illustrated close-up of Kenny Watson with fire in the background behind him

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963

by Christopher Paul Curtis

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Chapter 10 Summary

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When the Watsons finally cross the border between Michigan and Ohio, they pull over at a rest stop just outside of Toledo. The children are impressed with the area, which looks like it is “chopped right out of the forest and [has] picnic tables made out of giant logs.” They are disgusted by the outhouses at the rest stop, however; there is no running water, and the toilets consist of a seat placed over a “great big, open black hole” from which emanates a terrible smell. Momma tells Byron that he had better get used to this type of outhouse because that is what Grandma Sands has at her house. Grandma Sands thinks “a house is a whole lot nicer place if the facilities are outside.”

As the family progresses south through Ohio, the children fall asleep, and Kenny awakens just before they arrive in Cincinnati. Although Momma has planned for them to stay the night in a motel there, Dad is determined to try to drive straight through to Alabama. At first Momma is not happy with this change in their itinerary, but when Dad points out that they will save a lot of money this way, she is a little more accepting. The children sleep through most of Ohio and Kentucky, and when Kenny next awakens, the family is at a rest stop in Tennessee. There are no bathrooms here; the rest stop has only a water pump and a picnic table. When Dad turns the headlights of the Brown Bomber off, they are plunged into “the blackest night anyone [has] ever seen.” Momma announces that they are in the Appalachian Mountains, and although the air is wonderfully clear and the stars look bigger and more numerous than the children have ever seen, there is a certain ominous feeling that is not helped when Momma is furious at Dad for disregarding her plans and driving the family “straight into Hell!”

Byron and Kenny use the nearby trees to go to the bathroom, and Kenny, trying to pinpoint the reason for his feeling that something bad is going to happen, asks Byron if there are snakes in the area. Byron replies that it is not snakes that he is worried about; it is the people: “crackers and rednecks . . . that ain’t never seen no Negroes before.” Byron is afraid that if the Watsons are caught out there by white men in the deserted wilderness, they will be hung, or worse. No one feels safe until they are back in the car and riding down the interstate once again. As he drives, Dad sticks his hand out of the window and tells everyone to do the same so they can appreciate the coolness of the air. The entire family complies, and Dad suggests that they wiggle their fingers; they are so high and the air is so perfect, it is as if they have their “fingers in God’s beard and . . . [are] tickling him.” Byron, of course, acts like he is going to throw up because of Dad’s corniness, but he and all the Watsons keep their arms out of the window, wiggling their fingers as they drive down the mountain. Kenny remembers this as “the best part of the trip so far,” riding in the car in the “cool, light air” with the whole family, while his favorite song, “Yakety Yak,” is playing on the Ultra Glide.

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