We are all reading and educating ourselves now, and almost all of what people are sharing and reading is non-fiction, and very little of it for younger people. So here is my own list of some recent children's fiction about the black experience or moments in black history, for my friends who may like to read them with your children (or even read them yourselves.) (While I don't want to avert my eyes from all that is playing out before us, to turn instead, like the Lady of Shalott, to oblique shadows, I also know I am much better at thinking about social issues through literature, and perhaps you (or your children) do too.)
The 5 I picked out cover a range of subjects, including police brutality, implicit bias, racial profiling, unequal access to justice, inner city poverty, white electoral jingoism and us vs them political rhetoric, white supremacist rallies, racially-motivated mob violence, the portrayal of black male sexuality as a threat, and racist election tactics (voter intimidation, and a historical example of white ballot stuffing in 1868 to drive out black and pro-black politicians.) All are middle grade or YA novels set in the US, and all were published within the last 8 years, which gives me hope that a generation is growing up on books that will help them be more sensitive than we are, and more willing to have the difficult conversations that we are now learning to have ourselves.
1. How It Went Down (2014) by Kekla Magoon is an urban Rashomon about the shooting of an unarmed black teenager, told from multiple perspectives over the first 9 days after his death. Its central event is easily recognisable to us from so many (too many) newsflashes of the past many years: black teen (in a city not unlike Detroit), running an errand at the corner store for his mother, shot dead in the street by a white man who claims self-defence to perceived threat. But where in life we are wont to quickly join the dots on sparse facts from emerging news stories, in the novel the (very) large cast of changing narrators, each giving an account of what they thought they saw, or thought happened ("how it went down"), complicates attempts to rest on any one position or unambiguous intepretation for long. The novel leaves unresolved what "really happened" with the shooting, but its many narratorial voices provide what is far more pressing and important: bitter and complex insights into the struggles of inner-city youth, surviving in neighbourhoods steeped in poverty and gang violence, and never once reducing that polyphony to just a catchy or marketable tune.
2. Jewell Parker Rhodes' Ghost Boys (2018), where the ghost of a black child (shot in the back by the police while playing with a toy gun -- loosely modelled on Tamir Rice) lingers on earth to observe his own funeral, the preliminary criminal hearing (that ends with his shooter not indicted), and the emotional unravelling of his family in the aftermath of his shooting. In a way, it is the exact opposite of the Magoon: here the victim's testimony -- the only one that is never available after a shooting -- is the only truth that matters (the courtroom scenes, where the ghost child challenges unheard the defence's version of events, are some of the hardest to read) The narrative flashes frequently back to his former life and the events leading up to his shooting, while in the present day, the child encounters the ghost of Emmett Till (opening up historical comparisons), and discovers there are, in fact, hundreds of other murdered black boys (the titular "ghost boys") roaming the US, unable to rest for lack of justice after so many decades. (There is also a (rather unnecessary) subplot (which I dislike): the daughter of the police shooter is the only living person able to see and talk to the ghost child, and whose anger towards her father turns her towards (it is implied) future activism.)
3. All American Boys (2015) is a YA novel jointly-written by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. Equal chapters are given to a black teenager, racially profiled by a manager and violently assaulted by the arresting cop in the parking lot of the store he was wrongfully accused of shoplifting from, and a white teenager, sole eye-witness to the brutality, whose close friendship with the cop's family sees him remain silent. Through the eyes of both boys (one deeply disconcerted by becoming a political hashtag, the other fearful of speaking up and conflicted in loyalties), the book depicts the growing anger, fear, political rhetoric and pushbacks in their town (so very much like what we've heard in recent weeks), and particularly the escalating tensions at the local high school, as some students turn the hospitalised boy into their cause celebre and plan protest actions while others staunchly defend the police, and left/right politics harden the teenage cliques and personal rivalries that are already endemic to high school life.
4. Crow (2012) by Barbara Wright is set in 1898 during the Wilmington Insurrection (if this event is as new to you as it was to me, and the plot seems incredible, it turns out truth is more cruel than fiction and the events depicted are not only historical but some of the most objectional dialogue in the book had been worked from contemporary records of speeches and publications by the characters' real life counterparts.) While it is the furthest removed from us in time, the political resonances and parallels with what is happening in our time are ineluctable. But politics isn't in the foreground for most of the book, and the controversial election, and its brutal aftermath, only comes in the final third. Instead, it concentrates on the small, everyday moments of boyhood in a Southern town; its small, rising black middle class, one generation post-emancipation, and the subtle (and then not so subtle) snubs and affronts that thwart the community's aspirations; and the contradictions of identity in the family dynamics of the black boy who narrates the story -- his docile mother, emancipated as a girl, still more comfortable working for a white family as the help; his father, an idealistic city alderman with stubborn faith in the ideals of law and citizenry, who advocates advancement through education; and his grandmother, a freedwoman who tells bitter tales of her slavery but is frequently at odds with his father for his dangerously newfangled views. Throughout the book the boy witnesses but is unable to grasp the import of numerous conversations and incidents (editorial disagreements at the black paper his father writes for, electoral rhetoric at a white supremacist rally, white advertisers withdrawing from the town's black paper (for rebutting racist opinions in the white paper...), which are never fully explained to him by the grownups, but which presage the eventual coup, the massacre, and by the end, the utter destruction of his community and his family.
5. Finally, Patricia Hruby Powell's verse novel Loving v. Virginia: A Documentary Novel (2017), told from the alternating viewpoints of Mildred and Richard Loving. Meant for slightly younger readers than the others, it is a gentle telling that avoids the high emotionalism of courtroom dramas and the cold abstrusities of legal analyses (both of which are distractions here) for an quiet, intimate portrayal of the Lovings as a couple in the context of the informally integrated community they came from, and the psychological toll they lived under from the time of their marriage until the Supreme Court decision. (In that sense it's rather like that tender and restrained 2016 movie with Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton, so perhaps one way is to think of this as a small person's book counterpart to that movie.) The physical book is a lavish coffee table edition, with full-page brush illustrations by Shadra Strickland to accompany the poems. Spliced in throughout the book, often on facing pages to the poems they annotate, are explanatory material, and also photographs from the era (segregated schoolrooms, anti-miscegenation protestors outside civic buildings...) It may not feel as directly relevant to the dynamics of racialised violence as the other four are, but the story of the case is worth revisiting, and I think it's always sobering to remember that every hard-won progressive action in history, every effort at dismantling discrimination, should have been so bitterly opposed by so many and until so recently.