By Zetta Elliott, Lee & Low Books
Bird is the story of Mehkai, nicknamed Bird by his grandfather. Bird’s experience as a member of the urban American landscape is captured in his drawings – some of which are a realistic representation of his surroundings, while others speak to Bird’s deepest hopes and desires. Bird’s life takes a downward turn when he loses his brother to drug addiction and shortly after his grandfather – a situation which forces him to look to his spiritually to find peace in his pain.
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
By Nicole Hylton
Bird addresses several philosophical ideas. Those ideas include, but are not limited to – Aesthetics/Metaphysics (art and reality), Religion, Death and Disappointment (Doctrine of Double effect/death as a process), and Ethics (addiction). Bird speaks to the black experience through the eyes of a male child. ‘Bird’s’ life is defined by his associations and interactions with his family and the urban landscape which he translates into art. His translations reflect not only his emotions but also his desires, hopes, and fears. The author and illustrator are careful to use the language and imagery to express Bird’s struggle with the transitory yet stagnancy of black life in the inner city.
Aesthetics: Art and Reality
Aesthetics is a field within philosophy that is concerned with the senses; most notably art and the basis upon which it is judged. On Bird’s wall we see his art; urban footwear – that appear to be men’s shoes from different generation of wearers; a bird; men of the street; and the church. Bird’s drawings differ between those that reflect a “realistic” representation of his surroundings and those that project an imagined reality – the way Bird would like things to be. Philosophers differ on what constitutes art. Some believe that defining art should be left up to the viewer and the emotions it evokes; others argue that art is defined by the creation process; while some believe that the function of a thing defines it as art; yet some hold to the standard that the art should be a true reflection of society. The art displayed in the book calls all these differing arguments to question regarding what constitute art – Is Bird’s grandfather correct when he says that his brother’s graffiti is not art? Is all art found in a museum? What about how Bird feels about his brother’s art, should this be considered when thinking about art? If we define art as specific to its function what is the function of Bird’s art vs. his brother’s?
What is also interesting is that all the images of Bird and his family are done in vivid rich colors while his surroundings, even his drawings are largely done in black and white, or shades of gray. From an African American philosophical perspective it is arguable that this represents vibrant spirit of the people who most exist and survive such conditions. This issue affords the teacher the opportunity to further discuss how Bird’s drawings explore the nature and purpose of art – when, where, and why Bird’s drawings are projecting his hopes as opposed to the reality of his life and relationship with his family. This question set can explore whether or not Bird’s drawings help to get him through the bad times, or whether they are merely escapist and conflagrate the his reality. Is Bird’s escape through his art/imagination, where things are the way he wants them to be, (his brother drug-free, his granddad alive) helping or not? And what is the purpose of the different pieces of art?
Death and Religion
The two philosophical issues concerning religion involve the existence of heaven and the nature of death. The fact that Bird begins and ends on a religious theme is significant to the story and should be one of the areas focused on during any philosophical discussion – on the influence of West African Spirituality on Judeo Christian traditions which places great emphasis on flight and its ability to return people to their original place on existence. Regarding heaven philosophers have either argued against its existence as: (a) there is no empirical proof to prove the existence of such, but that such beliefs are merely projections by human beings inability to deal with the nothingness of death or; (b) is simply serving a social function in policing ones good behavior. Other philosophers argue in favor of the existence of heaven as; (a) a part of a belief in the nature of God as fair, and as such providing rewards for those who live justly on earth and; (b) it is real as long as there are some who believe it is.
The image of Bird’s drawing on the opening pages of a church is symbolic of the black community’s relationship to religion and spirituality and how it influences Bird’s interpretation of reality. If this is how Bird’s reality (and the black community) is informed is it fair to say that his drawings are imagined, fictional and not based in reality? How is reality defined for different people? If others in society do not believe your beliefs that that make them less legitimate?
Drug Addiction, Free-Will, and Morality
Bird tries to fix his brother by drawing images of him where he is his “old self” but finds that he is unable to do so. How does this reflect how society views drug addiction – should it be treated as a crime treated by the criminal justice system, or should it been seen as a matter of public health and viewed in reference to how it affects an entire community? Some philosophers argue that addiction is not a disease or illness and is largely linked to ones free will and moral responsibility. Consequently, we cannot ‘fix’ addicts but we can punish them to show that the decisions made of their ‘free-will’ are morally wrong. Others argue that ‘free-will’ is determined by a specific set of conditions of access – where some have access to favorable conditions that make it easier to exercise their ‘free-will’ in a more morally just way, while others don’t. The children can consider these philosophical perspectives when answering the following: how can we evaluate the choices that Marcus made? Could the family have done anything to save Marcus? What obstacles could have prevented Marcus from making different choices? What obstacles exist to prevent black males from exercising their morally just ‘free-will’? Though the book does not focus on the justice system and addiction, we can ask such questions as: What is justice? Is Justice in American society defined to the disadvantage of black males in our society?
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
By Nicole Hylton
Art and Reality
Bird says, that’s what I like about drawing – you can fix stuff that’s messed up just by using your imagination or rubbing your eraser over the page
Death and Religion
Bird remembers when Uncle Son said he thought Granddad went to heaven to keep his eye on Marcus. That makes sense to me
Justice and Obligation