Warriors Don’t Cry

by

Melba Beals

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Themes and Colors
Racism and Living Under Jim Crow Theme Icon
Passive vs. Violent Resistance Theme Icon
The Cost of Non-Conformity Theme Icon
Relationships, Romance, and Empathy  Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Warriors Don’t Cry, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Passive vs. Violent Resistance Theme Icon

From both Grandma India and the 101st Airborne Division soldier, Danny, Melba learns what it means to be a warrior. Warriors require both the mental strength to withstand abuse and the physical courage to resist violence when it poses a mortal threat. Grandma India and Danny demonstrate to Melba that, while one should never encourage violence, it is important to defend oneself. Grandma India defends the family by keeping watch over the house at night with a shotgun. Danny tells Melba that she is in a battle that requires “warriors,” and encourages her to defend herself after she is attacked by a group of football players at a pep rally. Melba becomes bolder about protecting her well-being, but she prefers to deflect harassment by following her grandmother’s advice to “take charge of these mind games” that some white students play in an effort to get Melba to leave Central. For Melba, whose sense of strength relies more on her Christian faith than on her potential to harm others, it is both more practical to be non-violent and nobler. Her book encourages non-violence as the safest and most effective approach to fighting injustice, while it also acknowledges the occasional necessity of violent resistance.

Though Grandma India does not encourage violence, she is realistic about the possibility of being confronted with it. To protect the family, she stays up at night with a shotgun in her lap. Meanwhile, Danny’s job as a soldier is not to engage in verbal spats with the students or to have physical confrontations with them. He tells Melba that he is only present to keep her alive. With his training and the help of other soldiers, he is able to carry out his task without getting attacked or resorting to violence. In this regard, both Grandma India and Danny show Melba how she can respond to violence without acting violently herself. She learns a form of passive resistance which teaches her how to defend herself without causing serious harm to others or further inflaming an already dangerous situation.

Grandma India nicknames her shotgun “Mr. Higgenbottom.” She keeps the gun in a “leather case in the back of her closet” and takes it out to “set up her guard post near the window to the side of the yard where she thought [the family] was most vulnerable.” Melba notices how, after settling into her rocking chair Grandma India takes “a moment for contemplation and prayer.” The image of Grandma India praying with her gun may seem contradictory, given that Christ preached non-violence. However, the peril that her family faces forces Grandma India prepare for the possibility that she will have to harm another person in self-defense. She makes a slight compromise by promising only to aim for fingers and toes, for she insists that God would not forgive anyone who takes a life.

In contrast to the image of Grandma India seated in the rocking chair is that of Danny, with his erect posture. Melba comments on the way in which Danny stands “so erect,” with a “stance so commanding that no one would dare to challenge him.” Like Grandma India, Danny holds a gun and will only use it in the event that Melba’s life is threatened. Watching him reminds Melba that she, too, has to appear “confident and alert,” so she mimics what she thinks a soldier would be like in battle. When someone throws a stick of dynamite at her, Danny quickly alerts her to move and stamps out the fuse. Danny tells a stunned Melba to keep moving, for they do not have time to stop. Melba finds Danny’s voice “cold and uncaring,” but does not take this personally, as she assumes that this is what it means to be a soldier—that is, to continue on as though unfazed by personal danger in order “to survive.”

The departure of Danny and the other members of the 101st Airborne Division forces Melba and the other members of the Little Rock Nine to rely on themselves for protection and defense. Though it is not clear from the narrative how the others fare in physical confrontations, Melba seems to remember how Danny encouraged her to defend herself. The black students’ inability to rely on the Arkansas National Guard, some of whom seem more sympathetic to the segregationists, make self-defense imperative. However, Melba remembers both the examples set by Danny and Grandma India, and so she is never the aggressor.

When Melba resumes classes after Thanksgiving break, a boy shouts a racial slur at her. He puts out his foot to trip her “in the hallway on the way to [her] first class” and Melba quickly responds by stepping on his foot, “hard.” She gamely pretends that it is an accident and “grinned” while the boy’s “face reddened.”

In another instance, a few days before her birthday, she is distracted from thoughts of her “sweet sixteen” by a boy who grabs her wrist and twists her arm behind her back. Melba bends her knee, jams her foot forward, and kicks the boy in his crotch. Though he curses at her and threatens to kill her, Melba feels stronger for having defended herself.

Just after the fight with the boy who seeks to subdue and abuse her, Melba faces down two boys who routinely taunt her in homeroom every day. With her newly found strength, she “squared [her] shoulders” like a soldier and “glared at them” as she whispers that she will be at the school the next day “and the next day and the next.” She discovers a determination within herself to stay and fight.

In some instances, the book shows, violent resistance is futile, and non-violence is a powerful practice. When someone “standing on the stairs above [Melba’s] head” pelts her with eggs in the morning before classes start, she feels helpless. She returns home to clean up and her grandmother advises her to turn the tables on her abusers, making them think that their mistreatment is actually welcome. The tactic, which limits her abusers’ power to victimize her, works immediately.

