In the Neighborhood of Eloise Greenfield

Eloise Greenfield
Eloise Green­field

In this sea­son of gift-giv­ing we want to look at the gift of poet­ry, specif­i­cal­ly the poet­ry and writ­ing of Eloise Green­field. Since pub­lish­ing her first poem in 1962, she has writ­ten more than forty-five books for chil­dren and was the recip­i­ent of the 2018 Coret­ta Scott King Vir­ginia Hamil­ton Award for Life­time Achieve­ment. Her books con­sis­tent­ly win awards, includ­ing the 2012 Coret­ta Scott King Award for The Great Migra­tion Jour­ney to the North. We want to dip into her work and share the books we have locat­ed so far. Study­ing Eloise Green­field is an on-going project for us, and we hope to inspire you to take on this project too.

Night on Neighborhood StreetNight on Neigh­bor­hood Street (1991) was one of our ear­ly encoun­ters with Eloise Green­field. The for­mat allows Green­field to give us a com­mu­ni­ty in this series of poems about peo­ple who live on one street. No sto­ry arc. No prob­lem encoun­tered and solved. Glimpses of lives in one neigh­bor­hood on one night.

The first poem in a kind of estab­lish­ing shot.  It’s evening, now, of a day that began when “morn­ing mama and daddies/roused the children/ with soft sug­ar-names/and the scent of hot buttered/bread.”  Chil­dren play singing games on the side­walk—We’re goin’ around the moun­tain two by two, Rise, Sal­ly Rise–as night falls on Neigh­bor­hood Street.  From that open­ing we get the glimpses of indi­vid­ual lives.

The glimpses are won­der­ful. In “Buddy’s Dream” Bud­dy dreams him­self a dou­ble and they dance togeth­er. “Go Bud­dy Buddy/Go Bud­dy go.”  Then he dreams two more of him­self — an abun­dance of exu­ber­ance. But it’s not all exu­ber­ance. In “Lit­tle Boy Blues” we read “He’s got the lit­tle boy blues. /He’s all alone/Waiting for his best, best friend to come home…He’s got more lone­some than he can use. /He’s got the bad, bad, long-faced hurt/ and lit­tle boy blues.” On the fac­ing page we see a boy and his dad play­ing a game. We hope it’s the same boy.

Neigh­bor­hood Street is not all games either. There is “The Sell­er,” “car­ry­ing his many pack­ages of death.” But there is love and hope. In “Ner­is­sa” a lit­tle girl’s mama is sick, her daddy’s out of work, and although she wants to help “she can’t bring dinner/like the neigh­bors do/she can’t mend the hole/in her daddy’s shoe/but she’s a big help/ when she tick­les her folks/by telling them the best old/bedtime jokes.” In anoth­er poem Tonya has friends come for an overnight her moth­er tells them she loves them all and she plays her trum­pet for them. Tonya’s moth­er plays once again when the chil­dren are sleep­ing — a tune to caress all the kids on Neigh­bor­hood Street.

Great Migration: Journey to the NorthNeigh­bor­hood Street seems to be part of an urban envi­ron­ment. In The Great Migra­tion Jour­ney to the North (2011), also illus­trat­ed by Jan Spivey Gilchrest, we see indi­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies on their way to the city.

This book begins with an author’s note to give read­ers a con­text for the poems. “Between 1915 and 1930 more than a mil­lion African Amer­i­cans left their homes in the South, the south­ern part of the Unit­ed States, and moved to the North. This move­ment was named the Great Migra­tion.” She reminds peo­ple that African Amer­i­cans were not safe in the south, could not find jobs, chafed under Jim Crow restric­tions. She relates that her own fam­i­ly was part of this migra­tion. Her father went north when Green­field was three months old. The fam­i­ly fol­lowed a few months lat­er. The poems have a chrono­log­i­cal order. First “The News.” “They read about it, heard/about it, in let­ters and newspapers/sent down from the North, /from vis­it­ing cousins and brothers/and aunts…” Then “Good­byes” from a Man say­ing good­bye to the land; a girl and boy; a woman, who says, “I can’t wait to get away/I nev­er want to see this town/again….” And a very young woman who is leav­ing her moth­er behind.

These good­byes are fol­lowed by sec­tions called “The Trip,” “Ques­tion,” (“Will I make a good life/for my fam­i­ly, /for myself?”); “Up North.” Green­field ends with more details of her own family’s sto­ry. “We were one family/among the many thou­sands. /Mama and Dad­dy leav­ing home, / com­ing to the city,/with their/hopes and their courage,/their dreams and their children,/to make a bet­ter life.”

Jan Spivey Gilchrist’s art cap­tures the yearn­ing, the deter­mi­na­tion, the fear of peo­ple as they make the deci­sion to migrate.  Faces from indi­vid­ual sto­ries show up lat­er in the train cars head­ed north. The voic­es in these poems bring us close to the heart­break of leav­ing home, leav­ing fam­i­ly, and the courage of strik­ing out for a bet­ter life. 

