I almost never write about current events or politics here. However, I have been feeling really helpless watching current events these days. From Ukraine to Israel to Liberia to Iraq, the world has just been a harsh place this summer it seems. I think I’ve been saddened most by events here in the U.S., where in Ferguson, MO, police shot and killed an unarmed African-American teen, then responded with what most people feel was an overly militaristic, antagonistic response to protesters and looters.
Like I said, I feel powerless and angry about all this. Sometimes, this country is not the country I want it to be, the country I believe it can be. One of the only things, honestly, that I feel I can do is raise children who think about these issues, who question the status quo, who recognize their own privilege as white men and do their best to remember that in their dealings with others.
Since children’s books are where I tend to find my grounding, I’ll throw out there the one thing I know a lot about and tell you that the book that sparked the best conversations about race in our house was, hands down, One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams. I have tried to bring diversity to the children’s literature we read – diversity in race, in culture, in geography, and in class. We’ve read many great books about the African-American experience over the years, but that’s the book that really made my kids question how life is different when you’re black in this country.
One Crazy Summer, which won a Newbery Honor, takes place in 1968. It tells the story of three sisters who travel from New York, where they live with their father and grandmother, to Oakland, to meet a mother they hardly know. While there, they attend the Black Panther summer camp and free breakfast program and grow up a little. They get to know their mother, a poet who runs a small press that prints flyers and newsletters to support the Panthers.
The first piece of the conversation that arose in our house came when the girls’ grandmother extols them to behave themselves on the plane. If they misbehave, they’ll create a “Grand Negro Spectacle,” something the narrator, Delphine, realizes will reflect poorly on every black person. “What does that have to do with being black?” my kids both wanted to know. “Why would that mean other black people were bad?” Then later, when the youngest sister is shamed for having a white doll, again the boys wanted to understand. Why would that be a problem? Why wouldn’t she have a black doll? Several times in the story, well meaning white people try to give the girls small treats or attention, but Delphine learns from her mother why she should reject these and refuse to perform for others. Again, the boys wanted to know, “What does that have to do with being black?” These questions and the elements of the story went beyond simple discrimination to a much more subtle type of racism, but in a way that the boys could begin to think about.
Being white means all of these experiences were foreign to my kids. They don’t know what it’s like to be a representative of your race, to not having the option to have a book or a toy that represents your skin tone, to have strangers assume you will be cute for them if they give you a piece of candy or a dollar. Many of the other elements of the book – the sibling rivalry, struggling to make new friends at the summer camp, the joy of riding an airplane or visiting places on your own – were much more relatable to my kids. The language in the book, filled with great metaphors and strong images, was beautiful and we all enjoyed the story and the relationships.
Literature opens the door to helping you see beyond your own experience in a way that so few things can. It’s an imperfect door, of course, but it’s the best way I know to start conversations, to present moral questions, to get kids outside their own heads. This book did it brilliantly and in a way that I hope stays with my boys as they grow up. I hope it, and others we’ve read, plant seeds to help them think beyond their own lives to the lives of others. It’s such a little thing, but it’s one of the few things I feel like I can do right now.