Short story: “After Rosa Parks”

by look i have opinions

“After Rosa Parks,” by Janet Desaulniers

Appeared in the Vol. 21, No. 4 Winter 1995-96 issue of Ploughshares (story currently not online), pages 107 to 125; received Ploughshares‘ 1995 Cohen Award for the best short story published in the magazine; anthologized in Breaking Into Print: Early Stories and Insights into Getting Published; behind a paywall/sign-up wall here and here

? words, a little over 22 pages in this paperback anthology

I was dubious at first about the analogy this story sets up. In principle, yes, what Cody suffers at the hands of the school system is analogous to the effects of racism. He is ordered around, and when he refuses or fails to comply, he’s treated with suspicion and condescension. Learning to rebel against that system (to play hookey by his own choice, for instance) is a form of nonviolent civil disobedience, no different in principle from Rosa Parks’. But the difference of degree and context made me squirm. I think it’s best to distrust analogies between different types of oppression. In principle, all injustice is the same; in practice, the specifics matter.

That said, the audacity of the Rosa Parks analogy demands that the reader take Cody’s situation seriously. It works for me, but I’m still not comfortable with it.

“Ellie felt [the school nurse] hesitate, weighing for a moment whether Cody was a liar or only a new and distinct form of damaged child.” It’s the reaction of someone who fits into the system of power, assessing someone powerless: does she need to smack him down, or does she merely need a way to categorize, pity, and dismiss him? As Frank says, “All schools are the same[….] They’re the same man in a different hat.”

I teared up over the ending: “She turned away quickly to the front window, afraid to watch the idea of freedom dawn in her son’s face[….]” Frank is giving Cody something she can’t, or won’t; the freedom Cody glimpses is something she herself is missing out on; it could take him away from her forever; and it is heartbreakingly fragile, as we can see from Frank’s alcoholism, his troubles in the military, his illness.