Text and Context in Teaching Virginia Hamilton’s Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush

By: Karen Chandler

In teaching Virginia Hamilton’s Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush in an introductory course for prospective English majors, I redress what I see as a limitation in the materials marketed for such courses: neglect of children’s texts. Youth literature is largely absent from anthologies like The Norton Introduction to Literature and Approaching Literature, except for crossover texts by writers like Langston Hughes, Sandra Cisneros, and Marjane Sartrapi. Of course, teaching children’s literature in an introductory source is not for every instructor, but the experience can help students realize the many kinds of literature ripe for analysis and interpretation and upset preconceived notions about children’s books. In selecting Hamilton’s novel, I acknowledge the importance of black children’s literature as a complex literary category and as a product of a culture that foregrounds African American perspectives, and often explores and critiques abiding American beliefs and values. Reading Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush helps deepen students’ understanding of African American literature and U.S children’s literature. Hamilton’s novels, which reward close reading because of their rich characterizations and strategic use of tone, setting, and narrative mode, help students achieve the learning outcomes common in introductory courses, which include developing skill at formal analysis and examining the relationship between texts and their historical and aesthetic contexts.

Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush focuses on Tree Pratt, a resourceful black teenager who lives in a city apartment with her brother Dab, who has a cognitive disability. Tree is responsible for taking care of Dab, who becomes bedridden early in the novel, receiving financial support and occasional visits from their mother M’Vy, who lives and works away from home. One day Tree encounters a man on the street whom she later sees standing in the table in her apartment’s storage room. The man silently holds a mirror through which Tree will see her family’s past. She comes to identify the man as M’Vy’s brother, Brother Rush, who was kind to both children when they were young, interceding when his sister became impatient and abusive with Dab. Rush suffered from porphyria, the same disease that will take Dab’s life, and Tree sees the accident in which her uncle chooses to kill himself to escape the disease. With her knowledge of her family’s past, Tree confronts her mother about her failure to care for Dab and to suppress family history. After he dies, Tree initially refuses to forgive her mother. On her last slip into the past, Tree sees Rush and Dab together in the uncle’s car, which gives her some reassurance. At the novel’s close, Tree warms to her mother’s promise to be a better parent.

Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush poses challenges in the introductory class, because it is a children’s book and because it is about the effects of illness and abuse within a working-class black family. First, in a class in which the novel may be the only children’s book, it can seem anomalous. Although many students taking English classes at my university are interested in children’s and young adult books, some believe they have advanced beyond such literature. They associate it with easy reading, simple messages, and escape from life’s difficulties. I like that Hamilton’s novel invites them to complicate their sense of what children’s literature can be, but its seriousness can leave students feeling uncertain. This leads to a second challenge: students relying on sweeping evaluations of characters rather than interpreting the text. They see its representation of a black family that includes a responsible young black female protagonist, a virtually absent, at times abusive black mother, and a young black man with a disability as too close to common positive and negative stereotypes of African Americans. At least for some students, the perceived stereotypes grant them license to ignore the novel’s nuanced depiction of characters. Given these responses, I have developed an approach to teaching the novel that encourages close textual analysis along with exploring relevant historical contexts. This approach helps students recognize characters’ flaws and virtues as signs of their complicated humanity and part of the novel’s thematic scheme rather than as simplistic traits that invite moral attack.

To prepare for our two fifty-minute classes on the book, I assign a writing prompt that asks students to analyze M’Vy in three scenes—one in the narrative present, and two at different points in the past. This assignment helps students see the novel’s layered, measured vision of the past and of M’Vy as a mother: in the distant past, she alternatively has hit and ignored Dab and often had him tied up; in the less distant past, she was emotionally distant and awkward but she has allowed him some pleasures (e.g. car rides with Brother Rush and Tree); and in the present, she provides for him but remains physically and emotionally distant. The assignment calls on students to examine Hamilton’s language carefully and think about the order of narrative disclosures about the family, and thus about Tree’s growth in awareness. Students become more adept at writing and talking about the worlds of the present and past that the novel constructs, and why they matter.

Added to their attention to the text, students must also research social conditions that are relevant to Hamilton’s portrayal of Tree and her family. Each student has to read and review a short article (or excerpt of an article), with several students assigned the same one. Students create an abstract about their secondary source, and then collaborate on a version that I post for a class-annotated bibliography. Some of the social conditions are specific to African American culture and situations, including playing the numbers, the Great Migration, and job prospects for black women in the 1970s and 1980s. Other conditions are common within, but not specific to, African American life, including parenting a child with a disability and raising a family on one income. This assignment gives students opportunities to practice reading secondary sources and writing summaries and shows them how important such research can be to their reading of a primary source. I find that sociological resources are especially helpful for complicating their understanding of M’Vy’s dysfunctional parenting. One helpful source helps unseat simple assumptions connecting race with child abuse or neglect: the study indicates that abuse and neglect was common among 600 children of single parents studied in upstate New York from 1973 to 1992 (Brown et al. 1067). More than ninety percent of the children affected were white, while eight percent were black (Brown et al. 1067). Moreover, the factors contributing to this behavior were usually multiple. Reading the study helped students see that M’Vy’s circumstances, rather than her race, contribute to her parenting practices.

Another support for reading the novel is its aesthetic contexts, which students explore through additional assigned texts. This means drawing on thematically related texts about African American familial or socioeconomic struggles. Examples include short works such as Hughes’ “Mother to Son”; Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Mother”; Etheridge Knight’s “The Idea of Ancestry”; a chapter or two from Langston Hughes’ Not Without Laughter or Angie Thomas’ The Hate Y Give and poems by Lucille Clifton, Cornelius Eady, and Marilyn Nelson.

 

Works Cited

Brown, Jocelyn, et al. “A longitudinal analysis of risk factors for child maltreatment: findings of a 17-      year prospective study of officially recorded and self-reported child abuse and neglect.” Child Abuse and Neglect: An International Journal, vol. 22, no. 11, Nov. 1998, pp. 1065-1078. Science Direct.

Hamilton, Virginia. Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush. Amistad, 1982.

Karen at Hollins July 2019
Photograph by David Anderson

Karen Chandler is an associate professor of English at the University of Louisville. She is currently completing a book on representations of African American slavery and freedom in historical narratives for children.

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