February 02, 2012


When Grandmama Sings. By Margaree King Mitchell. Illustrated by James E. Ransome. Amistad/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Freedom’s a-Callin Me. By Ntozake Shange. Paintings by Rod Brown. Amistad/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Black Boy White School. By Brian F. Walker. HarperTeen. $17.99.

     There is a well-meaning, if perhaps slightly patronizing, publishing assumption that some groups traditionally underserved in the world of books need works targeted specifically at them and excluding members of other groups. Whether or not this is a valid idea is arguable, but publishers that accept it have been making what appears to be a genuine effort to bring out high-quality books intended to speak to the selected groups and exclude others. In terms of works for young readers, these books are designed for all age ranges. Thus, When Grandmama Sings is for African-American children ages 5-9; Freedom’s a-Callin Me is for those who are ages 8-12; and Black Boy White School is for African-American teenagers, age 14 and up. All the books are deeply felt, highly emotional and, each in its own way, very moving. But none makes an attempt to reach out beyond the core, limited audience for which it is intended – which is too bad, because whites and minorities other than African Americans would surely respond strongly to these works if given the opportunity to see them as anything other than exclusionary.

     But the books are what they are; and what they are is meaningful and strongly communicated. When Grandmama Sings is set in the old, segregated South, and is the story of an illiterate grandmother with a beautiful voice who is given a chance to sing in venues far from her small town of Pecan Flats, Mississippi. Her granddaughter goes on the road trip with her to help her out and read signs and newspapers for her. This is a story of small slights and small triumphs: the “Whites Only” signs; the white club manager who refuses to pay grandmama and her band (and the good thing that happens when they perform anyway); the waitress in the whites-only restaurant who shows the travelers a kindness even though she is forbidden to do so; the intensity with which grandmama sings whether the audience is small or large; and the eventual triumph in a sold-out theater, where grandmama sings for a crowd of both whites and blacks – but with the races firmly segregated in the hall’s seats. Grandmama dreams of a better world for her granddaughter, and does her small part to bring that world to reality. Margaree King Mitchell tells the story with warmth and a strong emphasis on family cohesiveness, and James E. Ransome provides illustrations that bring the characters vividly to life – and help reconstruct long-gone days that at least some 21st-century African-American families will deem it important to remember and relive.

     Even older times are revisited by poet Ntozake Shange and artist Rod Brown in Freedom’s a-Callin Me, another in an apparently endless series of books celebrating the Underground Railroad and the slaves who “rode” it to freedom in northern states and Canada before the Civil War. This story has been told many, many times, but Freedom’s a-Callin Me is distinctive for its use of poetry and its depiction of the frightening reality of slaves’ attempts to escape. The only famous person depicted is Sojourner Truth, and the page on which she appears shows her in a light in which she is not usually seen: “four colored folks & beautiful colored chile/ ready to march on to freedom/ with the legend Sojourner Truth/ one man hesitates/ Sojourner Truth whips out a pistol/ ‘death or freedom/ either you comin wit’ us/ or us or you die heah…’” The picture of Sojourner Truth pointing the gun at the terrified man is very powerful – but no more so than the painting of an escaping slave in “The Hole” beneath a house’s floorboards, listening to the party upstairs and terrified that a slave hunter might hear him. This is scarcely the only book to bring the fears and accomplishments of the Underground Railroad to a readership of modern young people, but it is a particularly affecting and effective treatment of an oft-repeated story.

     Yet for sheer grittiness, the tale of 150 years ago has nothing on Brian F. Walker’s debut novel, the largely autobiographical Black Boy White School, in which Anthony “Ant” Jones – like Walker himself – grows up in squalor in East Cleveland, where he spends his life with thugs until being sent to an elite boarding school where he needs to figure out how, and whether, to try to fit in. The very thinly fictionalized story is filled with profanity and street language, uses the “n” word liberally, and has a theme summed up in the first chapter by Ant’s estranged father: “You only gotta do two things in this world: stay black and die. Everything else is up to you.” The pervasive, ugly, self-perpetuating violence of East Cleveland is contrasted with the subtler one-upmanship and games of Belton Academy, where everyone expects Ant to play basketball and he cannot get people to use his correct name (they call him Tony). Ant stays in touch with his roots even while becoming increasingly distanced from them: “Anthony thought about home and all the things that could go wrong there… Just like a lot of other things, even sex was killing its teenagers.” Ant punches another student, is put on behavioral probation, frightens classmates with his posing and his barely suppressed violence, and is surprised that “some people still treated him like a terrorist” weeks after the fight. “Now there was a strain on everything because he had crossed an invisible line,” Ant thinks – showing a substantial lack of self-awareness that is apparent throughout most of the novel. Walker’s writing is so one-sided, so determined to portray his surrogate Ant as brilliant and misunderstood and worthy and unfairly victimized simply because he is black and from East Cleveland, that the book teeters on the edge of unbelievability despite its autobiographical elements and determinedly rough language. Ant is uncomfortable with everything, including kindness. “Maybe everybody needs someone to hate,” one of Ant’s classmates observes in a scene involving the Somali population of Lewiston, Maine, where Belton is located; and if there is a philosophy underpinning this book, that would seem to be it. Never satisfactorily answered is the question of how Ant has managed to rise above his origins in the first place. Although there are other black students at Belton, Ant’s best friend there, who becomes his roommate in sophomore year, is white; but the book’s stance is that the racial gulf is largely unbridgeable. Despite a burning cross, “healing assemblies” and rather unfocused attempts to humanize some characters who are not black, a speech that Ant gives near the book’s conclusion – and which is supposed to be climactic – comes across as contrived and more simplistic than Walker wants it to be. There is no doubt that Black Boy White School is heartfelt and intended to convey a message of hope, but that message is muted by the book’s pervasive melodrama and a cast in which everyone except Ant seems like a cardboard character filling a role rather than a real human being.

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