Spoiler Alert: While I try not to reveal too much about details contained within the book, there are undoubtedly some aspect of spoilers contained within this post. If you prefer to read the book first without knowing too much about its contents, it is best to stop reading the post at this point.
Every now and then I will read a book that has a tremendous impact on me. I don’t just mean it is good or interesting, I mean it literally stays with me and will likely be forever in the back of my mind. The Newspaper Boy: Coming of Age in Birmingham, Alabama During the Civil Rights Era, by Chervis Isom is just one of those books. And thank goodness, it came in the nick of time as we head into the coldest months of winter in the Upper Great Lakes.
In a year (2020) where it feels like we’ve all be subjected to a seemingly endless dystopian nightmare, one can become increasingly jaded, sad, and worn out both physically and mentally. Combine these feelings with the wanton hate, intolerance, bigotry, lies, and ignorance that is routinely being perpetrated across the internet or over the airwaves and one can begin to lose all sense of hope for a brighter future. This is especially the case when those mediums are among the few places where one can still be a part of the outside world without risking exposure to Covid-19. In the end, many of us have de-friended or blocked family members, friends, neighbors, and others; or have turned away from the web and news channels all together.
Mr. Isom recounts his teenage years as a newspaper delivery boy in the Norwood neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama. His coming of age coincides with the Civil Right era in Alabama, which adds substance and relevance to the story. The author was born and raised into a segregated society where he was fortunate to be white. Meanwhile, the entire Jim Crow system was being challenged from all sides — internally by oppressed African-Americans and their ardent supporters, as well externally by the courts, federal government, national press, and by people of goodwill everywhere who found segregation to be abhorrent.
Needless to say, the chain of events taking place around Mr. Isom’s youthful world were both important and dramatic, as were his internal conflicts between what he was learning or observing when compared to the roots of his upbringing. That’s one of the aspects that makes this book so important. It personalizes these issues and internal conflicts versus painting them with a broad brush.
One of the most profound things that struck me about The Newspaper Boy was its discomforting relevance to today. As terrible as the last year has seemed to all of us, the hatred, angry discourse, political rhetoric, and violence that took place at the hands of pro-segregationists during the Civil Rights era in Birmingham (once nicknamed “Bombingham”), had to be as hard for many to understand back then as is the vile rhetoric of white supremacy or Neo-Nazism being spouted today. Often, it feels like the United States hasn’t made an ounce of progress or healed any of its racial divisions over the past six decades, let alone the past four centuries.
Frankly, for a nation which champions itself as “the land of the free,” we’ve been anything but that since our founding. From slavery to segregation, from redlining to Interstate Highway injustice, from lynchings to countless police shootings of unarmed black men and women, one has to wonder how so many refuse to accept these facts as reality or prefer willful ignorance. Our nation’s treatment of Native Americans, women, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and other minorities is also sorrowful. This is where education, direct experience, and understanding all come into play as solutions. To know is to understand and The Newspaper Boy goes a long way towards addressing the need to better understand and appreciate one another. If I had my druthers, it would be required reading in schools nationwide.
With a renewed sense of hope for the New Year, thanks to Mr. Isom’s book, I will continue to do my small part towards making a difference by striving to bring about racial, social, economic, and environmental justice for all.
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