Title: Black Boy White School
Written by: Brian F. Walker
Published by: Harperteen, 2012
Themes/Topics: Racism, African Americans, Somalians, ghetto, class, Maine, boarding school, coming of age
Suitable for ages: 14+
ANTHONY JONES, AN INKY BLACK KNOT OF A fourteen-year-old, stomped down the elevated railway tracks, hammering his thigh with a clenched fist. Inside his hand was clamped the hastily written note he had scribbled while his mother dictated. He’d been home only minutes before splayed on the couch with one eye on the clock and the other on the TV, waiting for her key to stab the lock. She’d blown in and up the stairs, then slid out of her overcoat and barked the familiar orders: “Get up. I need you to go to the store.”
The book opens with Ant(hony) navigating a ghetto of East Cleveland, his violent and poverty stricken neighborhood in Northern Ohio, smoking weed and drinking forties. This is only part of the life that he has to balance. Anthony also is the teen who turns to writing and books for solace, the son who replies with a “Yes, Ma’am.” to his mother, and the scholarship student who will soon be attending a nearly all white prep school in New England.
At the beginning he isn’t sure that going to prep school Belton Academy in rural Maine is the right answer. But after witnessing the drive-by murder of his good friend Mookie, he decides to give it a try, anticipating that he’ll be the odd man out, and he is. As one of few black students in a mostly white school, in a redneck Maine town experiencing growing pains with an influx of African Somalis, Anthony has a difficult time getting the students to accept who he is. They insist on calling him Tony, even after he repeatedly says “call me Ant”. They assume he’s from Brooklyn since that’s where their black students are from. They haze freshman by throwing them in a nearby creek, a fate Ant is unwilling to endure. His resistance to ‘tradition’ causes even more alienation.
Ant can’t figure out how to fit in with all of them either. Should he become more like twenty-five twenty (the letters “y” and “t” in the alphabet)? Will he be an Uncle Tom by doing so? More confusing is his first trip back to East Cleveland when he realizes he doesn’t fit in there anymore either.
Why I like This Book:
Black Boy, White School is a powerful book that will not leave a reader indifferent . Brian F. Walker paints a story showing truths that sometimes hurt and sometimes help all through the eyes of young black teen, Anthony, “Ant”.
This book is unapologetic in its realness. I say that because I have had Anthony as a student in my class. As I read, my heart actually was beating fast because of how closely Anthony’s East Cleveland life mirrored those of students I have taught. But the book’s author, Walker, doesn’t just expose the gritty street life in Ohio, he also exposes racism and hatred of immigrants Maine Somalians). He weaves a story that looks at attitudes of young black students towards each other and their white peers. He puts age old traditions and what are deemed as socially acceptable practices under the microscope, so we can see them for what they are worth. Walker does all of this through the eyes of a 14 year old boy, so that we are forced into looking into a mirror, examining our own beliefs.
This is a moving a story of growth and change, acceptance and tolerance, resignation and growth that is the experience of many inner city youth who struggle with moving on and away from their environments to some thing better but do not want to leave their ‘old world’ behind for fear of losing an identity. Young readers from different cultures and social groups to most of the peers, will especially relate to this story. Ant meets those individuals who are mentors, friends, enemies, family, and not all they seem to be.
This is edgy YA includes sexual references, swearing, open drug use, and violence. How could it be otherwise to depict Ant’s origins authentically? If you are squeamish about gang life or scared to know what’s really going on in the mind of urban 8th grade students, this book might not be easy to read. It is well written, thought-provoking, and would be a great read for urban and non-urban high-schoolers.
I would have liked a little less telling and more showing but the dialogues rang so authentic and powerful that they powered the story forward. I especially felt the tensions among the African American students at Belton and Ant’s alienation from his home and friends grounded the story in reality.
“You only gotta do two things in this world: Stay black and die. Everything else is up to you.” (Pg. 13).
This novel leads without any preparation necessary into class discussions of race and class.
Curriculet.com offers a free digital curriculum for ninth and tenth grade students contains interactive videos exploring definitions of applicable literary terms and explaining historical and cultural allusions relevant to the novel, as well as annotations describing the real-life settings and pointing out important thematic ideals. Students will explore the themes of the formation of identity and the effects of racism. The Common Core aligned questions, answers and quizzes in this free online unit will increase student engagement in the book while supporting reading comprehension.