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African Am. Lit #3

Multicultural Literature for Youth

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Taylor, Mildred D. 1987. The Friendship. Illustrated by Max Ginsburg. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers. ISBN: 0-8037-0418-6.

 

It is 1933 in Mississippi, and the four Logan children enter the Wallace store for their first time. Their parents have forbidden them to go to the store, but they are buying medicine for an elderly neighbor. After being unkindly teased, the children witness an unpleasant encounter between Tom Bee, an elderly Black man, and the white store owner. Tom dares to address the store owner as John instead of Mr. Wallace. Mr. Wallace warns Tom to stop using “John” because the store owner is "losin' face" (32).  After leaving the store, Tom tells the children that he saved John’s life several times. In the spirit of friendship, the store owner told Tom to call him John from now on.

 

Later, Mr. Bee returns to the store to get tobacco and tells the children to wait outside. This time, there are eight White men in the store including Mr. Wallace. Mr. Bee again addresses the store owner by his first name. Bowing to peer pressure, Mr. Wallace shoots Tom in the right leg and “rips (it) open” (50).  Mr. Wallace stands over the injured man, saying that he decided not to kill Tom because of the past. He warns Tom to address him “proper” in the future. Tom walks down the street saying, “Ya hear me, John? Till the judgment day! John! John! John!” (53).

 

The 1998 Coretta Scott King Award winner, The Friendship is a powerful, well-written novella filled with cultural markers such as historically authentic illustrations, local Black dialogue, and a strong sense of community. In Ginsberg's pleasing, black and white illustrations, the four children have African-American facial features and hairstyles from that era. Christopher-John tells Little Man, "Don'tcha worry! We knows you ain't dirty!" (17). The children have been forbidden to enter the Wallace store, but they do so to get medicine for Aunt Callie, who is not really their aunt. As Cassie says, "We couldn't say no to her, not to Aunt Callie" (11).

 

The Friendship is rich thematically. On one level, the theme is the loss of innocence, especially for the youngest child, Little Man. On another level, the theme is the betrayal of friendship in the face of peer pressure and racism. On a third level, the theme is Tom’s willingness and courage for protest the current system and fight for equality in his own, quiet way. The story works well, and while Ms. Taylor foreshadows that Mr. Bee will face consequences, readers are stunned by the brutality of Mr. Wallace’s response. Readers are left with a realistic sense of how frustrating and degrading racism was in the 1933 rural south. Upper elementary school teachers plannig discussions about past and present racism may want to use this book as a starting point.