1. “God’s warriors don’t cry.”
Grandma India says this to Melba in Chapter 6 after Melba cries in front of her. Melba is crying because her family, fearing that she will be the target of an attack, has forbidden her from attending a wrestling match. But Melba had planned to meet Vince, the boy she has a crush on, at the wrestling match. When her grandmother tells her she can’t come to the matches, Melba feels like every part of her life has been taken away from her. Grandma India lets Melba cry for a bit and then tells her she can never cry again. Grandma India explains to Melba, for the first time, that what she is doing is greater than just going to high school for a year. Melba is fighting a battle, and the battle is for the future of black people in the United States. She is fighting God’s war. Grandma India sounds cruel when she tells Melba to stop crying, but her point is that Melba has to learn to accept pain. If Melba is going to have any chance of surviving her year at Central, she is going to have to learn how to be tougher than the average teenager.
This quotation also reflects the war that is being waged all across the country, not just at Central High School. Melba and similar individuals are soldiers at the front of a very dangerous battle. Yet in spite of these dangers, Melba and the other black students at Little Rock persist. The struggle entails more than one person’s desire to go to a better high school or eat at a better diner or ride in the front of the bus. Melba’s struggle is a quest to improve the lives of black people all over the country. Melba’s participation in this quest is why her grandmother calls her one of God’s warriors.
2. “One nigger down, eight to go.”
This is the chant recited by the segregationists at Central High School after a handful of them managed to drive Minnijean out in Chapter 23. The Little Rock Nine have been warned time and time again not to retaliate. A few students push Minnijean too far one day, and she dumps soup on them. She is suspended, and when she returns to school, she becomes a target for all of the fury of the segregationist students. They have learned that they can provoke her, and they do. Minnijean eventually fights back again, and she is expelled. Overjoyed at their success, the segregationists begin taunting the other black students with this chant. For the segregationists, it is proof that they can get rid of the black students. To the remaining members of the Little Rock Nine, it is a reminder of how strong they have to be and how harsh the consequences will be if they falter.
3. “Please, God, let me learn how to stop being a warrior. Sometimes I just need to be a girl.”
Melba writes this in her diary on her sixteenth birthday, in Chapter 20. All her life, Melba has dreamt of her “sweet sixteen,” imagining it down to the last detail. Her real sixteenth birthday, however, turns out to be very different from her daydreams. Though she has planned a party with all of her friends from her old high school, only Vince shows up. Everyone else has decided not to come because they are too afraid to be seen with Melba. They all go to another party, and they don’t want Melba to come because they want to have a good, safe evening. Eventually, even Vince leaves for the other party, and Melba cries herself to sleep.
This party is Melba’s last effort to prove that the fight at Central High School is not her whole life. She tries to surround herself with friends who know nothing about the battle for integration. When Melba writes that she sometimes needs to just be a girl, she is trying desperately to cling to the innocence that’s been slipping away throughout the year. Sadly, her dream of a sweet sixteen is crushed. When nobody shows up, Melba is forced to confront the fact that she has changed. Having accepted the role of a warrior for integration, Melba finds that she can’t put it aside so easily. She learns that being a warrior means more than just venturing into new and hostile territory. It also means leaving behind old pleasures and friends. It means that she can no longer indulge in just being a girl.
4. “Change the rules of the game, girl, and they might not like it so much.”
“They’d think I was crazy.”
“They’d think you were no longer their victim.”
In Chapter 23, this exchange between Melba and her grandmother comes after Minnijean has been attacked in school and suspended for the second time. Attacks on the other black students have been stepped up as well, and Melba and her grandmother have this conversation while attempting to remove spoiled eggs from her hair and dress—eggs that were thrown on Melba by a segregationist. Throughout Melba’s time at Central, her grandmother has advised her to follow the teachings of Jesus and to draw her strength from the Bible and God. Here, she advises Melba to model her behavior in school after Mahatma Gandhi’s methods in India. Gandhi practiced a form of protest called “passive resistance,” in which protestors were strictly nonviolent and preached peace and love instead of violence and anger. Melba’s grandmother is advising Melba to approach her attackers with love and kindness as a way of empowering herself.
Grandma India tells Melba to thank the segregationists when they attack and to smile sweetly, as though they’ve done something kind. She tells Melba that the segregationists at school have no power over Melba other than the power that Melba gives them. And the power she gives them consists of reacting the way they want her to react. If Melba isn’t affected (or at least pretends to be unaffected) by their taunts and cruelty, then they have no power over her. Because Melba acts a representative of millions of other people, she has to change the power dynamic between her and her oppressors. The segregationists hope to teach her that they can control her, but Melba defies this. By refusing to be a victim, Melba shows segregationists that they do not, in fact, have such power over her.
5. “Namasté” (The God in me sees and honors the God in you).
Melba ends her book with this quotation, a Sanskrit prayer of acceptance and peace in Chapter 28. Namasté literally means, “I bow to you.” A form of greeting in India, it supposes that there is a divine spark (or God) in every human being. When a person bows with his hands in a prayer position at his heart, he recognizes that the divine spark within him is also in every other person around him. Because Melba has lived through so much anger and hatred, the prayer with which she closes her story of struggle and hatred is a profoundly respectful one. It is a message to her readers that, more than anything else, she’s learned that all people have divinity in them, regardless of their color. By extending this gesture of peace and acceptance to her readers, she extends her message to the world.
For Melba, this prayer is a means of understanding the trauma of her year at Central High School. She is no longer a girl who simply wants people to like her. She has become an adult, toughened by life and her experiences at Central but also able to forgive the world for its cruelty towards her. Because of her time at Central, Melba knows the significance of her closing prayer. Until people learn to recognize both human and divine attributes in themselves and others, peace will be impossible. The prayer is not just for forgiveness; it is also Melba’s hope for the world.
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