With the Might of Angels

This is really the only book out of the Dear America relaunched series that I think is unequivocally excellent. Unfortunately, I hate the relaunched cover designs. I think they’re ugly as sin. Why did you have to go and muck with the traditional “detail of photo/painting with larger image behind it?” It worked!

With the Might of Angels: The Diary of Dawnie Rae Johnson, Hadley, Virginia, 1954, Andrea Davis Pinkney, 2011.


It’s mega depressing, and I would argue even more depressing than some of the books that are full of death (like, say, the Titanic novel, or the one about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire) because it’s set in 1954 and yet it’s horrifyingly relevant. Nobody dies (thankfully), but it’s just incredibly bleak in the background. My only extremely minor nitpick about the book is that it starts out right with the “My name is X and I was born…” instead of letting it come out in the narrative, which is understandable in a book for kids but also led me to start out every single piece of writing that way for many, many years. (Also, Dawnie is named Dawn because she was born at dawn. Am I the only person who spent all of my youth wishing for a “meaningful” name because I spent all my time mainlining books like these where the protagonists were like “My name is Robin because just as I was born a beautiful robin began singing blah blah blah.” No one ever went “My name is Mary because my parents liked it.” I digress already.)

Anyway, Dawnie lives in Virginia with her parents and her younger brother Goober, who we learn in the epilogue has autism but throughout the novel is just generally termed “slow” or “special” because it’s the 50s. He’s obsessed with peanuts, hence his nickname, although he does have a real name—they didn’t put Goober on the birth certificate or anything. Her mother takes in laundry and her dad works nights at a dairy. And in her very first diary entry, on her birthday, she pastes in a newspaper clipping about the banning of segregation in high schools. Oh boy.

Hadley, where they live, has two schools—Prettyman Coburn, for whites, and Mary McLeod Bethune, the K-12 school for the black students. Unsurprisingly, Coburn is beautiful and Bethune is falling apart. “I mean, I like going to school, but I hate the stuff in school. At Bethune, everything’s broke…Bethune’s wall clocks haven’t worked since I started in kindergarten. It has been 2:45 at Bethune for seven years!…That’s how it is. Negroes get a stinky school with broken clocks. White kids get a castle.” But Dawnie is one of the best students there, and her teacher asks her and her friends Yolanda and Roger to speak at their “stepping-up” ceremony from sixth grade into high school, and to take an assessment test. Dawnie thinks it’s a bit dumb since she’s not going to a new school, just to a different wing in the same falling-apart school, but her parents are excited for her (in the way that parents often are when kids are not).

Dawnie is a tomboy, and would much rather be playing baseball or on her pogo stick than sitting around making up a dumb speech (cosigned!), but her mother forces her to the store to get her a nice dress. But because they’re black, she’s not allowed to try on the dress—just hold it up to her to figure out if it’s going to fit. And unsurprisingly, it is just a titch too small on Dawnie. More pressing, though, is her concern about the speech she has to give, because she doesn’t want to go to the dumb ceremony or wear the dumb dress or do any of those things! When the day comes, her mother does some quick needle surgery to make it fit, and when Dawnie gets up on the platform, she’s so nervous and has nothing prepared and doesn’t say one word before her dress splits open and she just runs off the stage. Oh God, I would not take any amount of money to be in sixth grade again—even reading about it is just the worst.

A couple of weeks later, a “strange lady” comes to their home—a white lady with two black men with her, and she’s come to speak with Dawnie’s parents. They don’t say anything to her for a few weeks, but at the Fourth of July church picnic, lots of tempers are flaring about desegregating schools. Yolanda’s parents are very firm that they do not want their schools to be desegregated since it’s going to mean white people making their lives horrible. You know, this is one of the strongest points in this book, I think, and it’s one that doesn’t always come up in teaching about desegregation: the fact that there was a lot of dissent in the black community and plenty of parents who did not want their children to be at the focal point of a lot of rage and hatred. It’s hard to argue with, especially given the other events in the book, but Dawnie’s parents are firmly on the side of getting their daughter the best education that they can.

Later that month, Yolanda says the same woman and two men came to visit her parents, and they were from the NAACP looking for excellent students to begin the desegregation process with. And that her parents did not consent. And that Dawnie’s parents did. As a result of their assessment test, Dawnie and Yolanda and Roger all passed, but Dawnie is the only one whose parents agreed to send her. So she is going to have to go alone. Her parents give her all kinds of rules—be sure to smile and be polite and don’t talk back and all of those other things. So on top of her normal 12-year-old problems (she doesn’t like her brother, she thinks church is boring, she thinks her parents are too strict) she has to worry about what’s going to happen to her as she basically becomes the face of desegregation in her town. Cool. Not too much of a burden at all!

