Belle, the Last Mule at Gee’s Bend

Gee's bend

In the 1960s the Gee’s Bend Ferry was closed, isolating an African American community. Josh Bean reports that in 1996 the government gave a lot of money to re-open it. As of 2006, it is up and running. When the weather warms up and school is out, we plan to take a trip to ride the ferry, track the mural trail, and see what we can learn about the past or future. Gee’s Bend is most widely known for the artistic achievement of their quilts. Souls Grown Deep, a foundation committed to the preservation of visual arts by African Americans in the South, has more information about the artwork.

gee's bend

As we read books about African American visual artists this month, the new book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey, Bettye Stroud, and John Holyfield called “Belle, the Last Mule of Gee’s Bend” rose to the top. It’s inexpensive, and my preschoolers asked to read it twice this morning. Keeper.

My two year old loves that the mule is on almost every page. He loves Belle. And Belle loves greens. I’m going to try that angle at dinner tonight. As I read the book, I also pointed out how clearly and politely the child, Alex, speaks to his elders. Those are the things we tend to talk about most days (being healthy and polite). But the more important lessons, like grieving, justice, and hardship, become easier to talk about through this story, too. The story finishes like this:

“Now you know what Dr. King meant when he told us that even though we led simple, hard lives, we were still somebody,” [Miz Pettway] said. “And even an old mule can be a hero,” Alex added…

The book reminds us that the Civil Rights Movement is also about how we treat our neighbors, something we have to decide every day. The tale shows how actions affect others and ends on a high note. But we know the story continues and how important it is for us to talk about today. To learn more about the quilts of Gee’s Bend, listen to this older “Talk of the Nation” episode or Jason Moran’s jazz interpretation.

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