Ruby Bridges’ Reclamation: Deconstructing a Child Activist
Ruby Bridges’ Reclamation: Deconstructing a Child Activist
Ruby Bridges is often cited as a child activist with a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement. She was one of the first four young African American girls integrated into white public schools, and the only one who went alone. Through My Eyes is an autobiographical picture book aimed at young readers in which Bridges tells the story of her childhood and describes the era she was living in. While it might seem like this book would be a place where she tries to inspire bravery and resilience in children, Bridges clearly does not think she was an activist of any kid. The responsibility of all of the actions in the book falls on the adults rather than the child subject. Through the interplay of outside sources, anecdotal evidence, and personal reflections, Ruby Bridges thoroughly dissects the notion that she was a child with agency in the fight against racial inequality to instead posit the idea she was under the control of the adults in her life.
Ian Hacking’s concept of an “interactive” kind of classification is a useful way of perceiving childhood through an uncommon lens; one in which the child has agency even in oppressive institutions. An “interactive” kind of classification can be “modified or replaced” (Hacking 103) because there is room for the objects being classified to interact with the classification. In the model of the “child,” for instance, there are many ways for children to interact with their classification. Interaction can occur between children and the “institutions and practices” (104) they are placed in, such as a modified classroom for students depending on their perceived academic abilities. The institution (teachers, parents, other students) will interact with the child based upon expectations and experiences with that child and the child will in turn react to its own classification. Using the term “interactive kind” allows for more fluid discourse between the subject and the perceived powers over that subject. Instead of claiming a child is at the mercy of those in power, labeling a child as “interactive” gives the child agency and control in responding to its environment. Ruby Bridges responded to her classification as a child activist when she was an adult, but through her book it is also clear how she interacted with her classification as she was experiencing it in the moment; namely, that her agency was extremely limited.
Throughout the novel, Bridges consistently reminds the reader that she does not remember everything, that there were things she did not know at the time, and emphasizing that as a child she was “limited to [her] own small world” (Bridges 5). To supplement some of the recollections, there are pictures and quotes from newspapers, legal documents, personal interviews, and even a John Steinbeck novel. While this authorial move makes the narrative feel more authentic—a perfect memory coming from a 6-year-old would stretch the credibility of the nonfiction piece—it also shows other voices telling Ruby’s story. Bridges must rely on many other sources and people to fill in the gaps of her own personal story because she was “limited” by being a child, what turns out to be a lack of agency and control. Now an adult, Bridges does not feel similarly limited. The only verb tense ever used is past tense, a stylistic choice that removes the reader from the actual childhood of bridges to place them firmly in the present looking back with the adult Ruby. Through My Eyes is a misleading title in this sense, as the only eyes that are used are the adult lenses used by Bridges to describe her childhood. This strange disconnect is symbolic of the circumstance through which she was first shown herself as a child activist through the eyes of others. Her childhood was one of intense public scrutiny and outside involvement that is emphasized through appropriation of her image (Steinbeck, Norman Rockwell) and constant referral to what everyone else was saying about her. Bridges is taking back her life’s story by including what others have said or written about her as a framework in which she tells her own narrative.
The preface of the book starts with these two sentences: “When I was six years old, the civil rights movement came knocking at the door. It was 1960, and history pushed in and swept me up in a whirlwind” (4). These sentences set the tone for the rest of the novel, where Bridges purposefully undermines the notion that she had any agency as a child. Ruby did not go knocking on the NAACP’s door, they came to her. History “pushed” in, an aggressive and controlling move, to “sweep” her up in a chaotic and uncontrollable force of nature, “whirlwind.” The reason for their interest in Ruby’s life is a circumstantial one that Bridges makes sure to unravel, and the NAACP comes across as having exploited Ruby for their own personal gain without any real regard to her or her family.
Bridges explains that the test she and her classmates were made to take, the one that she passed and the reason she was chosen to go to a white school in the first place, was something accidental. In fact, about the test Bridges says “I’m sure I didn’t have any idea why I was taking it” (11). There was no agency in Ruby taking and passing the test; she did not want to go to a white school for a better education, nor was she excited and motivated to do well on the exam. Rather, passing the test was just something that happened to her, an arbitrary detail in her story. Saying that she was “sure” that as a child she “didn’t have any idea” why she and her classmates were taking the test in the first place also implicates the adults in the situation. None of the children had anything explained to them, and the test was not optional.