Melba’s mind tricks probably prevent her from experiencing an incident similar to Minnijean Brown’s cafeteria confrontations with a boy who repeatedly dumps soup on her. Minnijean is first suspended, then expelled, for supposedly retaliating. Melba feels concern over the possibility of expulsion due to a cafeteria incident and avoids confrontation in one instance by remaining seated until the room clears. She pretends to immerse herself in a book about Mahatma Gandhi’s prison experience, which results in her being taunted and threatened. When Melba politely smiles at her attacker and says “thank you,” the boy seems “astonished” and slowly backs away from her. For Melba “turning the other cheek” was “beginning to be a lot of fun” and she feels that she is winning “in a bizarre mental contest” against her attackers. Her ability to outwit them calms her and makes her feel safer. By welcoming her attacker’s aggressions, she paradoxically removes herself from physical danger and is simultaneously able to de-escalate confrontations and put the segregationists ill at ease.

Melba’s response to violence and oppression within the halls of Central evolves in the few months from her enrollment at the school to the month of her sixteenth birthday. She goes from stoically bearing verbal and physical abuse to finding clever ways to resist it in ways that make her feel less victimized. Without the protection of Danny and other members of the 101st Airborne Division, she knows that she can either fend for herself or possibly be killed at school. Her understanding of how to fend for herself, however, is no longer limited to tolerating or committing violence as she discovers that, under certain circumstances, she can rise above the fray altogether. Melba learns through her experience at Central High that resistance can take many shapes.

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Passive vs. Violent Resistance Quotes in Warriors Don’t Cry

Below you will find the important quotes in Warriors Don’t Cry related to the theme of Passive vs. Violent Resistance.
Chapter 2  Quotes

I crept forward, and then I saw him—a big white man, even taller than my father, broad and huge, like a wrestler. He was coming toward me fast [….] My heart was racing almost as fast as my feet. I couldn’t hear anything except for the sound of my saddle shoes pounding the ground and the thud of his feet close behind me. That’s when he started talking about “niggers” wanting to go to school with his children and how he wasn’t going to stand for it. My cries for help drowned out the sound of his words, but he laughed and said it was no use because nobody would hear me.

Related Characters: Melba Pattillo Beals (speaker), Melba’s Potential Rapist
Page Number: 15-16
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 9 Quotes

“Look out, Melba, now!” Danny’s voice was so loud that I flinched. “Get down!” he shouted again as what appeared to be a flaming stick of dynamite whizzed past and landed on the stair just below me. Danny pushed me aside as he stamped out the flame and grabbed it up. At breakneck speed he dashed down the stairs and handed the stick to another soldier, who sped away. Stunned by what I had seen, I backed into the shadow on the landing, too shocked to move. “You don’t have time to stop. Move out, girl.” Danny’s voice sounded cold and uncaring. I supposed that’s what it meant to be a soldier—to survive.

Related Characters: Melba Pattillo Beals (speaker), Danny (speaker)
Related Symbols: Warriors
Page Number: 110-111
Explanation and Analysis:

“You’ve gotta learn to defend yourself. You kids should have been given some training in self-defense.” “Too late now,” I said. “It’s never too late. It takes a warrior to fight a battle and survive. This here is a battle if I’ve ever seen one.” I thought about what Danny had said as we walked to the principal’s office to prepare to leave school. I knew for certain something would have to change if I were going to stay in that school. Either the students would have to change the way they behaved, or I would have to devise a better plan to protect myself. My body was wearing out real fast.

Related Characters: Melba Pattillo Beals (speaker), Danny (speaker)
Related Symbols: Warriors
Page Number: 113
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10 Quotes

A girl smiled at me today, another gave me directions, still another boy whispered the page I should turn to in our textbook. This is going to work. It will take a lot more patience and more strength from me, but it’s going to work. It takes more time than I thought. But we’re going to have integration in Little Rock.

Related Characters: Melba Pattillo Beals (speaker)
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 12 Quotes

Sweet sixteen? How could I be turning sweet sixteen in just a few days and be a student at Central High, I thought as I entered the side door of the school […]. I had relished so many dreams of how sweet my sixteenth year would be, and now it had arrived, but I was here in this place. Sixteen had always seemed the magic age that signaled the beginning of freedom, when Mama and Grandma might let loose their hold and let me go out with my friends on pre-dates. But with integration, I was nowhere near being free.

Related Characters: Melba Pattillo Beals (speaker), Mother Lois, Grandma India
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 15 Quotes

I pretended to become intensely involved in my book. I was reading about Mr. Gandhi’s prison experience and how he quieted his fears and directed his thoughts so that his enemies were never really in charge of him. All at once I was aware that one of my hecklers was coming toward me. “Niggers are stupid, they gotta study real hard, don’t they?” he said in a loud voice. “Thanks for the compliment,” I said, looking at him with the pleasantest expression I could muster so he would believe I wasn’t annoyed. “Study hard now, nigger bitch, but you gotta leave this place sometime, and then we got you.” “Thank you,” I said again, a mask of fake cheer on my face. He seemed astonished as he slowly started to back away. I felt myself smiling inside. As Grandma India said, turning the other cheek could be difficult […] it was also beginning to be a lot of fun.

Related Characters: Melba Pattillo Beals (speaker), Grandma India
Related Symbols: Warriors
Page Number: 181
Explanation and Analysis: