Saturday, May 7, 2011

These Hands

Written by: Margaret H. Mason
Illustrated by: Floyd Cooper

In the 1950s and 1960s, African American workers at the Wonder Bread factories were not allowed to work as bread dough mixers or handlers.  They were only allowed to sweep the floors, load the trucks, and fix the machines.  Author Margaret H. Mason, learned about the discrimination that went on in the factories from an old friend, Joe Barnett, who was a leader of one of the bakery labor unions.  His story was powerful, and even though many years had since passed when Joe was telling his story, his hands were still trembling at the thought of the discrimination.

In 2006, Joe Barnett passed away, and Margaret H. Mason was inspired to write his story—the story of the hands that could not mix the bread dough at the Wonder Bread factory, but could do so many other things.

Throughout the story, Mason uses repetitive language in order to emphasize where our society has been and how far our society has come.  A grandfather tells his grandson about all of the wonderful things his hands can do.  “Look at these hands, Joseph.  Did you know these hands used to throw a curve ball faster than a dive-bombing honeybee?  Well, I can still help a young fellow learn to hit a line drive—yes, I can.  This same format is repeated throughout the entire book, with a different thing that hands could do each time.  The same format is used when the grandfather tells the young grandson that these same hands that could do all of these wonderful things, used to not be able to touch the bread dough in the Wonder Bread factory. 

It is at this point that Mason breaks from her repetition and adds understated text, “Because the bosses said white people would not want to eat bread touched by these hands.  Well, these hands joined with other hands.  And we wrote our petitions, and we carried our signs, and we raised our voices together.  Now any hands can mix the bread dough, no matter their color.  Now any hands can touch the bread dough, no matter their color.  Yes, they can.”  Each of these short statements is written on separate pages—emphasizing their importance and enabling readers to make their own connections with the Civil Rights Movement and how difficult it was for change to come about.

Accompanying the simple, yet powerful text, are beautifully crafted illustrations that evoke strong emotions.  Floyd Cooper has an interesting illustrative technique, which involves oil wash on board and then erasing some of the color.  A brief description of this technique is described through Amazon.  I recognized his compelling illustrations right away, and realized he is the same illustrator for the collection of poetry, The Blacker the Berry.  His illustrations are warm and inviting and focus on the emotions of the characters.  Each full-bleed, double-paged spread in a representational style helps readers to feel like a part of each illustration.  Cooper truly focuses in on the facial expressions of the people—making us feel their struggle and hear their voices.  We are always kept at a close perspective making us feel as though we are a part of the story.  There is only one moment when we are kept at a safe distance—and that is when the grandfather is reflecting back to the Wonder Bread Factory.  The illustration on this page is framed and is of a white man working in the factory.  The grandfather is unframed on the left, watching the white man work.  Tension is created as we think about the discrimination the grandfather and other African Americans endured.

As Mason writes in her author’s note, “The history is shocking today to many people.  But back then, it wasn’t news; it was just how things were.”  It is comforting to know that today, all hands, regardless of race, can do anything.  “Anything at all in this whole wide world.  Yes, you can.”

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