There are two Morgan Parkers. There's the acclaimed poet, essayist, and novelist Morgan Parker, known for writing about the realities of Black womanhood in America.
And there's Morgan Parker, the teenage protagonist of the YA novel Who Put This Song On, out September 24, fashioned from fiction and Parker's old diaries. The book is Parker's way of reaching back to her younger self, struggling with depression and isolation in a predominantly white suburb.
"This is a story about me, and I am the hero of it," Morgan narrates at the start of this darkly funny, honest novel. It's an assertion of Morgan's importance as an individual, a reminder that a 17-year-old emo kid's fumbling toward authentic self-expression constitutes its own kind of hero's journey.
The following excerpt comes mid-way through Who Put This Song On, when Morgan heads to the library to learn about parts of the Civil Rights movement not taught in schools. In the fevered passages, Parker captures the genuine excitement of a young mind figuring out her place in the world and history.
Published with permission from Penguin Random House.
“What year were you born?”
“Excuse me?” Mr. K scoffs, American flag pin affixed to his wrinkled Oxford shirt. He gets exasperated by the mere sound of my voice. He’s just assigned us a “personal essay” about civil rights. I’m hovering at his desk being cheeky because I was mostly delightful and quiet for the whole class, plus it’s the end of the day and no one’s paying attention anymore.
“Well, I was just thinking, my parents were around for all this, the civil rights movement, that’s crazy.”
“I was young, but yes, I was ‘around for all this’ too.”
“So, what happened after?”
He grins like the Grinch. “Well—”
“I mean, after that and before Reagan,” I quip. He laughs smugly. “I guess I’m curious about black people, specifically. It seems like we’re always talking about Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks and then that’s it. I mean, what happens to black people between then and now? We’re just quiet in American history until the Obama chapter?”
The bell rings. Mr. K shrugs. “There’s a library down the hall.” Technically, the assignment is to reflect on one of the cases we discussed leading up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but I see it as my duty to creatively interpret all my assignments, and it’s my impulse to bend the rules to see what I can get away with. Sometimes you have to be the syllabus you wish to see in this world or whatever.
The school library at Vista, incredibly, does not contain any books about black life and civil rights in the 1970s and 1980s, so after school, I head to the public library, my last remaining hope.
Unsurprisingly, as a nerd, I love libraries. Specifically, the public one near my school, with seats in big bay windows and what feels like miles and miles of wooden shelves. I’m not sure what I expect to find here, but I know there are answers in books. I find a computer with a window view of a big tree swelling with orange leaves. It’s Yo La Tengo weather. I pop in my earbuds and skip ahead on I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, because I must hear “Autumn Sweater” immediately. The song actually feels like wearing a chunky cable knit sweater on a fall afternoon. It’s the perfect song for the trees.
I start by searching “black people” in the library’s inventory portal, chewing on the inside of my left cheek and absently biting a thumb nail. Immediately sensing my mistake, I type “African American History.” There are six pages of results, most of which are dated biographies and books for kids, like the only time to learn about black history is in school. Like black people are the Pythagorean theorem — they don’t really come up in real life.
I lean back in the hard wood chair feeling defeated. I don’t even know what I’m looking for.
A second-grade-teacher-looking white lady bustles around the room, moving books from a cart to a shelf, stopping to lean over kids and recommend them picture books or whatever. A complete and total Susan, down to the bird sweater. Her face is tight, with thin lips and wild eyes. Her hair, fashioned into a curly bob, is badly dyed red. Susans like this make me nervous for some reason. The condescending type of Susan, whose sole mission is to make me feel like I don’t deserve to exist anywhere. I feel her staring at me, expectantly, but I ignore her, opening the ancient internet browser.
“Can I help you with something?”
Of course, she’s also a close talker. Coffee breath.
“No, probably not.” Not with anything, really.
She contorts her mouth into a grimace—I think she may be trying to smile. I pull the Black Notebook out of my backpack and flip it to a fresh page. I don’t owe this lady anything, I realize. I’ve spent my whole day giving away all my perfectly good minutes to people I don’t like.
And I can’t let her distract me.
My Wikipedia journey goes like this: Civil rights act 1964 > Civil Rights Movement > Black Power Movement. Now we’re getting somewhere.
