African-American Experience

I had never heard of “the Talk” until a recent radio interview shared the agonizing conversation that many African-American parents have with their sons.  The mother had a son who ran track, but, as a precaution, wasn’t allowed to run in his own neighborhood. I was instantly reminded of Jacqueline Woodson’s book  “If You Come Softly” and my own skepticism at a plot development I naively mistook as contrived.  

If You Come Softly” is a love story, effectively told in alternating viewpoints that provide insight into what it’s like to be a  teen, interracial couple.  The boy, Jeremiah, “was black.  HE could feel it.  The way the sun pressed down hard and hot on his skin...He felt warm inside his skin, protected.”  Inside his neighborhood, he felt good, “but one step outside.  Just one step and somehow the weight of his skin seemed to change.  It got heavier.”  He had just started attending a fancy Manhattan prep school and collided with Ellie the first day.  Corny as it sounds, it was love at first sight.  Despite the challenges their race differences brought, they persevered, but there’s one thing neither Ellie nor I could completely comprehend: what it’s like to be a young African-American man.  Jeremiah’s parents weren’t against the relationship, but they were concerned.  In their discussions they said one thing that surprised me--never run in a white neighborhood.  In a moment of sheer joy, that advice is tragically forgotten.  As simply an ill-starred love story, the reader will weep, but knowing about “the Talk,” readers will be heartbroken at circumstances necessitating such a conversation in the first place.

Woodson is one of my favorite authors and is a frequent award winner for her books detailing the African-American experience with memorable characters and storylines that are universally relatable.  

In the Coretta Scott King award winning “Miracle’s Boys,” three brothers struggle to be a family despite the obstacles they face, including the death of both parents--one to diabetes.  Twelve year old Lafayette narrates their struggles.  Tyree, the oldest, gave up a college scholarship to raise his brothers and can’t help but be bitter.  NewCharlie, as Lafayette calls the middle brother, came out of jail, tougher, harder and much different.  Faced with all of this, plus the challenges of inner city life, it seems hopeless until one tragic near miss provides the perspective they need to focus on what’s most important: family.  

 “Feathers” is a unique, short and satisfying read filled with hope.  There’s a new student in Frannie’s all black class and he’s the whitest boy she’s ever seen.  With his long hair and quiet nature, the class bully dubs him “Jesus Boy” and it sticks.  Frannie is facing so many difficulties, her mother is pregnant again after three miscarriages, she worries about her deaf brother and all is set against the backdrop of Vietnam and racial segregation.  Jesus Boy’s calm strength amazes Frannie and her classmates and they begin to wonder, could he be who his nickname implies?  

Originally published in the 4/2/12 Free Lance-Star newspaper.