honor,” black people in America are always expected to look on the sunny side of fucking everything. They cannot go through the same stages of grief as other people, cannot admit that they are hurt or damaged by the actions of others, cannot be given any outlets for their feelings. They just have to be positive, as if white people knew not what they did.

Tillage’s own afterword is a fine ending, as it shows that while things were awful for a long time, he has made a fine life for himself. It’s Roth that turns a “well, things aren’t so bad anymore so I guess I’m okay” into the implication that what Tillage and other black people went through was more of an inconvenience than physical and emotional terrorism, coupled with social and political disenfranchisement. Not only is the word choice imprecise – the tone of the book isn’t optimistic so much as resigned – but it really implies that there are no lasting effects to experiencing such horrors, so long as you participate in a civil rights march.

Roth surmises, and I agree, that participating in peaceful protests probably made Tillage feel empowered when they had an outcome that mattered, and most certainly his life as an adult is better than his life as a child. But even though Roth ends with a platitude about how you have to remember history to “help the changes to continue,” I’m left feeling like she’s one of those people who thinks that racism is over because Obama is president, or at least one of those people who goes, “well, it’s not over, but it’s so much less now.” The climate today seems almost exactly like it was in Tillage’s day, just with prisons instead of sharecropping and police instead of dogs and ropes. That author’s note seems like a great way to make white people comfortable (if that) with their precious snowflake of a child reading a book about the daily white aggression facing a kid, while if I were reading it to a black child, I would think the author’s note is a slap in the face. Implying that black oppression ended after the civil rights movement is what produces white kids like the ones I went to high school with, who couldn’t understand or even listen to me try to express my frustration or fear or discomfort of being in a mostly white space as a person of color. Roth has made his story into a fairy tale, rather than one about personally coming out of a difficult experience, which is what it actually is. So bleh. Rip out the last pages and then you’ll have yourself a good book.



6 thoughts on “leon’s story

  1. I read this first thing this morning and I’ve been thinking about it for hours. I share your frustration that narratives like this have to be framed into some kind of white saviour narrative or “look how far we’ve come” narrative. And your feelings about forgiveness and “looking on the sunny side of things” are apt. Too often this is used as a way of not looking at something that is staring us right in the face. Has progress been made towards racial equality? I mean, I suppose, but focussing on that is a little like telling a starving child that the land they’re standing on used to be molten lava and aren’t they lucky it’s not anymore. Or “you used to be completely on fire but now you’re only partially on fire so isn’t that nice?”

    But forgiveness – ahh, that one is so tricky for me because of my religious background. Forgiveness comes up A LOT in my writing (you’ll see it’s a big theme in ZRF and it was in AUDACIOUS and CAPRICIOUS too). I have to be careful not to assume others feel the same way about forgiveness as I do, and to honor their need to “hold a grudge”. It doesn’t seem healthy *to me* to dwell on past wrongs, but neither does running marathons and I would never presume to advise people to not do that. Anyway, the Catholic view of forgiveness is that it is conditional on ceasing the offending behaviour. So obviously a blanket forgiveness to white supremacy is not appropriate. Not yet. Maybe one day it will be but I feel like we’d be looking pretty far into the future.

    • hahaha that lava simile is going in my back pocket for future use.

      I am grudge-ier than most, certainly, and it’s decidedly unhealthy after maybe a few good days of wallowing, but I think then you could take the “forgive, don’t forget” argument for some religious folks (I could be wrong, but that seems to cover the don’t dwell but also don’t excuse behavior thing, no?).

      • I feel like forgiveness is ultimately for the offendee, not the offender anyway. I was victimized as a child and have no contact with the offenders whatsoever. They would never know if I forgave them or not, but I do. For my sake, not theirs.

        • Definitely. But thinking about how lately I have realized that there are people from high school I would like to apologize to, I would never expect or ask them to forgive me, because I don’t deserve it. I think that’s what gets me about forgiveness versus acknowledgment of an apology and not letting the transgression take up your every thought every day after that. There are some people on my shit list who could apologize to me today and I would have nothing kind to say and no cause to forgive them, because if something has really ruined you, people don’t get a pass. Are they people I think about daily? Nope. Have some of them had a lasting effect and created everlasting damage? Yup. Do I think about them more than I need to? No, but if I am going to think of them, I’m not going to forgive them. So I dunno; I think you could take it to forgive/never forget or never forgive/try to forget, but you can’t forgive AND forget.

          • As a good Catholic I should say that everyone deserves forgiveness as long as they repent. But since I’m also an atheist, I have a bet both ways. 😉 That said, I think our ideas about forgiveness and punishment feed into the incarceral state, which we all know is fucked. But that’s a whole other conversation.

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