Award-winning poet and author Nikki Giovanni has published a new children's book about the woman who helped launch the U.S. civil rights movement 50 years ago. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. Her subsequent arrest sparked a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system, and led to a 1956 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation on public transportation. In her book, Rosa, Nikki Giovanni recreates the story of the day that turned an unknown seamstress into a civil rights legend.
Nikki Giovanni had a relationship with Rosa Parks that was both personal and professional. She wrote two poems about Mrs. Parks, and knew her for more than two decades, right up to her death on October 24 of this year. Nikki Giovanni says they talked about everything over the years, from their favorite recipes to the events surrounding the Montgomery bus boycott.
The author drew on that mix of memories to write Rosa. "I wanted to convey, for lack of a better word, that she was an ordinary woman, presented with an extraordinary circumstance, who rose to the occasion. She didn't stumble into it. Mrs. Parks was a committed woman. She was not going to lead marches, but Mrs. Parks registered (to vote) in the state of Alabama at a time when very few black people could. She went to register three times, and three times was told that she was not qualified, that she had not passed the literacy test. And she went the next time, and she got her voters' card, so she was voting. She was also a member of the NAACP, and she ran the youth program as well as straightening up the files of E.D. Nixon, who was the head of the NAACP. So they're right here together."
Illustrated by Bryan Collier, Rosa begins with Mrs. Parks preparing breakfast for her husband and mother, who is suffering from the flu. As she moves through her daily routine, readers get to know her as a talented seamstress whose co-workers joke that she uses magic to sew, as a valued employee whose supervisor encourages her to go home early to care for her ailing mother, and as a devoted wife who heads home on the bus thinking of the meat loaf she'll fix for her husband Raymond's dinner.
Nikki Giovanni says those dinner plans reflect a running joke she had with Mrs. Parks. "There are probably two things that black women pride themselves on, domestically speaking, and one is their ability to fry chicken. I think every black woman thinks her chicken is the best. And the other is her ability to make meat loaf, and everybody has these little meat loaf secrets. And through the years Mrs. Parks had said, 'Raymond just loved my meat loaf,' and I would tease her and say, 'Well, that's because he never had mine.' And she would say, 'Oh no, baby, mine was better.' And so I definitely wanted to get that kind of thing into this book."
But Rosa Parks' daydreams are interrupted in the book by the shouts of the bus driver, who demands that she and her black seatmates give up their places to white passengers. Nikki Giovanni says accounts of the time have mistakenly had Rosa Parks sitting at the front of the bus. That section was reserved for whites in the South, while blacks sat in the back. But in reality, Mrs. Parks was sitting in the so-called "neutral" or middle section, where either race could sit.
"When he bellows at Mrs. Parks to give me those seats, she does a Rosa Parks thing that she did all her life," says Nikki Giovanni, taking a slow, deep breath to demonstrate. "She just sort of gathered herself. And the man on the inside got up, and the people on the other side of the aisle got up, so Mrs. Parks stood up. When she did that, he walks back to the front, because he's got a victory in his mind, and what she did then is she sat back down, so when he looked in the mirror she's still sitting there, and he said, 'I said, give me those seats,' and she said 'No.' So he called the cops."
December first ended with the arrest of Rosa Parks, and the beginning of a new era for African Americans in the city of Montgomery. For the next year they would walk rather than take public transportation, writes Nikki Giovanni-rain or shine, early in the morning or late at night.
The Tennessee-born author was coming of age herself during the civil rights movement that followed. She remembers the woman who later became a friend as an early inspiration. "She was an icon to my generation, because I am of the sit-in generation, and we have to recall that on December 1st, 1955, that's what Mrs. Parks did, she SAT DOWN. She would mean the world to us. We'll always be coming back to her and to her actions. So this was a wonderful opportunity to bring the Rosa Parks story to a different audience."
It has been said many times over the years that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat because her feet were tired. Nikki Giovanni plays with that idea in her book, writing that Rosa Parks WAS tired, but not from working. She was tired of eating at separate lunch counters, learning at separate schools, and using separate drinking fountains. Being tired gave her strength, and turned a day like any other into a day that would change history.
Rosa Parks was 92 years old when she died earlier this year. Her casket was allowed to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol - the first time in American history that honor had ever been granted to a woman.
Rosa was published by Henry Holt and Company, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10010.