The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963

The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 Summary and Analysis of Chapters 7 & 8


Chapter 7

Byron comes into the house wearing a hat one afternoon, and Kenny and Wilona sense that something is up. Wilona makes Byron take off the hat to reveal a handkerchief, and she makes him take that off, too, and is appalled to find that Byron has gone and gotten a hideous hairdo. He has indulged in some sort of chemical treatment to make his hair straight, stiff, slick, and reddish-brown. Wilona informs Byron that he will really be in trouble once his father gets home. Byron says he thinks that his hair looks cool, but Wilona sends him up to his room to await Daniel's return.

Kenny fills Joey in on what happened once she gets home from school, and the two of them go upstairs to see Byron. Joey is astonished when she sees the new hairdo and tells Byron to wash it out before their father gets home, but he tells her that it does not wash out. Kenny makes a few jokes about Byron being a death row prisoner. Joey does not think that such humor is funny at all. Byron also reveals that Buphead was the one who altered his hair.

The Brown Bomber pulls up to the house; Daniel is home. Wilona calls Byron down to show Daniel the hair, and introduces him as "Senor Byroncito Watson." Joey and Kenny sit on the top of the stairs and listen, both crying, Kenny because Byron hit him and Joey because she is afraid of what their father will do. Daniel's punishment turns out to be cutting off all of Byron's hair and shaving his head. Byron is now bald, and he is not happy. Soon after, Kenny and Joey hear their parents talking on the phone with their Grandma Sands, who lives in Alabama.

Chapter 8

Kenny acknowledges that after the phone call with Grandma Sands, his parents began to act very strange. Wilona begins writing numbers down and making calculations in a notebook, and Daniel drives all over town with the kids to buy things for the Brown Bomber in order to fix it up and make it nicer. After repairs, replacements, and cleaning, the old car looks great; Daniel and Joey make a big show of adding the finishing touch, a pine tree air freshener for the rear-view mirror.

But that is not all; Daniel has one more surprise for the Brown Bomber. One afternoon he has the Watsons all close their eyes and come outside to the car, then reveals a drive-around record player. All of the kids are excited, because hardly anyone they know has a car with such a special feature. Wilona is upset because of how much the record player cost, and goes back into the house in a huff. Daniel is disappointed by her reaction, but continues to ham it up and put on a show for the kids as he introduces them to the record player.

Byron runs into the house to grab some records to play, and finally Wilona comes back out again, wanting to join in on the laughter and fun. Daniel takes a long time building up to playing the first record, which he says was a "request" from Wilona. It is "Under the Boardwalk," which the other Watsons call "her song." The record player's sound is phenomenal, even better than the sound of the one inside the house. Each of the kids gets to play four songs. ("Yakety Yak" is Kenny's favorite, and he plays it every time.)

Then, the Watson parents reveal why they have done all this. They are planning a road trip to Alabama to drop Byron off, so that he can live with Grandma Sands for the summer; if he does not shape up, he will also stay there for the next school year. They tell Byron that they have given him warning after warning, and that enough is enough. Wilona even starts listing all of Byron's offenses. For his part, Kenny is extremely excited, both for the trip to Alabama and for the prospect of not having Byron around all summer. He cannot believe that his parents are finally going through with their longstanding threat to send Byron to live with strict Grandma Sands. Byron is less-than-pleased, and angrily storms back inside the house.


There are many possible reasons why Byron may have changed his hair in Chapter 7, and each of them reveals a great deal about his character. First, he may have done it simply because he was told not to. In the past -- with the matches, for example -- Byron has continued a bad behavior in spite of repeated warnings from his mother. Wilona told him specifically not to tamper with his hair, yet in the interest of pure defiance he chose to do so anyway.

Another reason may be Byron's age. Even teenagers who are less rebellious than Byron are prone to change their appearances, whether in order to conform or to stand out assertively. Since Byron believes that his hairdo looks cool, he might in fact be participating in a trend spreading throughout his school. Furthermore, he could be trying to stand out in order to maintain his dominant position as the "king" of Clark Elementary.

But Byron might also be changing his appearance because he is unhappy with himself in some way. In the previous chapter, readers got their first image of a sensitive and remorseful Byron, when he cried over the dead bird and gave it a funeral and burial. His will to change his appearance could be part of a will to change himself; clearly, though, changing his ways will take a lot more effort than he has yet displayed.

The end of Chapter 7 foreshadows the events that follow in Chapter 8. Kenny hears his parents on the phone with Grandma Sands, and soon the Watson parents reveal that the family will be going on a trip to Alabama. This reveal represents the moment that the real plot of the story begins. Before this point, the novel was made up of a series of small vignettes and anecdotes (primarily about Kenny's perspective on Byron's antics), yet these episodes lead up to the moment when the Watson parents decide that enough is enough and that they must do something about Byron once and for all. In terms of narrative organization, this moment when the narrative crystallizes is called the "inciting incident"; this particular novel spent a long time building up to its inciting incident, but now that it has occurred, readers can expect the rest of the plot to move relatively quickly.

There are a few things that the trip is likely to bring about for the Watsons. The first is conflict over money; readers already saw anticipations of such conflict in Chapter 8, when Wilona gets mad at Daniel for buying the expensive record player. Indeed, this is a pricey trip for a family like theirs to take, so careful consideration of remaining funds every step of the way will certainly be in order.

Another potential problem could arise from the Watsons' race. Since the first half of the story takes place in the North, racial prejudice hardly figures as a major theme early in the novel. But the Watson parents have already briefly touched upon the hot issue of race in the South, and in Birmingham in particular, where a black family will certainly face harsher circumstances than a white family would. Remember, this entire narrative is set in the heart of the American Civil Rights Era, when segregation reached its peak in the South. The Watson family's journey is literal -- traveling in a car across the United States -- but it is also figurative, a metaphorical journey from comfort to uncertainty as they head to a place where their rights as human beings may even be in jeopardy.