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.