To the Discussion Leader
Growing up, award-winning author Patricia McKissack listened to her grandfather tell stories of how he and his brother left Nashville when they were seventeen and eighteen and headed north to Chicago in search of opportunity. Years later, when McKissack recalled her grandfather mentioning that they arrived in Chicago at the time of some terrible riots, she realized that her grandfather and his brother had been in the city during the Chicago Riot of 1919. McKissack says, "When asked how he survived those trying times, my grandfather used one word: 'family'."
Color Me Dark: The Diary of Nellie Lee Love, The Great Migration North is a story about the importance of family. Nellie's diary entries paint a picture of what is was like to be an eleven-year-old who leaves her grandparents and home town of Bradford Corners, Tennessee to accompany her family as they moved north to Chicago in search of a better life. Through Nellie Lee's eyes young readers witness the Chicago Riot of 1919. They are introduced to influential African American leaders: W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Madam C.J. Walker, and Marcus Garvey among others.
Nellie and her family discover that racism and discrimination aren't just found in Bradford Corners. But they also realize anew the power of the Love family values — religion, education, hard work, and helping others. As they practice these values in Chicago, the dividends are pride in who they are, happiness, and a hard earned measure of prosperity. Patricia McKissack says, "I'd like for my readers to feel that 'family' means unity, and in unity there is strength." Color Me Dark succeeds in showing exactly that.
Nellie Lee is an ordinary girl who experiences extraordinary events. Her family name, Love, characterizes her comfortable, secure world in Bradford Corners, Tennessee. Comfortable and secure, that is, until the day her uncle Pace is murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.
Author Patricia McKissack gradually exposes the prejudice and segregation that exist in 1919, even though slavery has been abolished for more than fifty years. Readers discover, along with young adolescent Nellie, how the white folks live on one side of Bradford Corners' only road, and the Colored people live on the other. Through Nellie Lee's questioning eyes, readers wait patiently with the Love family until given permission to enter the general store. We recognize the fear in the adults' faces when the sheriff warns against reading NAACP materials. And while Nellie Lee's father and uncle attempt to track down the only Colored doctor in two counties — who's miles away delivering twins — Nellie and her sister Erma Jean watch Uncle Pace's life slip away. With Pace's death, Erma Jean's voice abandons her. In order to find better treatment for his daughter, Mr. Love and Erma Jean depart for Chicago. Within weeks, Nellie Lee and her mother are packing to join them there.
Life in Chicago, even though there is less apparent segregation, is not the promised land Nellie Lee's family anticipates. However, the love, hope, and faith that sustained Nellie Lee's family in Tennessee hold them together in Chicago. Home, once a spacious two-story family residence with trees, becomes a two room walk-up with a shared toilet. Religion, always an integral part of their lives, becomes Nellie and Erma's deliverance. But underneath the refined exterior, Chicago is also a city of secrets. Mr. Love discovers that bribery opens (or shuts) doors as he struggles to establish his business. Lake Michigan, a cool refuge on steamy summer days, suddenly becomes the spark that ignites racial rioting. Nellie Lee and her family watch in horror as one of their friends drowns while white bystanders hurl rocks at the Colored swimmers who try to rescue him. For more than two weeks, Chicago and her inhabitants are held hostage while rioting consumes the streets: thirty-eight dead, hundreds injured, "and we dare not go beyond the South Side — especially after dark." De facto segregation becomes even more firmly rooted in Chicago.
Months later, Nellie Lee reflects on the year her family moved to Chicago. "There have been so many lynchings, so much rioting this year all over the country. James Weldon Johnson called 1919 the Red Summer because so much blood has been spilled. But yet we survived — battered and torn, but still standing." As her diary ends on New Year's Eve, 1919, after a year of tumultuous changes, Nellie Lee writes:
I will never forget 1919 — the year of the Red Summer — as long as I live. But as terrible as it was — the death of Uncle Pace, the loss of Erma's voice, the move to Chicago, the riots, the prejudices — I have happy memories, too.
Nellie Lee Love is a realist, a young African American teenager who understands hatred but knows love because of her strong family roots. Her grandparents, themselves the children of freed slaves, and their descendants form a family that respects and treasures each member. As Nellie Lee's father affirms, "A Colored family is like a beautiful bouquet of flowers — all different colors, sizes, and shapes. But each one just as beautiful in his or her own way." Nellie Lee's diary reveals her as the youngest blossom.
Thinking About the Book
- Why did Erma Jean stop talking? What really happened to Uncle Pace?
- Why does the sheriff of Bradford Corners want to stop Nellie's father and the other African American men from reading the Crisis magazines? What kind of stories does the magazine print? How could these pieces of paper have any effect on Bradford Corners?
- What is a charlatan? Why is this word important in Nellie Lee's diary?
- Where does the title for this book, Color Me Dark, come from?
- Reverend Prince tells his congregation that "good things come from good thoughts" and that "ignorance and fear breed violence, and knowledge is the only way to overcome intolerance." How can thinking or knowledge be so powerful? What does Reverend Prince mean?
- What incident started the Chicago Riot of 1919?
- What is meant by "The Great Migration North"? Why did it take place?
- In Nellie Lee's January 9, 1919 diary entry she writes about how she taught Uncle John Willis to "hand-clap" a rhyme. Create your own rhyme about something or someone in Color Me Black. Pick a partner and hand-clap the rhyme for your class or discussion group.
- The Love family's life changed when they moved to Chicago. Compare and contrast the two ways of life: Bradford Corners, TN, to Chicago, IL. Make a Venn Diagram to help you visualize the differences and similarities between the two cities.
- There are several superstitions about the weather that appear in Nellie's diary: If it rains on Easter Sunday, it will rain seven Sundays thereafter. Red sky at night, sailor's delight, red sky at morning, sailors take warning. Interview adult members of your family or teachers in your school. See how many of these superstitions about the weather you and your discussion group can find.
- Women in Bradford Corners worked very hard as sharecroppers in the fields. What professions or occupations were available for women in Chicago? How did Mrs. Love change? Some women, such as Madam C. J. Walker, provided opportunities and inspired others to follow in their paths. Learn more about Madam C. J. Walker's life and her hair care products, along with some interesting photographs from the early 20th century at the official Madam C.J. Walker site.
- Music was a vital force in the Harlem Renaissance. There were many creative forces in the African American community during the early 20th century. Learn more about James Weldon Johnson's Negro National Anthem.
- Read Patricia McKissack's other Dear America book, A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl. Compare Nellie Lee with Clotee. How are they different? How are they the same?
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.