The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin. Roaring Brook Press, 2014.
In the segregated military during World War II, Black sailors were responsible for loading munitions at Port Chicago on the San Francisco Bay. They were given no training in how to handle the dangerous cargo, and often felt pressure to increase their speed. On July 17, 1944, a tremendous explosion resulted in the deaths of 320 sailors on the dock and in the ships being loaded. In the aftermath, surviving Black sailors were soon ordered back to loading munitions. A group of them refused, saying they would obey any order but that one. They admitted they were afraid. And they were court martialed and found guilty of mutiny, sentenced to 15 years hard labor in prison. Steve Sheinkin offers a mesmerizing account of individuals and events surrounding the trial of the men who became known as the “Port Chicago 50,” revealing the impact of racism and segregation within the military at that time. The overtly racist Navy prosecutor aimed to show the men had conspired together ahead of time to refuse the order but there was no evidence of this in the testimony. Thurgood Marshall, then with the NAACP, sat in on the trail and appealed the guilty verdict, but the appeal failed: to reverse the decision would be to admit the original trial was unjust. Political and public pressure resulted in the men’s release from prison after sixteen months. They were allowed to resume work as sailors, some serving on ships as the Navy began to desegregate, but the mutiny convictions were never dropped despite recurring efforts over the decades. Sheinkin’s compelling narrative, clearly positioned on the side of social justice, draws on the full-transcripts of interviews done with members of the Port Chicago 50 in the 1970s as well as transcripts of the trial. These accounts and other research is thoroughly documented in an offering that is sure to evoke strong emotional responses among y.a. readers. (MS) ©2014 Cooperative Children’s Book Center
Great resources for Port Chicago 50 available at TeachingBooks.net.
Start some conversation with these discussion questions:
- The first chapter in the book, “First Hero,” describes an African American naval kitchen worker who saves many lives during an air raid in 1941 at Pearl Harbor. In what ways does this story foreshadow the events and personal experiences during the Port Chicago 50 disaster?
- In the chapter “The Verdict,” the author describes the court proceedings against the Port Chicago 50. The author reports that testimony “ignited” the prosecutor’s “biggest tantrum” thus far (p. 137). How do words like “ignited” and “tantrum” influence the reader’s perspective about the prosecutor and the court proceedings? What feelings does the author elicit in the reader in using these descriptors? How would your reaction be different if the author had used the words “prompted” rather than “ignited” or “frustration” rather than “tantrum?’
- Have you or someone you know ever been in a situation where you needed to disagree with someone in authority? What were the consequences of that disagreement? How was that situation alike or different from the Port Chicago 50 situation? If you had been on that naval base, would you have continued to load ammunition or would you have joined the 50? Why or why not?
The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang. First Second, 2014.
The origins of the 1940s comic book hero Green Turtle are imagined in the story of Hank, a young Chinese American man whose mother is desperate he become a superhero, even exposing him to toxic chemicals and other possible mutation-causing agents. This is one of the many moments of high humor in a graphic novel also packed with action, moments of pathos, and social commentary. It’s his humble father’s murder that finally gives Hank a superpower: It turns out one of the four spirits of China — a tortoise — possessed Hank’s father and moves on to Hank when the father dies. The tortoise becomes Hank’s mentor, although he’s as acerbic and droll as he is wise. Hank discovers gangster Ten Grand is at the bottom of his father’s death, but Ten Grand’s daughter, Red Center, complicates his plans for revenge. There is so much to appreciate about this work, from the humor and action to the seamless way racism, sexism and stereotypes are laid bare. As impressive as the story itself is the extensive note about the original Green Turtle comic, developed by a cartoonist named Chu Hing for publisher Rural Home during World War II. Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew look at the facts and rumors and discuss their own theory on how Hing fought back against his publisher’s refusal to allow him to openly depict Green Turtle as Chinese American. The entire original comic is then reproduced, racism and all, they note, as they encourage readers to make up their own minds about Hing’s intentions in this absolutely entertaining work that openly invites critical thinking. © Cooperative Children’s Book Center
Great resources for The Shadow Hero available at TeachingBooks.net.
Start some conversation with these discussion questions:
- The book ends with a short history of the comic industry in the 1940s and, in particular, how a comic called “The Green Turtle” was created by an Asian American artist. In retrospect, how did this information influence your understanding of the story? Do you think it was necessary to provide this backstory? Did knowing this information change how you felt about the story? In what ways?
- This book examines issues of immigration and race in addition to crime and its consequences. How do the images in the book reinforce the story’s treatment of immigration and race? Examine the panels on page 118. In one image, Hank pulls his eyes into slits. How does this image reinforce the accompanying text and the story’s treatment of race? Do you think it adds or detracts from the text’s message? How?
- Some people believe graphic novels teach “visual literacy” whereby you examine the images in context with the text, rather than simply reading the text alone. How does the visual representation of immigration and race contribute to or detract from your understanding of these issues? Would your reaction be different had you simply read about it without pictures? Did you find the use of visuals and the graphic novel format effective in examining these issues? Why or why not?
- On page 118, the police detective calls the Chinese gang, “Those sneaky slant-eyed bastards.” How does his word choice reflect the time and place in which this story takes place? Why do you think the detective is surprised that the Green Turtle is also a “slant-eyed” bastard? Why do you think the author used those words to describe the criminals?