10/8/08 The Black Notebook: Research
—After Civil Rights Movement, Black Power Movement
—Pacifism was not enough: Black Panthers —Black Power
—Slogan for movement, Stokely Carmichael —Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
—1965: Assassination of Malcolm X, uprising —Watts Riots in LA
—Huey P. Newton + Bobby Seale
—1966: Black Panther Party for Self-Defense
Oh, hell yes. I’m gonna write my paper on the Black Panthers. Mr. K will absolutely hate it. I stretch my arms and my back, grinning to myself. No one ever talks about the Black Panthers, except to imply that they were bad guys. Gun wielding and reckless, angry, a distraction from true progress and unity via MLK’s nonviolence. That’s how they tell it, if they even tell it at all. They’re a relic, a bad idea frozen in time. Meanwhile, I’ve heard they still hold Ku Klux Klan rallies a few towns away in Fontana. I guess some things outlive history, they get to grow into the present. Other things, other people’s stories peter out and expire, or else, get buried.
I look down at my phone and see two texts from David.
hi, how are you doing? are you mad at me?
I’m not dealing with this right now, no thank you. I’ll make him wait for my response.
—Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee —freedom rides
—Freedom Summer of 1964
—Montgomery Bus Boycott
—Claudette Colvin: 15-year-old girl arrested in
Montgomery for refusing her seat (little Rosa Parks!) —Rosa Parks!!
Good old Rosa Parks!
The one time I played Actual Rosa Parks, it wasn’t a speaking role. It was one scene, on the bus, and all I did was sit there, look old, and then get arrested. I knew that couldn’t be the whole story.
I guess some things outlive history, they get to grow into the present. Other things, other people’s stories peter out and expire, or else, get buried.
Rosa Parks was an activist, as a matter of fact. A radical centerpiece of the Civil Rights Movement. Her protest on December 5, 1955, was one of so many events that fueled it and the Black Power Movement that followed. Under Montgomery Bus Boycott I write Emmitt Till. I underline Till’s name, put an asterisk next to open casket. His mother insisted on it. She wanted everyone to see his body beaten, shot, and mutilated, bloated from three days in the Mississippi Delta.
He was fourteen. It was the first and last time he felt like an animal.
Not to sound lame, but I think about calling my mom. I’m like a missionary filled with the spirit of Black Power; I want to gush about the good news. (Mom’s probable reaction: asking where I am, telling me about each piece of today’s mail, saying “huh?” and then pretending she hears me, giving a vague unsatisfying response. I do not call my mom.)
More David: I just wanted to say I’m sorry if I was being shitty the other night. I knew you were upset but I didn’t know how to handle it. Ignore.
What’s wrong with being mad?
In our history books, “African Americans” are always portrayed as almost saintly or Christlike. They all get hella bonus points for like, surviving racism. And even if they don’t survive it — still, extra credit for suffering. That’s in the Bible I think. Survivors. Joyful endurers of indescribable torture. Humble and benevolent acceptors of a lesser fate. Maybe Job was black.
(Servants. That’s what the Curse of Ham was about, really.)
(There’s a very clear moral takeaway for every Black History Month lesson, and it’s obviously Biblical: Suffer in silence. Be strong, but casually. Be strong, quietly and peacefully. But which way is the right way, peaceful protest or armed and vocal resistance? How do we know what really works?)
Studying civil rights has sadly always felt stale and flat — dates and legislations without details or living, breathing people. Without the fire, the fight. I’m just relieved I’m not the only one who thinks mad is a perfectly natural response.
Notes for my manifesto: If you don’t have a map, make a map.
It didn’t end with Rosa Parks, it started with her. Rosa Parks is so punk!
At 6:14 p.m. I have a text from my mom saying that dinner’s almost ready, and three more from David: “I meant everything I said, that I really, really like you! I’m just really glad we’re friends because we’re awesome. And I don’t want to lose that.”
I set out making a list of books to check out. When I spot the coffee-breath Susan obviously staring at me, just like the guy in the Mormon store, I give her a look right back, raising my eyebrows as she pretends to shuffle some papers on her desk.
Driving home at twilight, I’m sparking with energy, but my mind is syrupy with exhaustion. I’m feeling winded and disoriented, like I just did a Jillian Michaels workout. (Why does she always have to be so mean?)