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Warriors Don’t Cry

Melba Patillo Beals

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

Important quotations explained

Themes

The Shifting of Power Through Resistance

Melba’s year at Central High School centers around maturation, race relations, and challenging the power dynamic in the United States. In the segregated South, white people had power and black people did not. The small act of defiance of nine black children entering an all-white school took on such significance because it threatened to change the way white segregationists wielded their power. With this and many other acts, integrationists such as Melba showed that the power of the white segregationists was a fragile illusion. Melba’s story makes clear that the power of whites lie, to some extent, in the consent of the black people. Once blacks—even just a few of them—stopped consenting, the power structure began to fail.

Grandma India teaches Melba about passive resistance. Melba learns to smile and meet every outrageous abuse with a polite “thank you.” For Grandma India, power lies not in displays of physical strength or firepower, but in inner strength and faith. The mobs of white people who rely on numbers to overwhelm a tiny black teenager are only showing that they don’t have the power they say they do. Grandma India tells Melba she is only a victim if she lets herself be one. Melba learns that nobody has any power to hurt her unless she gives it to them. This simple act of refusing to be afraid when people threaten her changes not just the way Melba sees herself but also the way other people see her.

The Prominence of Race Relations

People’s perceptions of race cloud the way they behave throughout Warriors Don’t Cry. Melba is born into a segregated society, in which black people lack the basic rights afforded to white people. In Melba’s narrative, this is a system more or less acknowledged by both white and black people. And though the black people suffer much more in the system, they also help to enforce it out of fear of retribution from the white people. The white people are afraid that the black people will rise up and take over their lives, and the black people are afraid of being punished by the white people for rising up. This mutual fear often turns into mistrust and hatred. Even those within the white community who try to reach out to blacks are called traitors and are threatened with violence.

Though Melba has a valid reason to mistrust many white people throughout the course of the book, she learns that people can make decisions based more on honor, trust, and love than race. Link, the white boy whose love for his nanny humanizes black people for him, proves to Melba that she can trust some white people. The two white people who save Elizabeth Eckford from the white mob and the Quaker family that takes her in after she leaves Arkansas are other trustworthy whites. Eventually, she falls in love with John, the white soldier who woos her in college. Outside of the tangle of racial conflict set up by the history in Little Rock, Melba can learn to relate to people as people rather than as members of a race.

Motifs

Self-reliance

While for most teenagers, high school involves building social skills and a community, for Melba and the other black students it is primarily about self-reliance. Not only are they entering a school in which almost every person is hostile toward them but they are also slowly losing friends from their old lives. Melba’s friends from Horace Mann begin to avoid her because they fear for their own safety and because she becomes so serious while undergoing the abuse at Central. Melba does begin to date Vince, but because he cannot understand what she is going through, they gradually drift apart. Melba is close to her family, but she learns that even they cannot protect her from the people in her school.

Melba has to face each challenge and attack by herself. Danny sees Melba through some difficult times, but eventually he disappears when the 101st Airborne is withdrawn. Though Link helps her, he does not openly declare himself her friend. While other teenagers around her travel in packs of friends, Melba is isolated and rarely allowed out in public. Grandma India gives her strength and purpose, but eventually, Grandma India dies. In the process of becoming an adult, Melba has to learn to rely more and more on herself instead of on the people around her.

The Loss of Innocence

The transformation from being innocent, idealistic teenagers to warriors is a recurring motif throughout Warriors Don’t Cry. Battered by the hatred and violence at Central High School, each of the Nine has to learn how to live without friends and rely solely on themselves. They also learn that they cannot rely on the protection of their parents or any of the authority figures in the school to protect them. Each of the Little Rock Nine has to learn to survive in hostile conditions. Each of them has to give up a youthful dream, whether it is seeing Elvis perform, playing on the school basketball team, or singing in the school talent show. All of the black students have to recognize that their lives are about much more than their own petty concerns: their pain contributes to some greater good. If they are unable to recognize this, they will not last very long. Because Minnijean cannot accept that it may be impossible for her to make friends and have a normal teenage life, it becomes harder and harder for her to stifle her natural emotions. She is expelled.

