Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters

by Andrea Davis Pinkney; ill. by Stephen Alcorn

Harcourt, 2000

Where I sit writing, in one of my city’s newest public library branches, I can see people picking out magazines and books to read, checking out their materials, lounging in chairs with laptops propped on their knees.

I’ve been sitting here for about two and a half hours, and I’ve seen people of every age and color pass by. Right now, a very elderly black woman is reading a magazine at a nearby table. Earlier, a middle-aged white man stopped to skim a newspaper. Still earlier, a Latina woman with two small children walked by on her way to the circulation desk.

I live in the South, so library clientele weren’t always so diverse. The elderly woman across the room is the same age as one of my former library co-workers, a black woman who graduated from high school before segregation ended. When she first began her career with the library, she couldn’t enter most of the buildings in the library system.

I don’t for a minute believe that complete equality or reconciliation is reality, either in policy or in people’s hearts. You don’t erase more than 400 years of institutionalized racism, oppression, and brutality in a single generation.

But what progress has been made! My coworker, who held a master’s degree, was a third-generation descendant of slaves, whom it was illegal to educate. Our central library now has a renowned collection and education program celebrating the Civil Rights movement. I work and attend church with people of all races, and my daughter attends a racially diverse public school where teachers talk openly about the legacy of slavery.

That progress is the result of centuries of unrelenting work by many courageous people–many of them barrier-breaking women. And that’s the subject of Andrea Davis Pinkney and Stephen Alcorn’s book Let It Shine.

Written in Pinkney’s lilting language and illustrated with Alcorn’s dynamic, intensely colored paintings, this anthology is a collection of stories about black women who have fought for freedom of every kind. As Pinkney points out in her introduction, the focus is not just on freedom from slavery, but on freedom from misogyny, freedom to travel, freedom of expression, and more.

Pinkney includes the stories of several household names–Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Josephine Baker–along with mini-biographies of some who are lesser-known but no less deserving of fame–Biddy Mason, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Shirley Chisholm, to name a few.

I love the diversity of focus, the way Pinkney provides a glimpse of the many fronts on which wars for equality are fought. Freedom isn’t just about an end to slavery; it’s also about equal access to housing, the arts, education, and politics.

In a way that’s galvanizing, not discouraging, Pinkney shows that oppression is a bit like a Hydra. You can destroy one barrier, but it may spring up again in a new location or new form, and there are others to tackle as well. The idea gives readers a better appreciation for the depths of courage and stamina required to fight such a daunting monster.

I also love that Pinkney shows how various types of equality are intertwined. Many of the women in Let It Shine were dual activists: advocates for blacks and women, or blacks and the poor. She encourages young readers to look behind the reductionist facade, to realize that there are often points of commonality between supposedly disparate people, and to think in more complex, realistic ways about how we can help one another.

She also draws out each woman’s particular strengths and clearly connects them to that woman’s work. She shows, for example, how Sojourner Truth’s famous size and strength made her a more imposing speaker, sustained her during grueling travel, and helped her stand up to audience members who tried to intimidate her. The message: whatever your interests or skills, they have a purpose. There is a special way you can use them to make the world better.

And inspiration to make the world better is one of the best inspirations of all.

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