Maritcha: A Nineteeth-Century American Girl, by Tonya Bolden
Sometimes when I pick up children’s nonfiction history books, I’m ashamed at the gaps in my knowledge.
Obviously no one can know EVERYTHING, I know that. But that doesn’t stop me from WANTING to know everything.
At the same time, I’m also happy to be learning about it now?
And at the same same time, I’m also mad that so much of this was either skated over or not taught at all in school?
Anyway, being me is a very emotionally complicated and fraught experience, AMA.
What Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century Girl , in particular, has me thinking about is that the majority of our American Civil War units—both in middle school and in high school—focused on battles and tactics, with very little time spent on what went on socially and culturally and economically among civilians. I don’t remember ever ever ever learning about the New York City Draft Riots, for example—which is exactly the sort of event that comes about due to a dovetailing of a whole bunch of issues and decisions and policies that BEAUTIFULLY illustrate the era. (And by ‘beautifully’, I mean that it’s a great example/jumping-off point for a lecture, not that the event itself was beautiful, because good lord, it was horrifying.)
It covers Maritcha’s family’s fight against segregated schooling in Rhode Island almost a hundred years before Brown vs. Board of Education. Which, again: I don’t remember that fight ever being framed as decades-long in school—I remember it being taught as A Thing From The Civil Rights Era, full stop.
[And, obviously, if you think about it for five seconds, of COURSE that’s not the reality of it. Because movements don’t just burst into being like Athena out of Zeus’s head. But it sure continues to be interesting—COUGH—to think about what gets highlighted and what gets back-burnered in history lessons.]
At the heart of it, this is a book about the childhood of a Black girl who was born years and years before the Civil War, who was born free and lived free, and I really haven’t run across very many stories set in this era—fictional or not—about free Black children. It’s telling that this book came out in 2005 and that the next one that immediately comes to mind is ALSO by Tonya Bolden, and only came out this year: Inventing Victoria.
(I’m not saying that they don’t exist, mind you, I’m saying that I haven’t seen very many of them. But I’ll be on the lookout going forward.)
Long story short, this book is great. Bolden uses Maritcha’s story to give a broader overview of what childhood might have been like for free Black kids during this time and from this specific economic class. She covers toys and home life and school and the first World’s Fair and the rise of Black churches; she covers thinkers of the day and the Underground Railroad and Seneca Village; and it’s all through the lens of one specific family’s—and in that family, one specific girl’s—experience.
PS. THE BACKMATTER IS GREAT! Author’s Note, Notes, Selected Bibliography, Illustration Credits: All of them have me itching to do! more! reading!