Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Book Review: The Black Kids - Rodney King and the '90s

When I heard that Christina Hammonds Reed was writing a book about being a Black kid in the '90s in Los Angeles, I jumped at the chance to read this book. I grew up 20-30ish minutes outside of what some would call "LA proper" in the city of Downey, but worked in LA for most of my adult life. So I knew this book would be extremely nostalgic. I was only three when the Rodney King Riots erupted throughout LA so I don't remember much. We were not extremely close to the riots but my mom remembers vividly the things she saw. Christina Hammonds Reed is an LA native so I love that she included things like earthquake drills and fire season.

The amazing thing about this book is that even though it's about what happened in the '90s, it honestly feels like it is happening today. The way she talks about the way the rioters, looters, and protesters are portrayed and how the media makes them out to be monsters and animals. "The media and the politicians keep stereotyping everyone who was out during the riots as"savage" or "lawless" or "hooligans" or "thugs," an "underclass" not representative of the "real America."(Reed) The thing is, that is the real America. There are people today who are not looting who are fighting for justice and peacefully protesting and being met with intense force, tear gas, rubber bullets, and now we have federal agents coming in and kidnapping people. All at the Presidents orders. We just want justice. We want things to change. Real change. 

This book tackles a lot of themes. Ultimately, it's a coming of age story but it deals with racism and race, class, family pressure, the distance between two people, painful family history, and the push and pull of teenage and female friendships. But there were three that really hit me on a personal level: Finding your identity in a sea of whiteness, being Black in America in the midst of a riot or civil unrest, and existing in the in between: not feeling "Black" enough to fit in with the Black kids while not actually being white so not truly fitting in with that crowd.

I didn't grow up in a predominately Black neighborhood and I didn't have a lot of Black friends growing up so as I grew up it felt really hard to discover parts of my identity when not many people around looked like me. This is the same thing that our main character Ashley is facing. She goes to a very white prep school and has all white friends. There are a group of Black kids in her school but she doesn't interact with them at all. Throughout the whole book Ashley straddles the line between trying to fit in with her white friends who never let her forget she is Black and say some VERY inappropriate things. I'll just say her friends are racist and they suck. But at the same time Ashley watches this group of Black kids from a far always thinking that she wont fit in with them. She feels very disconnected from them and almost "others" them. Her friends have made her feel that since she grew up in a good neighborhood, her family has money, she doesn't have any Black friends, and doesn't "act Black" (my least favorite term) that she is not actually "Black" or as her friends remind her that she is not "Blackety Black," which is extremely offensive. But when you're sheltered all your life and told these things you wouldn't know what else to believe so I feel for Ashley to be honest. I've been called an Oreo multiple times in my life and have also been told that I'm "not really Black," which I've always hated. But throughout the book Ashley starts understanding her family history more, spending more time with the Black kids at her school and people outside her white friend group, trying to reconnect with her activist sister, trying to understand the Rodney King riots, and from experiencing her own run in with the police, that at the end of the day her class does not separate her from her Blackness because unfortunately her Blackness is what the world sees first.

The Rodney King Riots are probably the first time Ashley has every experienced anything like that. So being Black during a time like that where there is a collective anger among the Black community is another layer that Ashely has to figure out. She has to figure out how she feels about all of it and if she wants to take a stand against it and if so, what lane she can make the most change. In the beginning, we know that Ashley feels like what is happening is wrong but at the same time she is so wrapped up in her little bubble that she doesn't realize there is actually a bigger issue that just Rodney King. And throughout the novel Ashley has to come to terms with this. Her sister Jo is on the front lines fighting for justice and Ashley is clearly scared for her and often times there was a lot of tension within her family because of the stance that Jo was taking because she knows that her sister is not the type of person the media was portraying the rioters to be. Through her sister, Ashley really starts to dig deeper and look past all the rioting and looting to start looking at the deeper issue and realizes that" maybe the problem isn't only the "bad" people; maybe the problem is with the whole system." 

There are so many things I could say about this book and honestly I'm still getting my thoughts together. There are so many good quotes and Christina Hammond Reeds writing is almost lyrical and the imagery she puts forth is magical. I highlighted and tabbed a lot of quotes and passages. This book is timely and important. This book feels deeply personal because I know what it feels like to be an Ashley.

This book comes out August 4th and everyone should read it!

Happy Reading

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