On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court decides in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that separate public schools for blacks and whites are illegal. Melba is twelve years old. Her teacher at Dunbar Junior High School dismisses her class early and tells them to be careful and to “walk in groups.” Melba does not understand her teacher’s eagerness to rush her and her classmates home, so she does not walk with the others but trails behind, daydreaming about the persimmon trees and how, in the spring, Marissa, an older girl and occasional bully, likes to pelt her with overripe persimmons. Other than worrying about Marissa, who is bigger than Melba and prone to hiding in the bushes, Melba feels safe in the field and goes there to sing as loudly as she wants, and to daydream about being a movie star or about moving to New York or California.
Melba is an average preteen, worried about bullies and full of fantasies about stardom and faraway places. She does not yet realize how the Supreme Court’s decision will end her innocence, though her teacher at Dunbar tries to protect it by her warning the children to “walk in groups.” Melba feels safe in large, open spaces where she can be herself (singing “as loudly as she wants”) and escape the only peril that she knows—Marissa and overripe persimmons. This depiction of Melba’s late childhood represents the turning point from a period of innocence to one in which Melba is confronted with the most brutal realities of Jim Crow.
In response to the Supreme Court verdict, radio announcers talk a lot about Little Rock. They describe a place that Melba does not quite recognize—a place where blacks and whites get along peacefully and black people earn good wages. However, Melba knows that only teachers, doctors, and preachers earn “tolerable salaries.” There are few jobs as “clerks, policemen, bus drivers, or insurance salesmen” open to black applicants. Melba reflects on how Mother Lois gave up on trying to convince Melba’s father, Howell, to return to university. They divorced when she was seven.
The announcements reflect the differences between black and white people’s experiences of Jim Crow. Black people’s general fear of challenging white supremacy is what maintains peace, and white people’s sense that blacks are entitled to far less than whites explains the belief that blacks make good wages. However, the pressure to make a good living remains. Howell’s unwillingness to get a degree and pursue more lucrative work results in his leaving the family.
Melba enters the persimmon field deep in her thoughts about integration, her parents’ divorce, and daydreams of stardom when she hears “a man’s gravel voice.” He offers her a ride in his car and tries to lure her to him with candy. She refuses and he becomes more demanding. The man, who becomes Melba’s potential rapist, chases her, slaps her, and takes his pants down. She resists him, then he punches her in the face. He rips at her underpants while saying that he would show her that the Supreme Court cannot run his life. Suddenly, he frowns, lets out “an awful moan,” and clutches the back of his head. Marissa has hit him over the head with her leather school bag and she urges Melba to run. When Melba is too slow, Marissa grabs her hand and leads them both away.
Melba’s personal world, characterized by daydreams, is violently disrupted by a white man who is determined to hold on to his own illusion of white supremacy, which was codified into law until the Brown v. Board of Education decision. The routine rape of black girls and women was a key instrument of white supremacy, both during slavery and the years of segregation that followed, a way for white men to demonstrate their extralegal dominance over black people. Melba’s attacker is trying to show that he can do as he pleases to her, as though her humanity under the law does not exist.
When they arrive at Melba’s house, her brother, Conrad, sees her first and wonders about what happened to her face and why her clothes are torn. Grandma India opens the back door and Marissa explains what happened, using the word “rape,” which Melba does not understand but associates with something “awful and dirty.” Grandma India prompts Melba to take a bath and puts a cold cloth on her face. She also says that they will burn the clothes that Melba was wearing. While in the bathtub, Melba hears the adults, including her father, arguing about how to handle the situation. Howell insists that they not call the police who “are liable to do something worse to her than what already happened.”
Melba does not yet have the language to describe what happened to her, but she understands that it was a violation. The family’s decision not to call the police reflects the common mistrust of the police in black communities, as police officers were often among the chief proponents of Jim Crow across the South. It is significant that Melba’s father is most mistrustful, given that black men are most frequently the target of police harassment.
Grandma India tells Melba not to tell anyone about nearly being raped, especially not Conrad. She tells Melba to pray for her potential rapist, asking God to forgive him and teach him to do right. By the time the bruises go away, Melba does not feel shame, but she commits to reading the newspaper every day so that she will know when Supreme Court justices have made a decision “that make white men want to rape [her].”
