Read the excerpt from Christopher Paul Curtis’ novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 and Dudley Randall’s poem "Ballad of Birmingham" and then respond to the following prompt.
Author Christopher Paul Curtis has written that he was drafting the story of The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 when his son brought home the poem “Ballad of Birmingham,” which he was studying in school. Curtis immediately began to revise his own novel to include the historical events of the bombing and to capture the poem’s emotion. In this way, the poem had a direct influence on the novel, even though the two texts present different information and use different literary elements to develop perspectives on these tragic events.
Write an essay analyzing how Chapter 14 of the novel is inspired by the poem and how authors Dudley Randall and Christopher Paul Curtis develop their different perspectives. Be sure to include an analysis of how both use the assumption that the children will be safe in a church to create an extreme emotional reaction in readers. Use specific details from both the novel excerpt and the poem to support your analysis.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham, Chapter 14 (excerpt)
Note: In this excerpt, the Wool Pooh is a “monster” that Kenny thinks he sees during stressful situations.
I know it was Sunday because I heard Joetta getting ready for Sunday school. The neighbors came and got her as soon as I got out of bed. I was standing in the doorway of the bedroom doing my morning scratches when she walked by.
“Hi, Kenny. See you later.”
She had on a fluffy white skirt, a regular blouse, and the little white gloves Grandma Sands had made her. I don’t know why, but I said, “Joey...”
She stopped. “Huh?”
I couldn’t think why I called her name so I just kind of threw out, “You look real pretty.”
She smiled and thanked me. She did look kind of pretty too, she had on a lacy white hat and little lacy white socks and her shiny, shiny black shoes.
The people that came to get her saw me and one of them said, “How come you ain’t coming to Sunday school, young man?”
I smiled and said, “I forgot to get up in time.”
* * * * *
Momma stuck her head out of the back door and got ready to yell for me but when she saw me plopped down at the foot of the tree she smiled. “Well, Kenneth, I thought you’d wandered off. How are you this morning?”
“It was too hot to sleep.”
“Think you can last one more week?”
“Well, isn’t this better than winter up North?”
“Quit teasing, Momma, you know it isn’t. I wish I was back in our igloo in Flint.”
She laughed and the screen door closed behind her.
I started going to sleep under the tree and thought I was dreaming when the noise came.
I felt it more than heard it. The giant old magnolia tree shook one time like something had given it a hard snatch by the roots. Then there was a sound like a far-off thunderstorm coming. Except it only thundered one long time.
It seemed like every animal and bird and bug in Birmingham stopped making noise for about two seconds. It seemed like everything that was alive stopped whatever it was doing and was wondering the same thing:
What was that noise?
Doors opened in the neighborhood and people came out and looked up in the sky but there was nothing there, not one cloud, nothing to give a clue to what the big hollow sound was, nothing but bright, hot, stupid Alabama sun.
Dad came to the back door, in pajama pants and a T-shirt. “What was that? Was that back here?”
I shook my head. He looked like a bell went off in his head and said, “Oh Lord, where’s Byron?”
Byron poked his head out of the door, still in his underpants and still doing his morning scratches. “What?” he said. “I didn’t do nothing. I was asleep. What was that bang?”
Dad kept looking toward the sky and said, “Hmm, must have been a sonic boom.”
He closed the screen door.
If this had happened in Flint I would have investigated to find out what it was, but that horrible sun had sucked all the curiosity out of me. I leaned back against the tree and closed my eyes. I don’t know if I got to sleep or not but Momma’s scream made me jump nearly to the magnolia’s top branch. I’d never heard Momma’s voice sound so bad.
I felt like I did that time I stuck a bobby pin in a wall socket.
I ran to the door and into the house and By almost knocked me over running back toward the bedroom.
“What’s wrong with Momma?” I asked.
I looked in the living room but Momma and Dad weren’t there. I ran back to the bedroom, where Byron was trying to wrestle into a pair of pants.
“By! What happened?”
He got the pants up and said, “A guy just came by and said somebody dropped a bomb on Joey’s church.” And he was gone, exploding out of the front door trying to zip up his pants at the same time he ran off the porch.
Some of the time I wondered if something really was wrong with me. Byron had just told me that someone had dropped a bomb on Joey’s church, hadn’t he? If that was true why did I just stand there looking stupid? If that was true why was I only thinking about how much trouble By was going to be in when they heard how loud he’d slammed the screen door, and asking myself why hadn’t he put on his shoes? His socks wouldn’t last two minutes on the Alabama mud.
