It is hard to imagine going to a school where only one race is allowed to get a proper education while the others struggle to even set a foot in the school. Before the Brown vs. Board of Education court case, many states across the United States had mandatory segregation laws which required blacks and whites to attend separate schools. On May 17th, 1954, U.S. Supreme Court declared that it is unconstitutional to have segregated public schools in America and that there should be integration.
The enforcement of integration meant breaking down the barriers of discrimination that separated blacks from the rest of the American society.
In this paper, I will discuss about how the memoir Warriors Don’t Cry, written by Melba Patillo Beals, successfully portrays the life of nine black students, following Brown vs. Board of Education case, who attended an all-white school (her being one of the nine) but faced harsh treatments yet remained strong and undefeated like warriors, and significantly defiant to the white people.
And, what makes Warriors Don’t Cry such a good memoir.
From the memoir Warriors Don’t Cry written by Melba, we know that in 1957 there were nine black students (known as the Little Rock Nine) including Melba, who were accompanied by soldiers into Central High School, an all-white school located in Little Rock, Arkansas. Even after the integration process began, the Little Rock Nine had to fight for their education due to the unfairness caused by racism among the American society.
Warriors Don’t Cry succeeds in making readers feel sympathy and horror for the Little Rock Nine because, for instance, they were being spit on in school hallways and were chased by an angry mob of white parents. Poor Melba was kicked, beaten and had acid thrown in her face. The white segregationists never once stopped trying to get the Black students out of the school and even barred them from participating in the school’s extracurricular activities. Minnijean Brown, one of the nine students, got expelled from Central High School for retaliating against the white bullies. Even the parents of the black children faced harassment. The mother of Gloria Ray (one of the nine students) got fired from her job when she refused to remove her daughter from attending the all-white school.
As a result of the whites’ hostile acts against the nine black students, while reading the memoir, the readers feel a sense of panic because of the hatred that the white mob openly displayed and acted upon before the black students even entered Central High School: “Under siege, Elizabeth slowly made her way toward the bench at the bus stop. Looking straight ahead as she walked, she did not acknowledge the people yelping at her heels, like mad dogs. Mother and I looked at one another, suddenly conscious that we, too, were trapped by a violent mob” . It was painful when Melba lost her social privileges and her black friends were afraid to come to her birthday party because of safety concerns; “Melba, the truth is we’re all afraid to come to your house” .
With all these racist treatments going on, in the memoir we get to see how Melba’s Grandma, India, was a strong supporting figure for her. She taught Melba that power does not derive from the display of physical strength but from our faith and inner strength. Importantly, we are only a victim if we let ourselves be one. After taking Grandma India’s advice to deal with the bullies, Melba learned to use passive resistance by smiling and meeting outrageous abuse with a polite “thank you.” Her refusing to be afraid when threatened by whites changed the way she viewed herself and also how other people viewed her. She realized that the whites did not have the power to hurt her since she did not give them any, that they only relied on their numbers to scare a tiny black teenager. And, she learned to stay poised and composed through such rough time which is quite difficult for a normal teenager. Therefore, we can feel the raw emotion as we are able to triumph with Melba as she stares her enemies in the face and becomes a warrior who does not cry.
Furthermore, the memoir is very thought provoking because, throughout the book, it makes readers question how racism changes the perception of how people behave. People born into a segregated society, i.e., black people, were made to believe they did not have the basic rights that the whites did. It was a system acknowledged by both races which also contained mutual fear, which meant, while the white people were afraid that blacks will rise up together to fight for their rights, black people were afraid to rise up for the fear of being punished by the whites. This formed mistrust and hatred. Thus, even for the white community, if one reached out to support a black person, they were threatened with violence and regarded as traitors. As James Baldwin mentioned in his autobiography “Notes of a Native Son,” we truly cannot accept injustice as something normal. Therefore, in Melba’s memoir, once few black people stopped consenting to white people’s unfair behavior, the power structure began falling. The defiance that the nine black figures showed by entering Central High school became significant since it threatened to change the way white segregationists exercised their power and showed that white power was a fragile illusion they held because, the power depended on the consent of the black people.
In addition, Melba and the eight black students were, metaphorically, warriors at the front of a dangerous battle where they kept persisting. Along the way Melba learned that being a warrior meant leaving behind old pleasure and friends, not just journeying into a new hostile territory. As a result, Melba could no longer indulge in being just a normal teenage girl with the dreams of doing normal teenager activities. However, Melba’s struggle entailed more than her desire to be simply a girl, get better education, eat better food, and be able to ride in front of the bus. She struggled in a quest to improve black lives all over the country. Thus, she became a warrior who remained strong through the unfair treatments she received, fought for what she believed in (equality in education and opportunities), and fought against the injustice with all of her strength to create a better future for her people.
Somehow, with all the horrid drama in Warriors Don’t Cry, Melba portrays a sense of childlike naivete, pain and confusion about racism and the reason for fighting so hard in order to be treated like a human being. But, what makes Melba’s memoir strong is that it has the power to bring tears in our eyes as we become ashamed knowing the cruel side of our country’s history. And, it makes us question whether we would even have the courage, especially as a teenager, to go through what Melba and the Little Rock Nine faced and endured, and the answer to that question is no.
The way Melba allows the reader into her teenage world appears both honest and genuine. Her memoir is believable because the tortures that she lived through which she wrote about is able to emotionally grab us and draw out our feelings of sympathy, horror, and shock based on her use of the rhetorical appeal of pathos and her realistic account of what occurred during the time of integration of Central High School. As I was reading chapter one to four, I began noticing and realizing that the words in bold print were actually newspaper headlines which Melba weaved from the Arkansas Gazette newspaper into her narrative, and that ended up heightening the historic sense of her experience. Then, there is the vivid images that Melba is able to create, which helps us understand the fear of those being harassed and attacked and the animosity of their attackers. “Under siege, Elizabeth slowly made her way toward the bench at the bus stop. Looking straight ahead as she walked, she did not acknowledge the people yelping at her heels, like mad dogs. Mother and I looked at one another, suddenly conscious that we, too, were trapped by a violent mob’ . Her use of simile such as “mad dogs” adds up to the reader’s fear and creates a sense of panic because of the hatred that the mob of white people openly display and act upon before the Little Rock Nine even enter the all-white school.
Melba accomplishes in attracting our emotions by telling her stories in a way that we are able to actually feel her suffering, not physically but emotionally, right by her side. Melba plants an uneasiness in our heart and as the rest of the story unfolds, that feeling grows and the stress that Melba has felt each day and night whether it be in sitting in her class or taking a walk in the block or lying next to her grandma who’s armed with a shotgun, her stress takes over us as well. As a result, both the reader and the author fear what will happen next. Her memoir does a spectacular job in including us in her thoughts and feelings. If it was not for the emotional connections, the validity of this book would fail to be solid to many reader because the fact that we can emotionally feel and see all of the cruel and horrid events that were happening to Melba as a teenager during the process of segregation, adds to her story and makes us appreciate what she said and has gone through more than they would if the events were not somehow emotionally attached to her story.