I think the information that so few children were recorded to have passed the test implicates the test givers and graders as having working biases against the integration of the children. This is affirmed by Bridges, who mentions that as an adult, she had “been told that it was set up so that kids would have a hard time passing” (11) concluding that “[i]f all the black children had failed, the white school board might have had a way to keep the schools segregated for a while longer” (11). What was the test that so few children would have passed it out of such a large pool, and only five female students at that? Ruby was a quiet, attentive student with two religious, working, married parents; perhaps her family, background, and personality were put to the test as well. Clearly, mentioning that so few children passed is not meant to reflect poorly on those children. The adults on the school board are located firmly at the root of these children’s failure.
The NAACP had a large role in using Ruby Bridges in their political goals to gain ground in Deep South integration. The way Bridges’ describes them leans to the unfavorable; “They pressured my parents and they made a lot of promises…We would receive a better education, which would give us better opportunities as adults” (12). Portraying the NAACP as “pressuring” two adults and “promising” future rewards make the NAACP sound like desperate politicians, not radical activists. From the beginning, the Bridges were markedly left out of the loop. When it comes to take Ruby to her first day to school, U.S. federal marshals arrive instead of the people from the NAACP Ruby’s mother “expected” to see. After the first year, “there were no NAACP people coming to visit” (52) anymore, and it is clear that the NAACP got what they wanted out of the situation. The gradual drop off of assistance in the lives of the Bridges’ reveals how the family was used like a pawn in a larger political game that had no use for them after the initial action.
Bridges claims repeatedly to have been unaware of racism before her involvement in the civil rights movement, beginning in the preface when she claims, “Young children never know about racism at the start. It’s we adults who teach it” (4). This powerful move both places the blame for racism on the shoulders of adults involved, such as the ones who greeted her outside of school every day with hateful signs and jeers, while also making it clear that Ruby was not standing up against racism as a child “activist.” She dissociates herself from being aware of the racially-based hatred being directed at her until a whole year after attending the white school. While she does admit that she “had picked up bits and pieces over the months from being around adults and hearing them talk” (50, emphasis mine), Bridges remembers “nothing was clear” (50) to her until one day when a little boy wouldn’t play with her. She quotes him as saying “I can’t play with you. My mama said not to because you’re a nigger” (50), at which point Bridges claims that “I finally realized everything had happened because I was black” (50). Obviously that implies that Bridges knew what “nigger” meant and referred to, but in the context of the “bits and pieces” she picked up from the adults in her life.
Bridges further brings adults into the focus of blame not only through the quote from the little boy, whose racism is directly attributed to his mother’s influence, but also through the explanation of her childhood understanding of this horrible slur. “I wasn’t angry at the boy, because I understood. His mother had told him not to play with me, and he was obeying her. I would have done the same thing. If my mama said not to do something, I didn’t do it” (50). Bridges is placing the responsibility adults have in furthering racism while also recalling that her mother was the one who ultimately decided Ruby’s fate. If Bridges felt that when “[her] mama said not to do something, [she] didn’t do it,” it also follows that when she was told to do something, she did that too. In the first character description of Ruby’s mother offered, Lucille is linked directly to a position of power over her children; “When she told us to do something, we were supposed to say, ‘Yes, m’am,’ and not too much else about it” (8). Bridges is offering up her mother as a major contributing factor to her involvement in the civil rights movement instead of trying to build up any notion of Ruby being an active agent interested in activism.
