This is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration
Written by Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrated by James Ransome
Penguin, 2013, 32 pp.
This picture book is a warm and thoughtful remembering of the collective experiences of millions of African Americans who migrated intra-nationally in search of equity and opportunity between 1915 and 1970. Informed and inspired by the story of Woodson’s mother’s move from South Carolina to New York City, This is the Rope celebrates those inheritances that forge and preserve diasporic identity across generations.
The family’s story is told through the voice of the youngest generation. Beatrice uses a rope, “Found beneath an old tree / a long time ago / back home in South Carolina,” to frame her reminiscences about family experiences as they put down new roots in New York City. The rope links the family to memories of back home, secures the items the family chooses to bring with them in their journeys away from home, and facilitates connections between the family and their new home. For example, while the rope was integral in the grandparent’s move away from their family in the South, it later held the banner under which that extended family reunited in the North. The rope is often used for individual play, serving as a skipping rope for Beatrice, her mother, and grandmother, but also is part of everyday moments within family life: the rope is hung as a line for drying her grandmother’s flowers and her mother’s diapers and pulled tight when her father teaches her how to tie a sailor’s knot. At the close of the story, Beatrice trades the well-worn rope for a new rope from her grandmother, skipping to her new rhyme “B, my name is Beatrice, I come from Brooklyn.” Her grandmother, gazing proudly at her granddaughter while she holds onto her old rope, is transported to a “long-ago memory” of skipping rope back home underneath the old, pine tree in South Carolina.
The migration stream represented in this picture book is the convergence of African Americans from coastal, Southeastern states (the Carolinas, Georgia) into Northeastern metropolises such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia between 1915 and 1970 (White, Crowder, Tolney, & Adelman, 2003; Tolnay, 2005). Woodson’s and Ransome’s comparative depictions of rural South Carolina against the bustle and brownstones of Brooklyn drives home Woodson’s earlier description of New York as “this new country.” Beyond the changes in physical landscape, This is the Rope beautifully captures the emphasis on intergenerational hope that is so often thematically central within experiences of migration. The book shows the upward mobility and social opportunity made possible by the grandparent’s choice to leave the “unjust conditions of the South for a better life in the North” (Woodson, dedication). Readers looking for titles with a similar focus on the Great Migration might consider: The Great Migration: An American Story (Jacob Lawrence, 1995), The Great Migration: Journey to the North (Eloise Greenfield, 2010), and My Hands Sing the Blues: Romare Bearden’s Childhood Journey (Jeanne Walker Harvey, 2011).
In her author’s note, Woodson introduces the reader to her own family’s experience within the Great Migration, fondly remembering the visits, accents, and memories that shaped her identification with the South as a familial homeland. James Ransome, who illustrated This is the Rope, was born and raised in rural North Carolina, before moving to New Jersey as a teenager and later to Brooklyn, NY. While Woodson is explicit in categorizing the text as fictional, the parallels between the author’s and illustrator’s personal histories and the story of Beatrice’s family implicate a strong sense of cultural authenticity borne from firsthand experience. As the daughter of a mother who left her childhood home in Georgia to join her sister in Boston during the early 1970s, reading this book reminded me of my mom’s stories of back home and triggered a strong, personal sense of shared identity: the idea that, beyond my family, there are millions of children and grandchildren of the Great Migration whose histories, though diverse and fragmented, participate in a collectivity defined by a perduring Hope for dignity, opportunity, and racial equity.
This is the Rope is the most recent collaboration by author Jacqueline Woodson and illustrator James Ransome, who also worked together on Visiting Day (Woodson, 2002). The author of over two dozen books, Woodson is recognized and celebrated for her work depicting African-American characters and communities. A finalist for the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award, Woodson is a Newbery Honor and Caldecott Honor winner who has received both the Coretta Scott King Award as well as the Margaret Edwards Award. Ransome has illustrated over fifty books, many of which bring to the page histories and figures from across the African American experience, and is the recipient of the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration, the IBBY Honor Award, and the NAACP Image Award for Illustration.
Tolnay, S.E. (2003). The African American “Great Migration” and Beyond. Annual Review of Sociology 29.
White, K.J.C., Crowder, K., Tolnay, S.E., Adelman, R.M. (2005). Race, Gender, and Marriage: Destination Selection during the Great Migration. Demography 42(2).
Julia Karpicz, New York University, New York, NY