Before the first day, her mother curls her hair and presses her dress, and then the next morning the NAACP woman calls saying that school officials have barred her from school that day. So she waits and waits and waits and nobody calls back, and the same thing happens the next day. And the next and the next. What’s happening is that the (white) school officials are suing to stop integration, and are threatening to close the schools entirely rather than integrate, and Dawnie doesn’t go to school for two full weeks before her parents give up and send her to Bethune. Dawnie wants to become a doctor, but writes “More than ever, I knew that Bethune doesn’t have whatever it is I need to learn to go to college and doctor school….I have no idea what I need, but I know Bethune doesn’t have it.” What’s more, her friends are calling her “uppity” and “stuck up,” even Yolanda, and Dawnie is lonely and miserable.

By the end of the month, a court has ordered that Coburn be integrated forcibly, and Dawnie’s father tells her that he and her mother can’t accompany her to school or there will be trouble from whites threatened by black adults. He warns her to say nothing, and she doesn’t sleep most of that night worrying. When she gets to the school, there’s police and people everywhere behind barricades, and four armed policemen escort her to the door. People are shouting horrible things at her, and a little girl gives her a flower and a picture with the legend “Scratch off the black.” The police take her to the principal’s office, and she sits there all day. They don’t even take her to class, because most parents took their kids home after she got there. So Dawnie goes home. The end. It’s wrenching. The same thing happens Tuesday, but with fewer angry people. On Wednesday, she finally gets to go to class, where everyone stares at her and avoids her as much as possible. How lovely.

Dawnie makes it her goal to become the school bell ringer, which is a job reserved for the best student in the class, and the former ringer won’t be doing it because her parents pulled her out to attend a private (white) school. Dawnie gets stuck clapping erasers and washing the board, the worst job. On top of this, the dairy her father works for puts out a full-page ad saying they “Support Segregation—Join us in our pursuit for what is right in God’s eyes.” Ouch. Things get worse and worse. So while at school people are either ignoring her or yelling at her, at home her dad loses his job. Dawnie says she’ll go back to Bethune, but her parents are having none of that. This is horrible.

In math class her teacher ignores her. In English class, her teacher tells her she’s wrong even when she’s not. The only decent teacher is her history teacher, who is a Northerner and is the only white person in the entire school to treat her with any decency at all. (The janitor and lunch ladies, who are black, are extremely proud of Dawnie and are constantly happy to see her there.) Her best friend Yolanda says she’s different, and her father is unable to find work. What’s most amazing, I think, is how well Pinkney writes about all of these things without sinking into a pit of despair. They all suck, but Dawnie is twelve and mostly just trying to go about her life. It’s really, really, really well done.

Especially well done is the part where on Halloween, Yolanda and Dawnie go out trick-or-treating with Goober, and run into some white kids from Coburn who egg them. Dawnie doesn’t want to tell her parents so they won’t worry, but it’s terrifying for her. (Obviously.) At school, her science lab partner pours blue cell stain on her skirt, and Dawnie is just so tired. She misses Bethune, where at least her teachers called on her and paid attention to her, and –“I miss just being at school, not being a Negro at school.” What a nice little turn of phrase that is.

At Christmastime, they have a visiting pastor at their church—“young Brother Martin Luther King, Jr.,” whom I did not expect to see pop up in a cameo here! He preaches nonviolence (obviously) and encourages a boycott of Sutter’s Dairy, the dairy Dawnie’s father used to work at. He instructs the congregation to stop taking dairy products, despite a lot of resistance, and even the lunch ladies at Coburn don’t give her any dairy products at lunch (since they’re participating in the boycott as well). But Dawnie’s family is the subject of a lot of harassment—hang-up calls, people griping at them about the boycott, you name it.

Just before Christmas, Goober comes to meet Dawnie at school, which he is absolutely not allowed to do, and Dawnie tries to hustle him home before anyone notices. No luck—kids beat him up. It’s awful. It’s truly horrible. It ruins her Christmas, even though she gets $1.50 from her parents and a great report card.

The frustration with the dairy boycott continues to escalate as word gets around that Dawnie’s father is the one with the daughter going to school and causing all the ruckus. No one will hire him, and people are harassing the family more every day—“The phone won’t stop. My prayers stay strong. I’M SCAREDER THAN SCARED.” In a nice little way to integrate the other perspective, Dawnie pastes in letters from the newspaper—angry parents against integration, her history teacher writing in fervent support, business leaders voting against “race-mixing.” It’s really, really horrible to read, and even worse that Dawnie is reading all of this and knows that she’s at the center of it all.