Bridges most effective use in emphasizing the agency she has now in the telling of her story is in how she deals with the angry crowd that gathered outside her school every morning. Bridges uses a child’s ignorance to highlight the absurdity of ignorance in adults through her descriptions of the crowd and her reactions on her first day at the white school. Before she even goes school that first day, Ruby’s mother warns her that “There might be a lot of people outside the school, but you don’t need to be afraid” (14). This implies ignorance on Ruby’s part of what to expect, as well as furthering the notion this was path was chosen for her and she had no say in the matter. When they arrive at the new school, Ruby immediately notices the “barricades and people shouting and policemen everywhere” (16). Bridges describes how she thought it might be Mardi Gras because “Mari Gras was always noisy” (16), even though she began attending William Frantz on November 14th and not March 5th. Hazarding another guess, the confused Ruby thinks this might be college because the “[t]he policemen at the door and the crowd behind us made me think this was an important place” (16).
These darkly comic moves illustrates Ruby’s naiveté and ignorance to the role she is playing in the civil rights movement, makes it clear Ruby does not yet grasp why there are crowds outside of her new school, and also manages to make something scary less so by comparing them to a “carnival” (16) crowd or a group of college students. At the end of the day, Ruby and her mother had done nothing besides wait quietly in the room while white parents come to take their children out because they “hadn’t been sure whether William Frantz would be integrated that day or not” (20). This image of Ruby and her mother is in clear contrast to the chanting, barely controlled violence shown brewing outside the school. Bridges makes more wry comments, such as “I had thought my new school would be hard, but the first day was easy” (18) and explaining her reaction to the white parents’ confusion as “[T]his must be the way it is in a big school” (18). While for the most part Bridges places her knowledge of the crowd’s purpose as something she learned later on, she does admit a vivid remembrance of “a black doll in a coffin, which frightened [her] more than anything else” (20). Bridges makes a threatening situation less dangerous through humor and juxtaposition of her childhood observations, but the crowd is never without some degree menace.
Through My Eyes is a clear example of “the way in which the actors may become self-aware as being of a kind, if only because of being treated or institutionalized as of that kind, and so experiencing themselves in that way” (Hacking 104). Ruby Bridges, experiencing herself as a child activist in the eyes of society, did not agree that she should be labeled as an example of childhood agency and power in the face of societal oppression. In Through My Eyes, Bridges depicts herself as very much in the power of the adults in her life—the NAACP, the Louisiana school system, her parents—and as an adult is reclaiming her categorization to dispel the myth of her heroism.
Ruby Bridges never pretended to be anything besides what she was, but society used her story to tell a different tale. This society put a child in a place where most were afraid to tread, and since the civil rights movement was ultimately successful, the way Bridges’ life was viewed became tinted by achievement. Instead of admitting that a serious mental cost was exacted from children by bigoted, angry adults, the past was glossed over and Ruby Bridges was an example of how good people can be, how brave a child might become in the face of adversity. This is a denial of any responsibility those that should have been looking out for Ruby might have to face up to, because she was now seen as a child activist, an agent who knowingly and with consent led the move to integration. She must have known the costs and willingly signed up for it, or, she was too innocent and good to let the evil of this world bog her down. The nation looked to be forgiven through Ruby Bridges, but she is not willing to let that responsibility fall to the children. Bridges argues for adult awareness and accountability, accounting her role in her life as doing as she was told.
Ruby Bridges has been made into a civil rights hero, but what she should serve as is an example of how not to treat a child. Ruby was placed into a new school all by herself, with a single teacher, no classmates, and an angry mob always there to meet her. There was no agency in either originally enrolling or in continuing to go to school; her mother’s decision brought on by the NAACP’s actions are depicted as entirely out of Ruby’s control. Painting Ruby as a brave activist denies any negative involvement adults making all of her decisions might have had on her; an image Bridges is actively trying expose and problematize. I think it was assumed that because she was young, African American, and one of the first children to segregate a school in Louisiana, Ruby Bridges was making a choice; however, I think that because was young, African American, and scored a certain way on an unclear test, Ruby Bridges had no choice at all. Ruby’s true agency becomes apparent in how she interacted with the situation she was placed in, not in selecting the situation. The agency Bridges lost as a child is gained back through the retelling of her story, the way she wanted it to be told.
Bridges, Ruby. Through My Eyes. Scholastic, NY: 1999.
Hacking, Ian. “Madness: Biological or Constructed?” The Social Construction of What?
Cambridge: Harvard University Press: 1999. 100-124.