The Black Kids is set in Los Angeles in 1992, beginning just before the verdict in the Rodney King trial is handed down. Seventeen-year-old Ashley and her prep school friends are busy preparing for the prom. Underneath the dayglow exterior of their lives, though, Ashley has a lot of thoughts about race and her white friends’ often hurtful attitudes. She is also dealing with the prospect of her nanny moving back to Guatemala and a protracted conflict between her parents and her radical older sister, Jo. Then, the verdict and the riots bring so many personal conflicts in Ashley’s circle to a tipping point.
In 1992, I was in kindergarten. If the history of Rodney King and the riots over the officers’ acquittals is not something in your memory either, this book is not a good first source to learn about it. What it does really, really well is use the context of that history to draw out how race and privilege impact Ashley’s life and her relationships. Whereas she and her sister benefit from the cushy life their parents have worked hard to give them—a very sheltered home and attendance at a prep school—their cousin grows up in one of the neighborhoods heavily impacted by the riots and the looting. When the family comes together, their different perspectives illustrate how the events might affect people differently based not only on race, but also on class and location. Ashley also focuses on Latasha Harlins (122-23), whose murder by a convenience store owner who was acquitted, was another—often forgotten—tipping point leading up to the riots. Lastasha’s story is personal to Ashley in a way that emphasizes the book’s focus on the intersection between gender and race. Furthermore, Christina Hammonds Reed manages to work the 1921 Tulsa Massacre into the family history in a way that feels organic and packs a huge emotional punch, an example of generational trauma.
My favorite part of the book is its focus on the intersection between Ashley’s gender and her race. As the book starts out and she and her friends are busy partying and preparing for prom, her thoughts turn several times toward what it’s like to be a girl. For example, after explaining that one of her friends used to collect insects, she muses: “It’s a bit morbid, if you ask me, taking beautiful things and pinning them down to be admired. But that’s kinda like what happens to some girls between junior high and high school, being pretty gets in the way of being a person” (12).
Then, the boys join them at the pool and she thinks about the pitfalls of being friends with boys their age, including having to listen to them drone on about everything they like while they make fun of what the girls like. Ashley thinks, “Just because sometimes our music comes wrapped in glitter doesn’t mean it’s empty” (17).
As the book gets more engaged with the riots and Ashley thinks more about the casual racism of her friends, her thoughts eventually turn toward what it is like for her to be a Black girl, specifically. Then, as she and her classmate LaShawn talk about the sacrifices his mother had to make to send him to the prep school, and how he only gets to go because of a scholarship, he mentions that his sister is also smart and talented, but not afforded the same opportunity. Ashley thinks to herself that she might be hurt by the imbalance in their prospects: “Her brother says I want the world, and her mother does everything in her power to give it to him. She says I want the world, and everyone—including her own mother—tell her that’s too much” (248).
From there, Ashley explains how and why it’s hard being both Black and a girl. At first, her thoughts might resonate with many girls who feel so much pressure to be a certain way because they are girls (it would have really spoken to me at 17), but as she drills down further, she gets into the added weight of racism:
Sometimes it’s hard being a girl, and it’s hard being black. Being both is like carrying a double load, but you’re not supposed to complain about it. There are so many things you have to remember about how to be.
First things first: be pretty. Never take up too much space; your breasts, arms, lips, hips, thighs, and even your nose should always be just so. If your body should spill over just so or not quite fill it up, well, honestly, I don’t know what to tell you. Just don’t. Be a good girl, but not too good; nobody likes that girl. Laugh, but not too loud; you’ll make them nervous. No, don’t be sour, never that, even if you’re having a bad day, month, year, life. They’ll think you’re angry. Make sure you smile so they can see your teeth. Be smart, but never smarter than; or they’ll think you’re uppity. Be more. Yes. that’s it! Practice! Dream! Rise! Wait, not too high, girl! Those stars, they aren’t meant for you. (248)
I have not read many books that feature a girl thinking about her gender in such a moving, clear way. That this book is so intersectional in its take on race and gender is a rare feat in my experience of YA lit and Hammonds draws out these tensions with a poignant, but light touch. Bravo.
I have a few complaints about this book. I did not find a lot of the teen angst particularly interesting—I’m really not in the target demo for that—and I wish that more fun had been had with the early-1990s setting. I also kept waiting for the book to do more with Lucia, Ashely’s nanny. There has been some feminist scholarship on intersectionality and women of color having other women of color as domestic workers. I kept waiting for the book to go there with Lucia, but it didn’t. The cast of characters in the book is wonderfully diverse and Lucia is a great character, I just wanted a little more nuance drawn out in that dynamic. Overall, however, this book is a smart, engaging young adult novel that takes up issues of intersectionality with nuance and sensitivity. It is a great book for discussing race, gender, privilege, and history with young people.