On the bright side, a new girl starts in the winter semester at Coburn named Gertie Feldman, who is Jewish and from Brooklyn, and effectively becomes Dawnie’s only friend at Coburn (and anywhere else, because Yolanda is being kind of mean about all of this). She’s just as smart as Dawnie, and not racist, and her family lives in the black part of town, which is all kind of a wonder to poor Dawnie, who’s been so beaten down by the way everyone else treats her that she’s astonished that this white girl is treating her so nicely. Part of this is because the other kids don’t like Jews any more than they like blacks, so they stick together, but also—Dawnie is genuinely ignorant that white people argue with one another over religion, and was totally unaware of the Holocaust and the fact that Jews were being persecuted as well.

When Dawnie comes down with a terrible cold in February, she’s actually upset that she isn’t able to go to school—not because it’s so amazing there, but because she’s afraid she’ll miss her biology test and fall behind. Even she surprises herself with how much she’d rather be in school. When she does get to go back, at the end of February in history class they discuss Jackie Robinson (who, by joining the Dodgers, qualifies as a “current event”), and the other kids in the class start using all kinds of terrible slurs. So Dawnie finally, finally, finally is able to stand up for herself and just starts yapping away about Jackie Robinson and Mary McLeod Bethune (the person, not her old school) and Thurgood Marshall, and how it’s Black History Month, and talks for what feels like forever—and finally no one says anything to her. It’s kind of bittersweet, because it’s clearly meant to be a big evocative Moment for Dawnie, but it’s kind of anticlimactic—and I mean that in the sense that it’s supposed to feel somewhat anticlimactic, it’s not a failure of Pinkney’s narrative. It doesn’t change everything or even anything—but at least she gets to vent a little bit and feel like she’s been heard for once at that school.

Unfortunately, things go downhill from there, because in March they find a raccoon drowned in a bucket of milk on their front porch. HOLY SHIT. It even includes a helpful note that says “KILL INTEGRATION! STOP THE DAIRY BOYCOTT! NOW!” I mean, in case that wasn’t immediately obvious. And just a few days after that, Dawnie’s history teacher leaves the school (not by his own volition), and Dawnie finds that she really has fallen behind on her schoolwork. The only positive thing going on is that her mother’s laundry business is taking off.

When her dad’s boss offers him his job back, realizing that the boycott has hurt his family badly, her dad turns him down flat saying he can’t work for a company that espouses segregation. It’s really painful, because you can just imagine how difficult it is for him to turn down a good job, but he doesn’t flinch or take a second to think about it. He doesn’t even take the gift his boss offers him. Instead, he starts doing delivery for Dawnie’s mother’s laundry business, which becomes the first full-service laundry service in their town with free delivery. (Swank. I’d go for that.)

At the end of the semester, they’re supposed to take a Competency Exam, which will cover all the subjects and determine the ranking for best student—and the “winner” (can you really call the best student on an exam the “winner?”) gets to ring the school bell for the next school year. While Dawnie is nervous, Gertie straight-up tells her she’s brilliant and she’ll be fine. And even better, after Easter, a Negro dairy supplier comes to Dawnie’s church and says he’s going to extend his business to Hadley, so they’ll never have to go back to the segregationist dairy.

For her birthday in April, Dawnie’s parents get her a brand-new pogo stick—and even better, she does extremely well on the big exam. Gertie did perfectly, and she’s picked to be the new bell ringer, but she fakes being unable to do it and grabs Dawnie to come and help her. Then she steps away and lets Dawnie do it herself, and gives her the coveted job of bell ringer for the next school year.

In the epilogue, Dawnie remains the only black student at her school for many years, and Gertie the only Jewish one. They both graduate, and Dawnie becomes a pediatrician and Gertie a labour attorney. Dawnie’s parents move to Richmond and own and operate a chain of laundries, and do extremely well for themselves.

Rating: A. This is a hard book to read, even though it’s for children and it does, technically, have a “happy ending.” Can you really call it a happy ending when this is a book set sixty-two years ago and the issue of school achievement based on race is still so horribly fucked up? I feel like I’m getting away from the actual book a bit. Andrea Davis Pinkney is a fantastic author and award-winner, and this book is really her doing her thing at her best. Some DA novels can be a bit thin on characterization, but this one really comes alive beautifully—Dawnie is truly a fully-realized character with plenty of different interests, her own opinions, and a completely realistic understanding of the world for a 12-year-old in Virginia in the 1950s. Even the other characters are well-written for being on the periphery. The first time I read this a couple of years ago, I thought it dragged a bit in spots, but I think that’s less due to Pinkney and more due to the structure of all the relaunched DA novels. (By which I mean, the new novels in the relaunch, not the reissued ones.) All of the newer ones tend to be longer and have less of a “diary” feel and more of a “novel written in diary entries” feel, if that makes sense? The diary entries themselves come across as much less authentic and more installations in the novel. But while I think that’s much to the detriment of some of the other relaunch novels, in this one it isn’t distracting or bad, which is a credit to how engaging the story is and what a good writer Pinkney is. This one is definitely worth reading if you don’t mind being incredibly depressed for a while.


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