The Rock And The River by Kekla Magoon
Aladdin, New York, 2009
Borrowed from the library.
This is a book that should win many awards. Kekla Magoon has taken a difficult time in civil rights history and brought it to life with grace and lyrical language.
Sam is 13 and the son of civil rights activist who is close to Reverend Martin Luther King. He and his older brother, Stick, have grown up making signs and marching in demonstrations. It is 1968 in Chicago and some people feel that the movement is not bringing change fast enough. When Stick decides to join the Black Panther Party, Sam has to decide if he will follow his beloved brother or stay on the path his father has chosen. Magoon expresses Sam’s thoughts in a way that is very rare. There is deep understanding and compassion here.
As Stick went on, I let myself be captivated by his words, swept up into his vision of the movement. I had been so deep inside Father’s for so long that it felt good to rise above what I knew. I entered another space in that moment, as if I could see a corner of Stick’s mind that had long been hidden from me. From page 232.
The anger returned then, in a way I hadn’t imagined possible. Anger can come to you so tangibly, so physically it’s like a separate person. As if someone enters your body, stands there with one fist in your throat and the other tight around your gut. It’s like tears you can’t cry, but stronger, more insistent. Deeper. And it won’t let go. It’s cramped and it’s crying, but it won’t let go. From page 254.
Writing about the Black Panther Party in a balanced way could not have been easy. The Panther organization should be considered one of the most important political and social movements in American history but, unless you were directly involved or have studied Black history, they have faded from cultural memory. Maybe that’s because there are very few things more frightening to a white person then a black person with a gun. That is how most people saw the Black Panthers.
During the 1960’s the government and the press chose to portray the Black Panthers as radical, gun wielding thugs. As a white person, or even a middle-class black person, unless you were willing to look past the lurid headlines, you missed the attempts to end police brutality, the food programs, free health clinics and systems of social support that were the party’s primary focus. The federal government developed a program to spy on, infiltrate and destroy them. I’m sure that today they would immediately be labeled “domestic terrorists”.
In The Rock and the River, Kekla Magoon brings the Panther’s goals back into focus and shines a light on divisions within the civil rights community. I hope this novel gains wide recognition. It has won the 2010 John Steptoe Award for New Talent and has been nominated for an NAACP Image Award. Magoon is a brilliant, articulate young women and deserves high praise. Her website is here. Twenty-eight Days Later has an interview with her here.
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