Thursday, March 1, 2012

Guest blogger: Lyndsey G.

I initially picked up Brian F. Walker’s Black Boy, White School because I wanted to expand my knowledge of minority YA authors. Up until now, I’ve only been exposed to the typical staples – Walter Dean Myers, Sherman Alexie, and Francisco X. Stork – and wanted to see what else is out there.

To my surprise and delight, the first half of BBWS takes place in East Cleveland, where the author grew up (watch out for mentions of Tower City, the Rapid, and other landmarks). Anthony “Ant” Jones is your typical eighth grader. He runs errands for his mother, begrudgingly finishes boring math homework, hangs out with his friends, and gets teased by his older brothers. Yep, Ant Jones is your typical eighth grade kid.

Except for the fact that he lives in a world where people wear their vices on their sleeves, and where respectable role models are hard to come by. Except for the fact that his parents are mostly negligent, his friends drink, rap, and smoke away their hopelessness, and Ant writes stories in order to feel less alone. And except for the fact that, in a violent turn of events, he witnesses the murder of his friend while the two are walking home one evening.

Now that an elite “white” boarding school in Maine is recruiting Ant, he jumps at the opportunity to escape his neighborhood to find something better. But when he arrives at Belton Academy, he quickly finds out that the school – though worlds away from his hometown – has some hidden vices of its own.

The strength of this book is Walker’s ability to craft dialogue. Characters speak authentically and it feels effortless. Some readers may be turned off by the frequent profanity and drug use. I agree that they can be hard to stomach, but are necessary in order to honestly portray the world Ant comes from.

Some bloggers have criticized this book, saying it lacks depth in places. And I agree. Walker devotes only one or two pages to some weighty topics that would normally take an entire chapter to resolve. For instance, near the end of the book, there is a scene where Ant and two white students argue about the necessity of a school-wide diversity assembly. The conversation ends abruptly, unresolved, and the topic does not come up again. Undoubtedly, some readers will find themselves wishing Walker had explored these weighty issues more. Although Walker has done well to depict the labeling, neglecting and excluding of black students, I wish he would have went the extra nine yards and indicated how readers can work together to “fix” the problem.

Regardless of this irresolution, I still think Ant’s voice is a voice worth listening to. Readers will find themselves eager to get to know and rally behind Ant Jones. While at the boarding school, he offers an outsider’s critique of the “world of privilege” and the assumptions his classmates and teachers have made about him. Drop in on English class and the freshman dorm as he engages friends, teachers and administrators in conversation about class and race, and struggles to overcome hypocrisy he sees.  Stand next to him as he fights (in vain) to put a cap on his anger toward a classmate who wrote a racist remark on the door of a bathroom stall.  Share in Ant's outrage when members of a local KKK sect leave a burning cross on the school's lawn. Ant's experience is not always pretty, but it is valid and deserving of our attention.

In an interview, Walker said he wrote this book for the young black men who find themselves shaken up by a transition into the white world. And he’s right. Readers may feel (at times) that Walker wrote this book to blow some steam and empathize solely with the black community. But I will hold that the book’s perspective is valuable, even for outsiders.

That being said, BBWS is not for everyone. Don’t pick it up if you have a low tolerance for cursing and drug use. But do pick it up if you are looking to expand your understanding of the world outside suburbia and are able to stomach the content. It is a must read if you work with urban youth.

Click here to read a second opinion from Rollie Welch, Collections Manager at Cleveland Public Library.

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