About the Holiday
Black History Month is a celebration of the achievements of African Americans and the contributions they have made to the United States History. Appropriately for this election year, the theme for 2020 is “African Americans and the Vote,” which recognizes the struggle for both black men as well as women throughout American history. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Fifteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1870 and gave black men the right to vote after the Civil War. It has also been one hundred years since women gained the right to vote. For more information about Black History Month, visit the ASALH website and africanamericanhistorymonth.gov.
What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan
Written by Chris Barton | Illustrated by Ekua Holmes
As a child growing up in the Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas, Barbara Jordan was known for her distinctive voice. “That voice. That big, bold, booming, crisp, clear, confident voice. It caused folks to sit right up, stand up straight, and take notice. What do you do with a voice like that?” Barbara recited poetry, gave speeches, and in 1952 won an oratory contest with a trip to Chicago as the prize. She was proud of herself and where her voice was leading her. But where would that be?
She considered becoming a preacher, a teacher, and a lawyer. When a black woman lawyer gave a speech at Barbara’s high school, Barbara thought she had found her calling. She attended college where she “learned how to find facts for herself, debate important issues, defend good ideas, and dismantle bad ones.” She graduated with a law degree, but practicing law became boring. She wrote more than she spoke, and the work was not demanding enough.
It was 1960, and Barbara decided to lend her voice to causes she believed in. She became involved in politics, and on one pivotal night, she filled in for a speaker who was absent. “The audience loved her. They trusted her. Most important they were inspired to do something—to get out and vote” and to persuade others to vote. Barbara decided to run for office. She lost her first two elections, but the third one she won.
Barbara Jordan was now a Texas state senator, representing the people she grew up with. She believed in making changes from within the political system through debating issues on the Senate floor. She also got to know her colleagues outside of work, and they got to know her. They listened to each other, and positive changes were the result. In 1972, Barbara ran for Congress and won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington DC.
In 1973, the Watergate scandal broke. “President Nixon, it seemed, had broken the law, and Congress had to decide what to do about it.” Once again, as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Barbara used her voice to remind Congress and the American people that “the Constitution is the document governing all the laws in the United States and applies to all of its people.” Then “in her big, bold, booming, crisp, clear, confident tone” she said, “‘My faith in the Constitution is whole…. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.’” Barbara said that the president must go. President Nixon resigned in 1974.
Barbara became a star, shining “like a bright light in a dark place.” She became the voice for those battling discrimination, for those “who had less power…who possessed quieter strengths than her own…who did not want to be limited by their weaknesses.” People talked about Barbara becoming a Senator, a Supreme Court Justice, or possibly Vice President.
But Barbara, unknown even to herself, had been struggling with multiple sclerosis, and now her inner voice told her that the place she belonged was home. Back in Texas, she became a college professor, where she taught her students not only to “do something, but to do the right thing.” Her students are still working today, striving to make the world a better place and to inspire everyone to make their voices heard.
An Author’s Note, a detailed timeline of Barbara Jordan’s life, and other recommended resources follows the text.
Chris Barton’s stirring biography of Barbara Jordan introduces children to a woman whose voice is just as relevant today as it was when she was a state senator, US representative, and professor. Barton clearly and lyrically depicts Jordan’s trajectory while showing readers what it takes to succeed: practice, perseverance, learning, and wisdom. For young readers Barton briefly but cogently outlines the core of the case against Richard Nixon then allows readers to hear, in her own words, Jordan’s rousing defense of the Constitution. His inclusion of Jordan’s seventeen years of teaching after her diagnosis of MS is a poignant reminder that her influence is still heard through her students and admirers, and Barton’s final exhortation to readers to speak out honors Barbara Jordan’s life and will impel both children and adults to follow her lead.
Ekua Holmes stunning mixed-media illustrations will set readers’ hearts soaring in this over-sized picture book that beautifully reflects Barbara Jordan’s influence in politics and beyond. Holmes’ collages, rendered in lush colors and textured with intricate patterns and images from nature, take children on Jordan’s journey from sun-drenched Texas to law school to Washington DC, giving them a glimpse of her childhood and her growing stature as a stateswoman. Today’s savvy readers will be interested in the examples of campaign materials and images of Jordan’s building relationships with diverse voters and her fellow senators and representatives. Several photographs of Jordan from her graduation, campaigns, and televised appearances during the Watergate hearings join Holmes’ realistic portraits and will inspire readers to learn more about this influential and unforgettable woman.
Ages 4 – 8 and up
Beach Lane Books, 2018 | ISBN 978-1481465618
Discover more about Chris Barton and his books on his website.
To learn more about Ekua Holmes, her books, and her art, visit her website.
Black History Month Activity
Barbara Jordan Inspirational Poster
If you have ideas about how to make the world better, print this poster of Barbara Jordan and write how you would like to use your voice on the back. This can be through speech, writing, art, community involvement, or any way that uses your talents.
You can find What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? at these booksellers
Picture Book Review