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BOOK REVIEWS, Contemporary Realistic Fiction, Family, Middle Grade Readers, Read-Aloud Suggestions, Self-Image/Self-Esteem, Social Justice, Teacher & Parent Recommendations

BLACK BROTHER, BLACK BROTHER by Jewell Parker Rhodes

 

Black Brother, Black Brother is a phenomenal book in story, impact, structure and writing style. It is one of those rare examples of a perfect melding of rich storytelling in both craft and content. Donte’s voice is open and suffused with the huge emotions of a middle school-age boy. The imagery of being seen vs. invisibility and how this is at the heart of racism is masterfully woven into the narrative i a particularly powerful way–at least for me.

Donte and brother Trey have different skin colors; Trey is white like their father and Donte is dark like their mother. They have moved from New York to a Boston suburb where they’ve been enrolled in a private school whose population is overwhelmingly white. Both students and teachers treat Donte differently than Trey. One student–Alan, captain of the fencing team–particularly targets Donte with vile words and malicious bullying. At the beginning of the story Donte has been sent to the Headmaster’s office, accused of something Alan actually did.

When Donte (understandably) shows his anger and frustration at the situation in voice tone and by throwing his backpack onto the floor the Headmaster has him arrested based on their ‘zero tolerance’ policy. Donte’s main focus following this incident is some kind of “payback” for Alan–a way to humiliate him just as Donte was humiliated. He seeks out a former Olympic fencer to teach him how to fence, with the goal of beating Alan in an area he feels superior and dominant. Donte ends up discovering both a real passion for the sport of fencing and a new realization that he does want to keep himself visible–even when others don’t see him. The injustices and just plain wrongness of what Donte experiences made my stomach clench in a way that mirrored the character’s physical reaction. That visceral response to the story connects the individual to the reading experience in a deeper way than the act of merely seeing words on a page. That’s the perfect place to start a conversation.

Rhodes addresses the school-to-prison pipeline as well as the elitist origins of sports like fencing through Donte’s experiences. At first, I questioned the choice of fencing as a vehicle for a major part of Donte’s story. I thought “how many kids–regardless of color–can identify with fencing?” As the story moves forward, however, I discovered that fencing was the ideal catalyst for every aspect of the story. I learned about Peter Westbrook, a famous black Olympic fencer and his work to bring fencing to students of color. I learned that FIVE members of the 2016 US Olympic Team were people of color. I learned that Alexandre Dumas, the author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo was of African descent and his stories were based on his father, a black general in Napoleon’s army; Hollywood has erased the African part of Dumas’ characters by only representing his characters with white actors. (I have a degree in French Area Studies specializing in the arts and no teacher or professor or class EVER pointed out this fact!)

Donte’s journey is not easy and it is not done in any trite, tie-it-up-with-a-bow episode. Black Brother, Black Brother looks at racism from the raw, emotional heart of a young boy. It doesn’t offer any pat answers; the characters acknowledge the existence of racism and the fact that its very existence can feel overwhelming. The characters also make the point that we need to continue to recognize it, label it and work to challenge it, with the goal of eradicating it.

Racism is a difficult subject to get people to talk about without getting either defensive or angry–which is one reason I think stories are essential to all cultures. Donte’s story offers us a way to begin discussions about racism without which it is destined to continue. Black Brother, Black Brother hands us the opportunity to begin these discussions with young people. In Rhodes’ Afterword she says:

Ending racism seems like a never-ending battle. But I believe it is a battle that can be won. Progress has been made and I believe the world’s youth are going to make bolder and greater strides toward equity. Poems, raps, stories and essays that students have sent me remind me that young people are “bearing witness” and advocating for social justice.

I think books like Black Brother, Black Brother can play a vital part in the battle to end racism. As an adult white woman in Minnesota, I am spending a lot of time trying to look honestly at my own biases, thoughts and beliefs I have taken for granted as true without questioning their source and how that unconscious foundation can play a part I don’t like in my own attitudes and behavior in interpersonal situations. There’s a lot more to ‘undo’ as an adult. What if I had been able to read stories like Donte’s and address racism from a much earlier age when I was forming my thoughts, opinions and beliefs? I’ll never know the answer to that question, but I believe–as Ms. Rhodes does–that it begins with acknowledgement and conversation and bearing witness as a young person.

I will be recommending Black Brother, Black Brother as passionately as I can to everyone I can! The fact that this could easily be used as a read-aloud in a classroom or at home adds to its value and the multitude of opportunities it provides for language, story and social justice conversations.

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