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A powerful tale distilled for young readers

by Brian Clarey

A powerful tale distilled for young readers

“Sit-in: How Four Friends Stood up By Sitting Down”; by Andrea Davis Pinkney; Illustrated by Brian Pinkney; Little, Brown and Co.; 2010

She’s only five and she can’t read yet, but she loves stories and she’ll snuggle up on the couch with me anytime to let me read her a book.

Usually we discover worlds with princesses and ponies and the color pink, but today I have a different sort of tale in mind.

“You want to sit and read a book with me honey?” I ask her.

“Okay Daddy,” she says. “We must meet hate with love,” I began, those famous words uttered by the slain hero she had never heard of before, the first sentence of this remarkable children’s book by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney that takes a very grown-up subject — the 1960 Greensboro Sit- In — and makes it accessible to a generation that has trouble comprehending what the city was like 50 years ago.

“’This was a sign of the times,’” I read to my little girl, who knows much of love and generosity but very little about the hate and fear that can seethe inside human beings. “’Whites only.’ Do you know what that means?” “No.” “Do you know what ‘black people’ means?” “Yes,” she says. “It’s people with brown skin.” “Yes. And ‘Whites only’ meant that people with brown skin couldn’t eat at that restaurant.”

She raises her fine little eyebrows a bit at this. “That’s weird,” she says. “Do you know what ‘white people’ means?” I ask. “People with white skin,” she says, “like me.” “Yes.” And so I read some more, and the tale unfolds: four young men, asking for doughnuts and cups of coffee with cream on the side. A hostile waitress. A stymied police officer.

“The students were doing nothing wrong,” the story goes. “No crime in sitting. No harm in being quiet. No danger in looking hungry.”

Distilled down into these simple imperatives, the story to a modern child’s mind sounds unbelievable. And why wouldn’t it? The notion of excluding a person based on something as trivial as skin color is not something that readily translates to any child.

The book follows the story closely, documenting the second day of the sit-in in simple yet powerful language, “The waitress reminded them: whites only. But those kids wouldn’t budge. They didn’t move. Until they were served, they refused. All they wanted was some food. A doughnut and coffee, with cream on the side.”

My girl sits in wide eyed silence as I read, and when I get to the most disturbing part I watch her face recoil.

“Coffee, poured down their backs. Milkshakes, flung in their faces. Pepper, thrown in their eyes. Ketchup — not on the fries, but dumped on their heads.”

Normally a scene like that would make her laugh. This time it does not.

“Did they really put pepper in their eyes?” she asks me. “Yes, honey, I think they did.” “Oh,” she says. “That’s really mean.” “Yes,” I say. “It really is.” The saga has a happy ending, of course, like all children’s books: Woolworth’s is integrated. The movement gathers strength. Laws are passed. Things change.

It’s not as simple as all that, of course, but today is not the day for a lesson in incremental gains, I decide.

And when it’s all over, this beautiful, innocent child still doesn’t quite understand.

“So black people and white people weren’t allowed to hang out together?” she asks me.

“Not all the time, honey,” I say. Her tiny body sinks into mine and she puts her hand on my shoulder.

“That’s not fair,” she says.

wanna meet?

Author and illustrator (and husband and wife team) Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney will be at the

Greensboro Historical Museum on Wednesday, Feb. 3 at 5 p.m. Call 336.373.2043 for details.

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