Models Monday: Commemorating the Lives of Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Virgil Ware, and Johnny Robinson

Actresses playing the role of the four little girls who have been killed. The image behind them represents how they might have looked 50 years later.
Actresses playing the role of the four little girls who have been killed. The image behind them represents how they might have looked 50 years later.

Yesterday, September 15, I attended the Atlanta production of Christina Ham’s play, Four Little Girls, at the Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel located on the Morehouse campus. The Spelman College Glee Club, two local choirs, and local actors and actresses performed Ham’s work to commemorate the grim, 50th anniversary of the decimation of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which led to the death of six children. Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley were torn apart by the 19 sticks of dynamite planted near the ladies lounge were they were readying themselves for the church’s annual Youth Day service that featured children in the roles customarily/ritually performed by adults. 13-year-old Virgil Ware was a victim of the bomb’s aftermath. Six hours after the blast, Eagle Scouts, Larry Joe Simms and Michael Lee Farley left a segregationist rally and shot at the Ware brothers as Virgil was riding on the handle bars of his 16-year-old brother’s bike; Virgil was hit twice. Simms and Farley received two-years of probation as their punishment. Police officer Jack Parker shot 16-year-old Johnny Robinson in the back. Robinson was a participant in the demonstrations that occurred in the wake of the blast. Parker accused Robinson of throwing a rock. As Robinson and other children fled, Parker shot Robinson in the back. Parker was never charged for this crime.

Performing the play was a national event featuring theater groups from around the country offering this work through Project1 Voice. By conveying the girls’ dreams, the play sought to recover their humanity through a depiction of the vibrancy destroyed as a result of the “brutal imagination” that defined the Jim Crow south. As a national event, the play’s power, at least for me, stemmed from the imaginative way it confronts the country’s seeming inability to mourn the lives of black children. In this way, the play reminded me of a wonderful scene in Beloved between Denver and Beloved. The black body of the novel is everywhere in pieces. The black enslaved have been through an experience that literally made bits of their lives. Unlike the slave traders who packaged these bits for sale, the novel examines how black people interpreted the bits and pieces of their lives and the responsibility it involved. A moment between Denver and Beloved offers an example of how black people helped one another make meaning of the bits and pieces of their lives. In the scene, Beloved reaches into her mouth and extracts a tooth:

Beloved looked at the tooth and thought, This is it. Next would be her arm, her hand, a toe. Pieces of her would drop maybe one at a time, maybe all at once. Or on one of those mornings before Denver woke and after Sethe left she would flyapart. It is difficult keeping her head on her neck, her legs attached to her hips when she is by herself. Among the things she could not remember was when she first knew she could wake up any day and find herself in pieces. (133)

Denver teaches Beloved how to mourn. When she observes her pulling out her own tooth, she asks Beloved if it hurts. When she confirms that it does, Denver asks her, “If it hurts, why don’t you cry?” (133) Her answer came in the form of tears. Beloved then pays tribute to other moments in her life when “it hurt.” Denver also assists Beloved by keeping her arm around Beloved’s shoulder thereby giving her hope that she would not fall apart (134). Staging Four Little Girls opened up a space to reflect on the violence that has historically characterized the lives of black children whose horrible fate leaves no teared stained streaks on the nation’s face.

Recently, I’ve been doing some thinking about a detail regarding the life of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer who at age 11 was the victim of gang warfare in Chicago during the summer of 1994. That child was so unloved that the family could only find a mugshot of him to use for the funeral program. He also died a September death. Very few mourned that child’s death. To that end, there’s not a single marker in Atlanta to commemorate the lives of the scores of black children murdered during that brutal period in the city from 1979-1981. This country acts as if black children are supposed to die violently and black people are accustomed to this reality; it’s a terrible, troubling fiction.

Although I understand Ham’s decision to craft the dreams of Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley through the everyday longings of an average young, American girl, I think there are other possibilities for representing their interior lives beyond casting them as black Gidgets. Angela Davis grew up in Birmingham and her autobiography reveals her to have been a critical thinker even as a child; she recognized poverty, rejection, racial hierarchy. The penultimate scene in the play features the actresses as the dead girls standing before

Four little girls 2
The final image from the play Four Little Girls.

a screen featuring photographs of McNair, Robertson, Collins, and Wesley. The photograph features a caption that reads, “WHO WILL YOU BE?” yet the play really only prepares you to answer the question, “Where will you work?” or “How do you wish to earn money?” In 1963, Black Americans did not accept segregation as a norm. They disagreed with white supremacist claims regarding their inferiority. Giving such a critique, “WHO WILL YOU BE?” would not have been read as a question about professionalization. They most likely would have answered the question for what it seems to interrogate, namely, ontology and value theory. Thus, they might have answered, “I WANT TO BE FREE?” and “I WANT DIGNITY AND INTEGRITY TO QUALIFY MY LIFE.” Imagining this response is certainly worthwhile and relevant as the nation still casts the death of black children as a norm and not a catastrophe. The United States should spend at least two minutes everyday feeling ashamed of itself.

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