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Crossing Bok Chitto

Multicultural Review


Crossing Bok Chitto, originally one of the stories in Tingle’s excellent collection, Walking the Choctaw Road, is now a picture book.

In the early 1800s, Mississippi’s Bok Chitto River was a boundary, dividing the home of the sovereign Choctaw Nation from the “Old South” of plantation owners and their human property. Enslaved Black people who were able to get to the Choctaw side of Bok Chitto were free. According to the story, the Choctaws built a stone path just below the muddy surface of Bok Chitto—built it up in times of flooding and built it down in times of drought. It is this unseen stone path, and the generosity of a Choctaw family, that aids an enslaved Black family to cross to freedom.

When her momma asks Martha Tom to fill her basket with blackberries for an upcoming wedding, the little girl crosses Bok Chitto, loses her way, and encounters the calling together of a Black church secreted in the Mississippi woods. After an enslaved Black father instructs his young son how to move among the white people without being seen—“not too fast, not too slow, eyes to the ground, away you go!”—Little Mo escorts Martha Tom past the plantation house and back to the river, where she shows him how to cross. The relationship between the two children and their respective families deepens, and when trouble comes—“it always does, in stories or in life, trouble comes”—magic is made, and the Black family is empowered to cross to freedom.

Crossing Bok Chitto is an awesome story of survival, generosity, courage, kindness and love; enhanced by Jeanne Rorex Bridges’ luminous acrylic on watercolor board paintings on a subdued palette of mostly browns and greens. In an endnote, Tingle describes how this particular story came to be. Today, Choctaw families—as well as Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole—continue to tell the stories of how they aided the “runaway people of bondage.”

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