The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963

The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 Summary and Analysis of Chapters 9 & 10


Chapter 9

Kenny wakes up early on a Sunday morning and goes out to the Brown Bomber, where his father is sitting and listening to records. Kenny asks if Byron is really going to be left in Alabama, and suggests driving part of the way down just to scare him. Daniel says that there are things which Byron must learn that he cannot learn in Flint. He tells Kenny that, on account of the prejudice and segregation present in the South just then, Byron needs to learn that there are serious things in the world to deal with and that his time for jokes and playing is running out fast. The South will open Byron's eyes.

Kenny confides in his father that he is afraid that he will not know what to do when he is a grown-up. Yet Daniel likens growing up to the times when he would put Kenny in his lap and let him steer the wheel of the car: it is scary at first, but after a lot of practice you can get the process of growing up under control. Daniel then tells Kenny that he will learn from the mistakes that the Watson parents have made. Kenny also asks why his father bought the record player; Daniel says that he did so because all the radio stations in the South play hillbilly songs. He does not want to risk getting attached to this new type of music.

The Watsons' neighbor Mrs. Davidson comes over to give Joey a going-away gift, since she often babysits the young girl. The gift is a little angel doll that Mrs. Davidson says reminds her of Joey. Joey is not happy with the gift, but she is polite and says thank you anyway. Later, Kenny eavesdrops on Joey's conversation with their mother; Joey says that the angel does not look like her at all because the angel is white. She puts it in her sock drawer.

The night before the Watsons leave for Alabama, Wilona makes Byron sleep in her room so that he does not try to make a run for it. The next morning the Watsons leave, and the plan is to make it to Cincinnati and stay the night in a hotel there so that Daniel does not get too tired driving. They will stay at a rest stop in Knoxville the following night; they will then drive to Birmingham on the final day. Wilona has calculated everything, down to when they will stop to eat, who gets what food on which day, and when they will take bathroom breaks. She has written it all down in a notebook titled "The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963."

Kenny, however, believes that the most interesting part of the trip is going to be Byron's response. Before they setting out, Byron had told Buphead that he would not say a single word the entire car trip down. He lasts only as long it takes to get to Detroit before he opens his mouth and asks if he can have the first turn on the record player. Byron and Kenny begin to fight in the back of the car, but Kenny gets in the last insult and is pleased with himself for emerging triumphant.

Chapter 10

The Watsons stop at their first rest stop once they reach Ohio; Kenny is appalled to see that only an outhouse, not a regular bathroom, is available. The Watson parents tell Byron that he has to get used to outhouses, since Grandma Sands has one. Once in the car again, Byron and Kenny argue over who has to hold Joey's head in his lap while she sleeps, since she drools a lot. Kenny ends up holding Joey's head, and takes her shoes off; inside one shoe is a picture of a little white boy and a smiling dog, with the name "Buster Brown" written on the picture.

Despite the plans, Daniel does not stop for the night in Cincinnati. Instead, he tells Wilona that he wants to go just a little farther along; Kenny, however, knows what he is really planning. He overheard Daniel and Daniel's friend Mr. Johnson talking about the Brown Bomber; Mr. Johnson said that the car could easily make it all the way to Alabama in one shot. The Watsons stop at a few more rest stops, notably one in the Appalachian Mountains where they look out over the vast blackness. They note that they can see the stars here; however, everyone is a little afraid, and Wilona is still angry about the extended driving.

To scare Kenny, Byron tells him that there are hillbillies and rednecks around in Appalachia who would hang a black person like one of them in a heartbeat. Yet with this idea, he ends up scaring himself, too, so the boys run back to the car. As the family drives through the blackness, Kenny sticks his hand out the window, feels the silky air, and decides that he is experiencing the best part of the trip so far.


Road trips are prominent in twentieth-century American literature (perhaps most famously in the novel On the Road). As previously discussed, a trip South is both a literal and figurative journey for the Watsons. In addition, by putting the characters all in a small space together, confined for a long period of time, the narrative can highlight certain qualities of each Watson and teach readers a lot about these individual characters. Kenny often plays the role of observer in his family, keeping a close eye on Byron's behaviors, Joey's behaviors, and his parents' behaviors; he also remains quiet about things like his father's plan to drive the whole way through, in part to watch how it all pans out.

Byron's role in the family is clear by now; even after swearing to remain silent for the entire trip, he still constantly fights to get his way and torments his brother and sister. Joey is, as always, the mediator; on this trip, she is a physical mediator as well, sitting in between Byron and Kenny in the back of the car. Daniel uses humor to keep the peace, and has no problem telling little white lies here and there to accomplish his ends. And on this trip, Wilona reveals herself to be a very detailed planner and a stickler for organization; any deviation from the plan bothers her immensely. In many ways she is the opposite of her husband, who is better able to go with the flow.

These chapters reveal the origin of the title of the book. "The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963" is actually a book-within-a-book, beginning as the title of the notebook that Wilona dedicates to the trip south. The book-within-a-book device is a literary tool that is often used to connect a story to reality -- here, as though Kenny had written this book as a journal and named it after his mother's notebook. The date in the title also reiterates the historical context of the entire narrative; "1963" is extremely important, since it places the events of this book right in the middle of the Civil Rights Era, a context that will prove most important once the family reaches Birmingham.

As the Watsons move farther South, both in their preoccupations and in their actual car, racial divisions become more prominent in the anecdotes that arise. Joey is only five years old, yet she still sees a strong distinction between black and white, as evidenced by her negative response to the angel doll that Mrs. Davidson gives her. Such knowledge can only be instilled by society, and in American society during this time period, black and white were two very separate entities. For racial distinctions to upset Joey so much shows the effect that segregation and racial tension have on even the youngest members of society, not only in the South but also in the North.

At the same time, though, Joey also appears to bridge the gap between black and white, since the photo she carries in her shoe features a little white boy. Presumably, the fact that she carries his picture around everywhere means she has affection for this boy; her feelings have crossed the expected racial divide in this way. However, it is important to bear in mind that Joey feels a need to conceal the photo in a place where nobody will see it, suggesting traces of the shame or uncertainty that can result from social pressures.