I ran out onto the porch and into the street. It looked like someone had set off a people magnet, it seemed like everyone in Birmingham was running down the street, it looked like a river of scared brown bodies was being jerked in the same direction that By had gone, so I followed.
I guess my ears couldn’t take it so they just stopped listening. I could see people everywhere making their mouths go like they were screaming and pointing and yelling but I didn’t hear anything. I saw Momma and Dad and Byron holding on to each other, all three of them looking like they were crazy and trying to keep each other away from the pile of rocks that used to be the front of the church. Momma was so upset that she even forgot to cover the space in her front teeth. I couldn’t hear her but I’d bet a million dollars she was shouting, “Why?” over and over like a real nut. It looked like Dad’s mouth was yelling, “Joetta!”
I was kind of surprised no adult stopped me from walking right up to the church.
I got right next to where the door used to be when the guy came out with a little girl in his arms. He had on the same thing Dad did, a T-shirt and pajama pants, but it looked like he’d been painting with red, red paint. The little girl had on a blue dress and little blue frilly socks and black shiny, shiny shoes.
I looked into the church and saw smoke and dust flying around like a tornado was in there. One light from the ceiling was still hanging down by a wire, flickering and swinging back and forth, and every once in a while I could see stuff inside. I could see a couple of grown-ups moving around looking lost, trying to pick things up, then the smoke would cover them, and then the bulb would flicker out and they’d disappear. I could see Bibles and coloring books thrown all over the place, then they’d get covered by the smoke. I could see a shiny, shiny black shoe lying halfway underneath some concrete, then it got covered with smoke, and then the light bulb flickered out again.
I bent down to pull the shoe from under the concrete and tugged and pulled at it but it felt like something was pulling it back.
All the hair on my head jumped up to attention. The light flickered back on and the smoke cleared and I could see that hanging on to the other end of the shoe was a giant gray hand with cold, hard square fingers.
Oh-oh. I looked up and saw a familiar guy and before he got covered with smoke he looked at me and I saw he had big square shoulders and nothing where his face should have been. The Wool Pooh.
Oh, man. I gave the shoe one more hard tug and it popped loose from a frilly white sock. I got real scared. I walked as slowly and as quietly as I could out of the church. Maybe if I moved quietly he wouldn’t come for me. Maybe if I walked and didn’t look back he’d leave me alone. I walked past where the adults were still screaming and pointing, I walked past where that guy had set the little girl in blue, right next to where someone else had set a little girl in red. I knew if Joey sat down next to those two their dresses would make the red, white, and blue of the American flag. Grown-ups were kneeling down by them and the adults’ hands fluttered down toward the little girls, then, before they touched anything, fluttered back up, over and over. Their hands looked like a little flock of brown sparrows that were too nervous to land.
I walked past people lying around in little balls on the grass crying and twitching, I walked past people squeezing each other and shaking, I walked past people hugging trees and telephone poles, looking like they were afraid they might fly off the earth if they let go. I walked past a million people with their mouths wide-opened and no sounds coming out. I didn’t look behind me and walked back as quick as I could to Grandma Sands’s house.
I felt like I floated up the front stairs, then I made sure the screen door didn’t slam and took my shoes off and went in and sat on my bed. I hadn’t remembered to make it that morning so I got up and tucked the sheets in and fluffed up the pillow like Momma does. I sat back on the bed and looked down at my hands.They were acting like nervous little sparrows too so I squeezed them between my knees.
I reached in my pocket and took out the shiny, shiny shoe. When me and the Wool Pooh were trying to grab it away from each other the back part had gotten ripped. Man! The shoe was ripped like it was made out of paper! The picture of the little white boy with the girl’s hairdo and the dog was torn right in half.All that was left was the dog, smiling at me like he’d just eaten a cat.
I tried to remember if I’d been mean to Joey this morning. I guessed I hadn’t. I never did tell her how she helped Byron save my life in the water. I guessed I should have.
“Where’d you go? How’d you get back here so fast? How come you changed your clothes?” My ears had decided to work again.
I looked up toward the door but stopped looking when I saw the white, white frilly socks standing on the wooden floor in front of my door. I guessed the Wool Pooh was taking Joey around for her last visits. I was afraid to look up, I was afraid to look at her face, I knew I’d see the Wool Pooh’s rope tied around her waist.
