*The Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality by JoAnn Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy. Bloomsbury, 2019, 309 pages including appendix
Reading Level: Teen, ages 12-15
Recommended for: ages 12-up
When someone says an ugly word about us/ because we are black,/ I know they are ignorant./ Ignorant of God,/ ignorant of what it means to be one of God’s children.
I know they are backward,/ and I look forward.
Clinton, Tennessee wasn’t a bad place for a black girl to grow up, even in the 1950s. There were rules, of course, most unwritten: no going into the library or pool; balcony only at the movies; in the grocery store, stay out of aisles where the whites are shopping. But there were white families in the black neighborhood–a few–and black families–a few–on the edges of the white neighborhood. Everyone was nice, as long as the rules were observed. Then came Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Almost all the public schools in the south ignored it, but because of a previous lawsuit brought against Clinton schools, a federal judge ruled they must desegregate in the 1956 fall semester. JoAnn Boyce, barely 15, was one of the “Clinton 12” who enrolled in Clinton High School that August and became national icons.
At first the process seemed orderly: I think this is going to be fine./ I think this is going to be friendly . . . If school were weather, I would say it’s serious/ with a chance of friendly. But within a few days, careful politeness unraveled. A white activist moved in and stirred up riots and protests. The KKK showed up. White students who had made friendly gestures backed away. A four-month siege of threats and violence proved too much for the twelve, who shrank to eight by spring semester.
JoAnn tells her own story in verse–not all blank verse (which sometimes makes me wonder what’s the point), but a variety of forms including sonnet, cascade, cinquain, acrostic, and more. The choice of narrative form gives her recollections an immediacy, poignancy, and emotional grip that helps us experience the joys of her life as well as the trials. We walk through those four months with her, as faith in her fellow man wavers–but faith in God never does. Over time she saw that faith rewarded. Yes, there’s still work to do, but books like this help us realize a lot of work has already been done.
The appendix includes photos, timeline, and detailed afterward bringing readers up to date on each of the “12.”
Cautions: Language (Some use of the “n-word”)
Overall Rating: 5 (out of 5)
- Worldview/moral value: 5
- Artistic value: 5