The story in Warriors Don’t Cry is not just about the black students’ loss of innocence. It is the story of how Little Rock lost its innocence, as well. The segregationists in Little Rock fight so hard against the integration of the schools because, in some part, integration would mean admitting they had been mistreating black people all these years. Link loses his innocence by watching not just how Melba and her friends are treated but also how his own family treats his beloved Nana Healey. Seeing them turn an ailing old woman away makes him realize he doesn’t really trust his family. It becomes difficult to reconcile the image of the parents he loves with their treatment of someone who had always loved and cared for him. The images that appear in the newspaper after Elizabeth Eckford is turned away from Central the first time, in which a tiny black girl is surrounded by a howling mob of white people, shame some white adults. The reason segregationists talk about black people “making trouble” is that the lives they live have hitherto been innocent of the suffering of the black people around them. Being forced to recognize the pain of others requires a loss of innocence, for which they’re not prepared.

Symbols

Central High School

Central High School comes to symbolize not just a good education but also the barriers to education that Melba and the other black students have to face. Its forbidding, fortress-like exterior represents the barriers put up by society against black people. The quest to conquer Central High School concerns more than just getting nine black children into an all-white high school: it also concerns the large scale dismantling of barriers in all aspects of American life and ensuring that black people are afforded the same opportunities as white people.

The luxury and wealth of the school also symbolize all that Melba’s people do not have. When Melba is able to observe the school around her, she sees lovely things, such as the preparations for the school play and the new textbooks. All of this is vastly different from Melba’s old high school, Horace Mann. Because the Central High students are surrounded by other white people but served in the cafeteria by black people, the school is also a microcosm of the white world, in which white people are rarely forced to confront the realities of racism. But Melba’s interactions with Central High School also represent the curiosity and spirit that make it possible for her to survive her first year there. The drive to know what goes on in the white world pushes Melba to overcome her fears.

Melba’s Easter Dress

Every year, Melba’s family chooses fabric from Grandma India’s trunk to make their special Easter clothing. This event has always been a high point of the year, and Grandma India’s trunk is filled with treasures. Though Melba’s family is not wealthy, they have real dignity in their traditions. The tradition of making the dress each year accentuates the pride that Melba’s family takes in their clothing, their religion, and their lives. But in this particular year, Melba insists on an adult dress made of adult fabric. Her mother and grandmother agree that it is time for Melba to have a lady-like dress. The dress symbolizes Melba’s difficult passage from a high-school girl to an adult warrior for justice and is a reward for her work.

When Melba wears the dress to school, one of the segregationist students sprays the dress with black ink and ruins it. Thus, the dress becomes a symbol of all that Melba cannot escape. Though Melba had hoped to use her adult dress as a kind of protection against the cruelty and solitude she experiences at Central High School, it does not work. Melba cannot escape the realities that await her every day at Central.

Journalists

Journalists are omnipresent in Melba’s story. She often uses newspaper headlines to begin chapters of her book, and in the story itself, reporters frequently pepper Melba and her friends with questions. She credits them with having kept attention on the crisis at Central High School. Had newspapers not been running stories regularly, says Melba, Governor Faubus and the segregationists might have been allowed to triumph. One of the two white people who save Elizabeth Eckford is a journalist, and several black journalists are beaten by the savage crowd that surrounds Central High School on the first day of school that the Little Rock Nine attend. Journalists recognize Melba’s talent with words and encourage her to write. But what means the most to Melba is the kind of fraternity they create for themselves, in which black and white reporters work together. For journalists, finding the truth seems more important than discussing superficialities, such as the color of someone’s skin.

The journalists who visit Melba’s town give her a glimpse of something larger than Little Rock and its segregated society. By observing these people who serve truth before social convention, Melba realizes that there is a better life out there. This is the first time she understands that she could have such a future. In her rushed maturation during her time at Central High School, Melba interacts with journalists and realizes she could continue to fight for truth and justice as a career and that she could do it with words.

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WARRIORS DON'T CRY

by SelfMadeGod76, August 12, 2012

On the fist day all the kidare rushed outthrough a secre passage due to danger

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10 out of 36 people found this helpful

Difference between Segregation and Integration

by NonReader1328, September 17, 2013

According to the book what is the difference between Segregation and Integration.

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16 out of 18 people found this helpful

Question about Melba:

by tgerot179, July 23, 2014

When Beals speaks about Little Rock Central High School, what are some of the ways she refers to the school?

See all 4 readers' notes   →

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