Genius, Race, and Saving Lives: Garrett Morgan’s Inventions

To the Rescue! Garrett Morgan Underground – Monica Kulling and David Parkins, Tundra Books, 2016

Morgancover

To the Rescue! Is another in the Great Ideas series from Tundra books, in which Monica Kulling and several outstanding illustrators present the life story of someone dedicated to improving the world through the development of new technologies. The series is characterized by the different approaches that Kulling adapts to different subjects; this is not a typical set of interchangeable volumes in which young readers get the mistaken impression that greatness follows a formula. In this life of the gifted and tenacious black inventor Garrett Morgan, Kulling’s challenge is to compress in a picture book for elementary and middle grade readers the sequence of innovations that Garrett produced, along with the historical background that made his success improbable.

Kulling begins, as she does throughout the series, with a poem, three quatrains that set the tone for the story about finding light in oppressive darkness: “Think of the men/lowered on ropes/to underground tunnels/where disaster can strike.”  Readers should now be motivated to learn about Morgan’s life-saving inventions.  The book begins by establishing that Morgan’s parents had been enslaved, and that “the family still worked the field as hard as ever.”  David Parkins’ picture of Morgan and his family hoeing fields has a touch of cinematic melodrama, as Morgan alone is not working the land, but looking into the distance: “One day, Garrett stopped hoeing to stretch.  I want more than this, he thought, gazing at the worn-out farm he’d lived on all his life.” This is a picture book, with neither the purpose nor the space to record the long history of slavery in the United States.  Instead, readers assimilate key details through the simple text and lush pictures.

Working in a factory in Cleveland, Ohio, Morgan has an inventor’s inspiring moment…

…as he watches the belts on sewing machines break.  Soon he is promoted to repairman, and later he and his wife, Mary Anne, open their own shop.  Then comes his first invention; a cream intended to protect fabric from scorch marks proves to straighten hair.  Garrett Morgan successfully patents and markets a “hair refiner” for black customers.  Here you may be wondering how this event is related without comment about the need for such a product, which would entail a longer discussion of beauty standards which marginalized people of color.  The implied answer is that “Garrett’s hair products sold well. With the money he made, he was able to spend more time on his true passion – inventing.” Morgan has chosen to exploit a historical reality of her era and used his financial success to pursue his dream.

More historical events roll by in the narrative.  The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 convinces Morgan that firefighters need adequate protective gear. When his imagination and ingenuity make him recognize a circus elephant’s trunk as a potential model, he designs “Morgan’s Safety Hood and Smoke Protector.”  So far, Morgan and the reader seem coasting on a tide of optimism, which Kullling and Parkins dismantle: “Sales of the safety hood were disappointing…most people weren’t interested in buying it when they found out its inventor was Black.”  A picture of skeptical firemen viewing the mask, presented by a white assistant impersonating “Mr. Morgan” to elude prejudice, is much sadder than previous images.  The white assistant appears to be something of a seedy huckster, while Morgan himself leaves the demonstration looking defeated.

When an explosion threatens the lives of workers digging a tunnel near Cleveland, one of the first responders remembers Morgan’s pitch and declares, “We need Garrett Morgan’s Safety Hood!” Then, World War I brings the horror of chemical warfare, and a new demand for Morgan’s product.  Finally, the final page informs readers that Morgan also invented an improved electric traffic signal, which seems less dramatic than his safety hood; Kulling explicitly points out that the signal, too, saved many lives.  The rapid string of events in Morgan’s story are all rooted in the idea in Kulling’s poem, circumventing dangers that threaten human life. Well, not the hair straightener, but Kulling gives a realistic example of the financial mechanisms and compromises that are part of an innovator’s career.

There is inevitably some simplification in To the Rescue! and in the other books of the series. This is an inevitable part of picture book biographies, which serve as a starting point for further discussion.  The sophistication of Parkins’ pictures adds intrinsic depth to the book.  Look at Morgan’s shocked expression as he reads the news of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire over breakfast with his wife. Watch the rescuers cradling a poisoned worker.  Admire that sad-looking elephant, as Morgan watches him through the curtains, ready to have a bright idea.

 

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