Perhaps because Melba is so young, she does not understand that there is nothing that she or anyone else did to cause her attacker to attempt to rape her. Her sense of shame is reinforced by Grandma India’s directive not to tell anyone about her attack. Even at a young age, she understands that there was a relationship between the Supreme Court case and the white man’s attempt to rape her.
The newspapers are full of stories about the Brown v. Board of Education case and white people in Little Rock are saying that they do not want their children going to school with black children. The Little Rock School Board adopts a plan to limit integration to Central High, which they will not allow to begin until September 1957.
Though the Supreme Court has mandated desegregation throughout the South, Little Rock defies the court. Thus, Central High becomes a symbol of both progress and of Little Rock’s insistence on retaining segregation.
One day, Melba’s teacher at Horace Mann High asks if anyone would like to go to Central and Melba spontaneously raises her hand. She had always been curious about what it was like inside of Central and she also reasons that, if black people are allowed to attend all-white schools, maybe other opportunities will become available to them, such as going to shows or sitting in the first row of the movie theater. She follows news of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in December 1955. The following year, the NAACP files suit to make integration begin immediately, despite overwhelming disfavor in Arkansas and Governor Orval Faubus’s commitment not to comply with integration.
Melba volunteers to integrate Central High School on a whim, not yet realizing either the consequences of her decision for her or her family, or that it will place her as a historic figure on the timeline of the Civil Rights Movement. She bases her decision on curiosity—a desire to know what she has been deprived of, such as access to a good, well-funded school and the benefit of going to a movie and sitting in the best seats in the theater.
A group of white mothers called the League of Central High Mothers organize an effort to keep black children out of the school. Mrs. Clyde Thomason, secretary of the group, files a petition for an injunction to keep the Little Rock school board from carrying out its plan. Melba figures that the white mothers will succeed in keeping her out of Central, so she does not bother to tell her family about signing up to enroll there.
The white mothers use their privilege to try to protect segregation. Melba assumes that the power of white supremacy will prevail and keep her out of Central. She does not tell her family about enrolling at the school because she figures that she will never have a chance to go anyway.
Melba prepares to go to Cincinnati, Ohio with Mother Lois, Grandma India, and Conrad to visit her Uncle Clancey. Melba regards Cincinnati as “the promised land” due to the feeling of freedom she senses there. She is surprised when the white neighbors invite her to dinner and when she goes to the movies with their daughter, Cindy, and orders from the concession stand without getting dirty looks. Melba walks down the street with her mother and grandmother without having to step aside for a white pedestrian. They go to department stores and freely look over the merchandise. Melba goes to a lunch counter and orders a root beer, slightly surprised at not being watched. When they go to “a fancy restaurant” with Uncle Clancey, white waiters smile and bow. Melba thinks it is “paradise” and decides to “beg and plead with Uncle Clancey to let her live with him and her Aunt Julie until she finishes high school.
On what seems to be her first visit to a Northern city, Melba immediately recognizes the difference between how she and her family feel in Cincinnati. They can go where they please and do what they please without worrying about what white people may say or do to them. This experience illustrates how the desire for civil rights is mainly a desire for respect. Melba’s experiences in Cincinnati contrast with the instance in which she was forbidden to ride on a merry-go-round, despite having the money for a ticket, and with the instance in which Mr. Waylan took an entire week’s pay from her family for groceries.
They get a phone call from Melba’s father, saying that Melba has been chosen to integrate Central. A news announcer says that seventeen black children will enroll at Central in the fall of 1957. Mother Lois and Grandma India are shocked and outraged that Melba would make such a decision without telling them. In the morning, her mother does not speak to her and her grandmother tells her that she is “too smart for [her] britches.” They hurry home, ending their vacation.
Though Melba must leave Cincinnati, where she is very happy, she is going back to Little Rock to join the effort in making the city more like Cincinnati—that is, a place that offers more equality to black people. Lois and Grandma India’s outrage is a mixture of fear, shock, and concern over Melba growing up and making decisions without them.