Grandmama’s Pride: A Tool Against Both Racism and Ageism

The search for a true “positive aging” picture book is much like picking through a lovely box of chocolates—so many appeal at first, but then disappoint upon further “investigation.” But with Grandmama’s Pride, by Becky Birtha, there is no such thing as disappointment. It’s the powerful story of an African-American grandmother who stood her ground, in her own quiet way, against segregation in the 1950’s southern U.S. Along with thousands of others she walked everywhere, refusing to ride buses that required them to sit in the back, setting an example of pride and action for change for her young granddaughter. She is a role model for African Americans and also for younger generations. (Albert Whitman 2005; ages 6-9)

P1000664Told by six year old Sarah Marie, it is fiction, but based on real events. Sarah Marie travels with her mother and younger sister from their home in the North to visit Grandmama in the old South weighed down by Jim Crow laws. It tackles a tough subject, but is never heavy handed and most kids should relate to the lighter aspects of visits to grandma’s house.

Sarah Marie learns to read that summer and notices the Whites Only signs on drinking fountains, bathrooms, lunch counters and even the separate waiting area at the bus station—where “Colored people” like her can only stand. Like her grandmother, she shields her little sister from this harsh reality with comments such as, “You don’t want to sit on those public benches. You don’t know who’s been sitting there.”

The water color illustrations by Colin Bootman are realistic and evoke the 1950’s in a soft, but not nostalgic manner. I appreciate the dignity he confers on Sarah Marie’s grandmother—portraying her resolution perfectly.

They walk the ten blocks downtown in the hot sun rather than take the bus. Black riders at that time were required to give up seats in the front of the bus to white riders. “We didn’t know that Grandmama refused to take the downtown bus, where people our color had to ride in the rear,” she says. “We didn’t know that Grandmama’s pride was too tall to fit in the back of a bus.”

Sarah Marie notices much and later, back home, she reads unfamiliar words in the newspapers. “Boycott. Ballot. Civil Rights. Supreme Court Ruling. Laws Overturned.” The author’s note elaborates, sharing Rosa Parks’ arrest in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her seat to a white rider. It was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who galvanized black citizens to boycott the city buses and finally win the right to sit anywhere.

The bus where Rosa Parks made history

The bus where Rosa Parks made history

The author of this award winning book, Becky Birtha, “…was named after her great grandmother who lived as a slave until the age of 12,” but the book is based on her mother’s mother. True to history, the next summer Sarah Marie finds many changes in her Grandmama’s town including access to the front seats of the bus. “We held our ground and got those laws struck down,” Grandmama says. Such simple words do not begin to show the strength of character such acts required.

Next Steps

Let’s put two and two together—few people think of the ageism experienced by older adults in the same light as other abuses of human rights, yet many experts believe it is the last “ism” that remains to be tackled. “Just as racism and sexism are based on ethnicity and gender, ageism is a form of systematic stereotyping and discrimination against people simply because they are old,” said Robert N. Butler, M.D.

Dr. Butler coined the term ‘ageism’ in 1968 and elaborated in his book The Longevity Revolution, “Ageism takes shape in stereotypes and myths, outright disdain and dislike, sarcasm and scorn, subtle avoidance, and discriminatory practice…”

Becca R. Levy Ph.D. of Yale University has conducted extensive research on just what age stereotypes do to us all—affecting even our physical health. In a journal article she draws a comparison between African Americans and older Americans—quoting from Invisible Man, a novel by Ralph Ellison about his experience as an African American living in 1930’s White society.

“…he describes a process that may occur today for older individuals who must navigate through a youth-oriented society in which negative stereotypes of aging may literally harm the physical and cognitive functioning of older individuals.”

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Integrated Bus Suggestions December 1956. Henry Ford Museum, Detroit USA.

Highlighting positive portrayals of aging is my own weapon of choice against age stereotypes. Kids take in negatives from a very young age and from many sources. Positive aging picture books promote truths about older adults. Please share one soon with an impressionable young mind.

Sources:

Butler, Robert N. The Longevity Revolution:  The Benefits and Challenges of Living a Long Life.  New York:  Public Affairs Press, 2008.

Levy, Becca R. “Mind Matters: Cognitive and Physical Effects of Aging Self-Stereotypes.”      Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.  Volume  58B. No. 4. (2003): pages 203-211.

All photos by Lindsey McDivitt

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