Monday, February 18, 2008

Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies & Little Misses of Color: Elizabeth Alexander & Marilyn Nelson

I picked up Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies & Little Misses of Color on the recommendation of Elaine over at Wild Rose Reader (Elaine has some *very* extensive and cool Black History Month book lists piling up over there). This one caught my eye because it was co-authored by the poet Elizabeth Alexander, who I've mentioned very briefly here. Ms. Alexander is a rigorous, well-respected poet in every right, and her 2005 book, American Sublime, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

So I know this makes three children's book reviews in a row, but hey, it's a theme month, so we might as well have a theme-within-a-theme, right?

Miss Crandall's School is based on the true story of Prudence Crandall who, in the early 1830's, opened a private finishing school for young ladies ages 8-18 in Canterbury, CT. The school was quite popular and well attended until Ms. Crandall admitted an African American student who had hopes of becoming a teacher.

When the town responded by pulling all their children out of the school and waging massive protests, Ms. Crandall did something unusual. She put an ad in an Abolitionist newspaper advertising her new school for "Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color." Students came from all over New England to receive an education that was not available for young black girls at the time. For many, it was the first time they had left home, and the opportunity seemed enormous.

The town, however, lashed back in unspeakably horrible ways. Beyond passing a "Black Law" prohibiting the education of African American children in the state, the townspeople also refused to sell food to Ms. Crandall and her students, they poisoned the well water, they left dead animals on the doorstep. Ms. Crandall, a true heroine, kept the school going as long as she could, teaching her girls reading, writing, and arithmetic until, in 1834 a mob attacked the school and set it on fire. At this point, Ms. Crandall decided that she could not ensure the safety of the young girls in her care and closed the school down. Two years later, Connecticut's Black Law was repealed, and 50 years after that, the state awarded Ms. Crandall a small teacher's pension as an acknowledgment and token of reparations for the crimes committed against the school.

In Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color, poets Elizabeth Alexander & Marilyn Nelson explore this story from different angles and different points of view. They don't try to tell the whole story in a typical linear fashion. Rather, the book is divided into 6 parts made up of 4 sonnets each, illustrated in a lovely, dreamlike fashion by Floyd Cooper. The poems give us a glimpse of what might have been going on in the minds of the students, of what the small details of their lives might have been like, what their fears and hopes may have been. In one poem, where a mother and father are sending their daughter off to the school, the second stanza begins:
Does "good-bye" mean we hope or mean we weep?
Here is one of the more striking poems from the series that blends that mix of hope and fear so well:

We (by Elizabeth Alexander)

Colored are new to these townsfolk, who say
we have come to take white husbands, but we
are young girls who do not think of such things.
They see us horned, tailed, befeathered, with
enormous bottoms and jaws that snap, red-
devil eyes that could hex a man and make him
leave home. Though the state has said no to slavery,
we know how it happens with colored girls
and white men, their red-devil eyes and tentacles.
Our mothers have taught us remarkably
to blot out these fears, black them out, and flood
our minds with light and God's great face.
We think about that which we cannot see:
something opening wide and bright, a key.
You can learn about the Prudence Crandall Museum here.

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