Detroit to Birmingham by Way of 1963

Cornerstone of Sixteenth St. Baptist Church, erected 1909
Source: Library of Congress, photo by Carol M. Highsmith

When I came across the book The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis, the title struck me as odd. It was like something you would scribble on the back of a photograph or at the very least a rather complex title for a children’s book. However, this story of an African American family has stayed with me for years and I am always recommending it to adults. I even sent a copy to my cousin when he was stationed in Afghanistan.

It is both hilarious and poignant. I still remember reading certain chapters and laughing so much I nearly cried. It was so familiar; the family foibles are universal and sure to provide a chuckle to even the toughest critic. It starts off in Detroit, where the family is freezing in a poorly heated apartment. It is narrated by middle child Kenny, who is constantly picked on by his older brother, Byron, who himself is a character, always trying to be the coolest kid on the block with funny results.

The second half of the book follows the trip the Watsons take to Birmingham, Ala., to visit family. From the year in the title, you can tell that they are visiting at the peak of the civil rights movement, and this is where the fictional family meets history. It is experienced vividly through the eyes of a 10-year-old, and the imagery the author created is haunting.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham is now a feature film. I'm always of the sort where you should read the book first, but it is an enjoyable family film with some pretty funny moments.

On a more somber note, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, which is addressed toward the end of the book, is explored in detail in Spike Lee's Oscar-nominated documentary 4 Little Girls.