“Hi, Joey,” was all I could think of saying.
“Where’re Momma and Daddy?”
“Oh. You’ll probably get to see them next. He takes you around to see your family before you go.”
She sat beside me on the bed. I still wouldn’t look at her. I dropped the shoe and used my knees to stop the sparrows from fluttering around.
Oh, man! This was very scary. I’d seen the two little girls on the grass in the red and blue dresses and I didn’t want to see my little sister that way too.
“What’s wrong with you, Kenny? How come you’re looking so funny?”
“I guess I should have told you thanks for saving my life, huh? Is it too late to tell you that?”
Joey didn’t say anything for a second, then got up off the bed. “Why’re you acting so crazy? Where’re Mommy and Daddy? What’s that you dropped? What’re you trying to hide?”
She picked her shoe up from where I’d dropped it.
“Oooh, Kenny, whose shoe is this? What did you do to it?”
“It’s yours, Joey, I got it from the Wool Pooh.”
“You better quit trying to scare me, Kenny, or I’m gonna tell Momma! This better not be my shoe or you’re in big trouble, buster.” Joey walked out of the room but I still couldn’t look at her. The Wool Pooh was pull-whisshh-stopping her away. “Joey!”
After a second she came back into my bedroom. “What?” She was sounding real, real mean.
I didn’t look up. I kept looking at my hands. “I love you.”
Whop! The shiny, shiny, ripped black shoe hit me right in my chest. “Whose shoe is that?”
I finally looked up to see what Joey looked like. There were no ropes around her waist and nobody with square toes was hanging around. But what really surprised me was that Joey had both of her shiny, shiny black shoes in her hands. She’d taken them off at the front door.
“Kenneth Bernard Watson, you better tell me what’s going on or I’m really gonna tell! I’m not playing with you!” Joey was imitating Momma so much that she didn’t say “Bernard,” she said “Buh-Nod.”
“Joey, didn’t you go to Sunday school?”
“You know I did.”
“Don’t you know what happened?”
Joey sat back down next to me. “Kenny, I’m not playing with you, why are you acting so weird?” Her voice was starting to get all choky. “Why aren’t you still in that church?”
“It was so hot in there that I went and stood on the porch and saw you.”
“Saw me? Where?”
“Kenny, you’d better stop this nonsense. You know you waved at me from across the street, you know when I tried to come to you kept laughing and running in front of me, you know I chased you all the way down that street!” Joey got a funny look on her face. “But you had on different clothes.” Joey’s voice was getting higher with everything she said, and when she was done she was sounding real crazy.
“That’s it! You’re through this time, mister. You don’t know when to stop teasing, do you? That’s it, I’m telling on you!”
Joey stood up and ran up the stairs screaming, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!”
I could hear Grandma Sands moving around upstairs and she finally clomped down the steps and came into my room. Joey was hanging on her arm still screaming.
Grandma Sands must have real thin blood, because even though it was hot as a furnace in the house she had on a big thick nightgown and a big thick robe. The smell of baby powder came into the room a second after she did.
“What on earth are y’all doing raising this much Cain this early in the morning? Joetta honey, stop that noise. Kenny, what’s wrong with this child?”
Joetta finally said, “He’s trying to scare me, Grandma Sands, he won’t tell me where Mommy is!” Joey kept boo-hooing like a real idiot.
“Kenneth, where’s Wilona and Daniel?” Grandma Sands pulled Joey off her leg and held her shoulders, then gave her a little shake. “Joetta, you stop that noise! Grandma Sands can’t handle that much noise this early, sweetheart.”
A bell went off in my head! The Wool Pooh had missed Joey! He wasn’t having much luck at all with any of the Weird Watsons! I had to go to the church to get Momma and Dad and Byron!
Grandma Sands said, “What are all them sirens doing? Lord, has the whole world gone mad today? Where’s your momma and daddy?”
The last thing I heard was Grandma Sands yelling, “Boy, if you slam that door like that again...” I looked down and saw my socks flying over the Alabama mud.
"Ballad of Birmingham"
By Dudley Randall
(On the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963)
“Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?”
“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren’t good for a little child.”
“But, mother, I won’t be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free.”
“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
And sing in the children’s choir.”
She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.
The mother smiled to know her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.
For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.
She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?”