The Women Who Caught the BabiesThere is courage and there is joy in The Women Who Caught the Babies (illus­trat­ed by Daniel Minter, 2019). This is a beau­ti­ful book about African Amer­i­can mid­wives. A note from the author at the begin­ning of the book gives read­ers a quick his­to­ry of African Amer­i­can mid­wifery, “With this book I want to take you back only as far as the Africa of a few hun­dred years ago. That’s when mil­lions of Africans were forced from their home­lands, brought to Amer­i­can and enslaved. Some of the enslaved were midwives…women (and some men) who help bring babies into the world. Mid­wives use the word ‘catch’ to describe what they do. They say they ‘catch’ the babies as they are being born.” Then we get the poems. First the sear­ing poem about mid­wifery dur­ing the time of slav­ery. “…The women, also kid­napped, /also shack­led, /made the tor­tur­ous voyages/across the ocean into slavery./In Amer­i­ca, African girls/on the brink of womanhood,/watched the women and learned,/then took their turns/at catch­ing the babies,/and so, too, the next generation,/and the next, and the next,/and the next.”

Addi­tion­al poems show us mid­wives “After Eman­ci­pa­tion,” in the ear­ly 1900s, and the ear­ly 2000s. The book ends with “Miss Rove­nia Mayo,” the mid­wife who caught Eloise Green­field. “On the evening of May 17, 1929, /Miss Rove­nia Mayo caught me, Eloise.”

This, too, is a sto­ry of com­mu­ni­ty, of peo­ple shar­ing the joy of new life and tak­ing care of each oth­er. With stun­ning art and pow­er­ful text, this book hon­ors the mid­wives, the women who “caught the babies, /and catch them still/ wel­come into the world/for loving.”

Paul RobesonWe can­not end with­out men­tion­ing Greenfield’s mov­ing biog­ra­phy of a giant of the 20th cen­tu­ry. Paul Robe­son (1975) illus­trat­ed by George Ford, and updat­ed and released in paper­back in 2009, this book is as impor­tant as it was 45 years ago. It tells the sto­ry of a bril­liant artist and coura­geous man who would not bow to our country’s anti-Com­mu­nist hys­te­ria of the 1940s and ‘50s.

Paul Robe­son was the son of a man who escaped slav­ery and moved to Prince­ton, New Jer­sey, where he was min­is­ter of a church. At Rut­gers he was an All-Amer­i­can foot­ball play­er. He received a law degree from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, but Robe­son could not find a job. He was also a bril­liant singer and actor and that became his career.

Paul Robe­son could not help but speak out against the many injus­tices per­pe­trat­ed on African Amer­i­cans in this coun­try. He vis­it­ed Rus­sia and felt life was bet­ter for peo­ple of col­or over there. He had Com­mu­nist friends. Rabid anti-Com­mu­nists led by Joseph McCarthy, accused him of being a Com­mu­nist. He was black­balled. “Own­ers of the­aters, con­cert halls, and radio and tele­vi­sion sta­tions would not allow him to sing or act. Store own­ers stopped sell­ing his record­ings. Some of them were angry with him, and some were afraid that they would be pun­ished too.”

When he did sing, those who came to see him were some­times attacked by Robeson’s ene­mies. He was denied the right to trav­el to oth­er coun­tries. “Sev­er­al times he sang at the line between the Unit­ed States and Cana­da. He stood on a stage in the Unit­ed States, on one side of the line. His audi­ence sat in a park in Cana­da, on the oth­er side of the line.”  His sto­ry reminds us how music can cross bor­ders even when peo­ple aren’t allowed to.  Robe­son is a gen­uine hero of our coun­try and we are grate­ful to Eloise Green­field for shar­ing his sto­ry with children.

In this film clip on YouTube, you’ll be able to watch Robe­son singing “Joe Hill” for Scot­tish min­ers, which just might bring tears to your eyes. In anoth­er film clip Robe­son, who is for­bid­den to leave the Unit­ed States, sings for Welsh min­ers over transat­lantic telephone. 

This too brief look at Eloise Greenfield’s work shows a writer intent on por­tray­ing com­mu­ni­ty, shared respon­si­bil­i­ty, joy, and courage. Her agent, Cather­ine Balkin writes on the Balkin Bud­dies web­site that Eloise Green­field “says her mis­sion is twofold: (1) to con­tribute to the devel­op­ment of a large body of African Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture for chil­dren and (2) to con­tin­ue to fill her life with the joy of cre­at­ing with words.” Mis­sion suc­cess! Thank you for so many gifts, Eloise Green­field. Your words bring us joy and courage — and awe.

A few oth­er titles among Greenfield’s many won­der­ful works:

Africa Dream illus­trat­ed by Car­ole Byard

In the Land of Words illus­trat­ed by Jane Spivey Gilchrist

Hon­ey, I Love illus­trat­ed by Jane Spivey Gilchrist

She Come Bring­ing Me that Lit­tle Baby Girl illus­trat­ed by John Steptoe

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April Halprin Wayland
3 years ago

Thank you so much for the back­ground about her and intro­duc­ing me to so many of her books!

I fell in love with her when I first read HONEY I LOVE AND OTHER LOVE POEMS (llus­trat­ed by Diane and Leo Dillon). 

Oh, my. I think was in high school. I swooned. It still has a star­ring role in my bookshelf.