This week’s book club features three stories (real and fictional) of unique lives and takes on what it means to grow up black in America, coming up against expectations and prejudices, and having to define yourself as a result of and in spite of those terms. They’re lives of activists , performers, teachers, students, comedians; lives of anger and frustration and joy and humor and change. They’re meant to be fleshed-out and multifaceted lives, not symbolic, and deal with the power of narrative and representation; if your story isn’t being told, you have to tell it.
1. No Ashes In the Fire: Coming of Age Black & Free In America by Darnell L. Moore ($26): Currently, Darnell L. Moore has every reason to be confident. After completing his studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, he’s now writer-in-residence at the Center of African American Religion, Sexual Politics, and Social Justice at Columbia. His writing for Ebony, the Guardian, the Advocate and contributions to Mic, as well as his work for Black Lives Matter as one of its founding members and organizers, has landed him on such lists as Planned Parenthood’s 99 Dream Keepers, the Ebony Power 100, and the Root 100. An editor, writer, teacher and activist, Moore seems to have it all in hand. But he started out as a bullied kid from Camden, New Jersey, who escaped more than one attempt on his life, and it’s that type of racist and homophobic violence he seeks to counter to this day.
“Smiles were not rare during my childhood. They were not hidden. But I would never have remembered the joy, emanating through my big grin, had I not returned to my mama’s worn photos of me a few years ago,” Moore begins. “I once knew this black boy in the photos, but at some point between growing up and breaking down I had forgotten. I could not recall his imaginative spark and infectious laugh or the sound of his desperate prayers for perfect grades tossed into the universe as if he was aware of his powers…I was in awe. To laugh and jeer during days punctuated by fear was a feat. What childlike magic did he use to make it through? And how did I get so far away from him, so distant from that smile? I had forgotten my days were not always rocked by violence. It did not occur to me that play would be more evident than struggle.”
Moore writes of growing up in difficult (but never joyless) days, living in poverty with a family of 11 in a three-bedroom house and with an abusive father. At the time, he didn’t realize he was seen as a statistic, his surroundings very different from the posh Quaker high school he went to two hours away from home. It’s a chronicle of correlated histories and societal issues, punctuated by world-shaping moments like the horrifying incident in which three other teenagers poured gasoline on him after accusing him of being gay. In the book, he embarks on a “search for self” to take him back to the boy and away from the monsters in his life, including “the monster I was becoming,” and to recognize the beauty in himself that society seemed hell-bent on taking away. “My black life, however, is lived as a consequence of the lives of so many others. I hope to honor their lives and narratives, too.” It’s the lives of the “others” Moore seeks to remember, particularly black LGBTQ+ youth, those who are often not given a chance to see their stories written about for public consumption.
2. So Close to Being the Sh*t, Y’all Don’t Even Know by Retta ($27): A much more lighthearted but no less personal take on the life story, this book of essays by Retta (whom you probably know from her amazing breakout role as the suffer-no-fools and “Treat Yo’ Sel f” Donna Meagle on Parks and Recreation) details her unexpected journey to Hollywood despite the haters. Retta’s story is unusual. Niece to former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and daughter of poor immigrants with a strong belief in education, she went to predominantly white Duke University as a premed student and worked in pharmaceuticals after graduation while performing comedy on the side.
When it came to comedy and Hollywood, Retta had a hard time feeling like she fit in, despite her ability to stand out. “At the time, I felt like I didn’t really fit into the black comedy scene. I told myself I wasn’t urban enough in my act…That wasn’t my shit and, as a result, I feared the black audience for a long time…I was one of those girls who the black girls in my high school said sounded ‘white’…It took me a long time to learn that as long as you’re yourself that the audience will accept YOU.” At the same time, in other scenarios she felt that producers were lumping her together with all other applicants deemed funny, black, and female, with no effort made to tell them apart.
The capricious nature of the industry (particularly to “plus-sized” women of color) caused her have to deal with all kind of rejection, including the special pain of getting rejected for a part the writer-producer had named after you (and the secret joy of that pilot never getting picked up). Now, she’s starring in the dramedy Good Girls, about suburban moms who turn to crime, in a role that was also written with her in mind. In her book, Retta also details her non-stereotypical love of hockey, her stalking of the cast of Hamilton (she’s also an opera singer), and her social media empire (despite the racist trolls). If you’re on the fence, well, girl, remember to Treat Yo’ Self. (Just don’t yell it at Retta if you see her in person. She’s sick of it.)
3. They Come in All Colors by Malcolm Hansen ($26): In Hansen’s debut novel, Huey Fairchild is born in the mid-1950s to a white father and black mother. He began growing up in Akersburg, Georgia, but moved to New York City when he was still a child after his mother, frustrated with the area’s endemic racism, left both it and his father. Fourteen-year-old Huey now goes to a prestigious all-boys school, Claremont Prep. Almost everyone else has been going there since kindergarten, and their fathers and grandfathers before them, so when Huey started there in fifth grade, it seemed “like a kamikaze mission.” But Ariel J. Zukowski was new, too; their first day, he gave Huey his sandwich, and Huey finds out both of them are the subway-riding, lower-class misfits of their year. Huey’s mom is a housekeeper; Ariel’s dad is a plumber. Huey won his scholarship through writing; Ariel’s a math whiz. They become unlikely friends, but a few years later, Huey hits Ariel in the dining hall in a fight over a girl, knocking the other teen unconscious and earning academic probation.
Huey’s already pretty clear on how much he stands out. The only other person of color at the school is Clyde, the janitor, who goes out of his way to talk to him. He gets “called aside” to be shown off to visitors a lot. And everyone seems to assume he’s going to be great at basketball and is disappointed when he’s not. Huey’s identity crisis is explained by flashbacks to the summer when he was eight, when racial tensions seemed to boil over in Akersburg, “more of an administrative center for all the local farmers than an actual town,” including suspicious pool closures (after rumors that “coloreds” were swimming in it after hours), luncheonette protests, and the inexplicable death of a black farmhand Huey knew worked with his father.
Huey has a very difficult time accepting his mixed heritage as a young boy, proclaiming his whiteness because of his father. “Mama’s the dark one in this family. Not me. I’m normal, okay?” he says. When his mother speaks her concerns that “There’s no place for colored folks to cool themselves is what the world’s coming to, dear,” his internalized racism even from a young age makes him instinctively dismiss her. When he starts at Claremont, he even asks his mother not to come within 10 blocks of the school. Finally, though, at this private school Huey has to face the reality of his heritage and future. With that realization comes anger, and the need to decide how to deal with that anger, and move forward with a new purpose.
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