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Historical fiction author speaks with students about civil rights-era novel

| Monica Vargas, Christina Berchini

When examining texts in a classroom there is usually no telling what the author was thinking or had intended.

Students in Dr. Christina Berchini’s English 272 course, "Race as Text: Examining Race and Racism in Text, Schools and Our Own Experiences," were the given the rare privilege of speaking to the author of a young-adult novel they studied in class.

Thanks to a Skype visit, the class partook in a coveted behind-the-scenes perspective of historical fiction writing about race and racism in America.


Dr. Christina Berchini's class interacts with author Christopher Crowe via Skype.

Specifically, the class was immersed in the novel "Mississippi Trial 1955" by Dr. Christopher Crowe. For the uninitiated, Christopher Everett "Chris" Crowe is an American professor of English and English education specializing in young-adult literature at Brigham Young University. 

The book takes up the story of Emmett Till, a black child whose murder in Mississippi sparked the civil rights movement. The novel provides a fictionalized — yet heavily researched and historical — account of the murder trial. The book maintains a sobering degree of relevance to today’s racialized climate, which was part of Berchini’s rationale for including it in the curriculum.

Students had questions prepared and ready to go; they were eager for the opportunity to speak directly with the author. After considerable opportunities to analyze the novel in relation to course themes, students had been drawing their own conclusions in class and wanted to know more.

Their first question sought to gain an understanding of the author’s decision to write about the trial to begin with.

For Crowe, “(The Mississippi Trial, 1955 is) a story for young adults because it’s about young adults, (and) the story of Emmett is often not taught.”

For Berchini, meeting with Crowe served several purposes. First, the novel afforded students the opportunity to investigate the ideas guiding the course themes, topics and content. For example, students are treated to an exploration, through text, of the following questions: Who gets to say what in a text (literature, film or something else)? Following this, what is being said about whom and by whom? How is race re/presented? In what ways is whiteness re/presented in a text, if at all? In what ways have my experiences in the world (school, community, etc.) been shaped and influenced by (my) race? 

Secondly, that the story of Emmett Till is not taught regularly in schools throughout the country is nothing short of troubling. For Berchini, decisions about what is not taught in classrooms are just as revealing as what is taught. As importantly, Crowe’s visit shed insights into the importance of how content is taught.

For example, creating a protagonist (i.e., Hiram Hillburn) who struggles with race and racism has led to the novel’s inclusion in multicultural curricula across the country. True to the course content, students wanted to know how Crowe came to terms with the politics of telling the story of race and racism in Mississippi through the eyes of a white character. For Crowe, a white man with a deep intellectual interest in equity and social justice, to attempt to tell the story through Emmett’s eyes would have been irresponsible at best, and harmful, at worst.

For Leah Wagner, a student in the course, Crowe’s response was an enlightening look at the process of writing in the historical fiction genre:

“I think it was especially cool to hear how he researched as much as he could about Emmett Till to be as factual as possible. We were able to learn about why he told the story the way he did, as a young white boy, because he couldn't tell it any other way. Talking with the author helped me to have a better understanding of the text.”

Top photo caption: Author Christopher Crowe. (Photo by Sadie Hansen, Landmark High School, Spanish Fork, Utah)