Two books of Black voices

I’ve been sitting on these two for a while, waiting for a chance and the words. These came to me from Candlewick, and both are impressive books: The Black Friend by Frederick Joseph and Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Michele Wood.

I want to write about them in the same post for two reasons: a) While they are very different in the experiences they narrate, each gives foundation and visceral depth to the other; b) Given the differences, I like that they show there is really no excuse not to read Black voices. One spoke to me more than the other as an audience; both taught me a lot. There’s a book out there for everyone.

The Black Friend, by Frederick Joseph, is fundamentally a kind of personal memoir with lessons one could draw, geared towards middle school kids: Grade 7 and up according to the Candlewick website. But what I loved in it is that it’s not just a collection of his own experiences, but a broader story. Frederick Joseph practices listening as he preaches it, notably by sharing his platform of the written, published page with others: he includes conversations with Africa Miranda, Jamira Burley, Saira Rao, among others, and includes lists of people to research, books to read, movies to watch, music to listen to in order to broaden our own understandings, enrich our experiences. I love the exemplification of sharing, listening, absorbing. There is nothing in the world more powerful than demonstrating that you care by caring. The book also includes a very good “Encyclopedia of Racism” at the back (a glossary of terms bolded throughout the book) which is clear, compact, and worth the price of admission in its own right.

Now, I rarely review a book that I feel doesn’t speak directly to me, where I don’t feel that I’m the audience intended for the book, but this is a case where I did feel a bit lost, and yet I’m reviewing because: a) I think it’s important enough that I want to talk about it anyway, b) I don’t really care that it didn’t speak to me because I learned from it anyway, c) I think we need more books like this one, there’s definitely room for more, and if we create buzz, there will be more demand! Yay!

When I say it didn’t speak directly to me, I mean that in a specific way: everything that matters about it certainly did speak to me. There’s a case where a substitute teacher fundamentally (I suspect deliberately) misunderstood Frederick and his school friend, Fatimah, in Grade 2 (my daughter’s grade last year, probably why this incident stuck out to me), accusing them of cheating on a test because they both got a perfect grade. She forced them to retake it under her direct supervision during recess, neither made a perfect grade (who would, under the circumstances?), which she took as evidence of prior cheating, and made a lot of additional comments, including (oh I got mad at this): “You can be the ones to get your families out of your neighborhoods, but not if you’re cheating yourselves.” I closed the book and took deep breaths after that whole episode. (If you’re a teacher reading this, I know you’re not that kind of teacher, but I’m going to say this anyway: As a teacher, your job is to elicit and bolster what your students have to offer the world. Don’t ever shut them down because they’ve got what you don’t. Learn from them.)

I was a bright kid who occasionally had teachers who resented my brightness. I never, of course, got that level of treatment– I’m white and I know it helped me. Seeing it ramped up to 11 like that burned me to read.

So: these stories of incidents which clearly caused Joseph pain at the time (and I know must have hurt in the retelling– I want to thank the author and all those he interviewed for reliving these episodes for us) are told clearly and provide visceral, emotional understanding, whatever your age and background. This would be a fantastic book to read in an early high school class for that reason– it would generate brilliant conversations between teachers and students.

Where I was at a disconnect was honestly a mere matter of style, which mattered but still taught me something. Frederick Joseph uses music and movies and pop culture to bolster his narrative and give support to certain arguments. Chapter 2: “We Can Enjoy Ed Sheeran, BTS, and Cardi B” is a particularly excellent example, as it discusses something I consider an important point for teachers, in particular, to understand. In Joseph’s words: “In countries like America, where most aspects of culture are controlled by white people, their culture has become the norm or mainstream.” What this means is that white people who understand popular culture feel that they’re super on top of things, but really only get “mainstream” (white) culture, while Black people absorb their own AND white “mainstream” culture. In short: they know more because they have to get the white field as well as their own. He proves this point anecdotally through an experiment. He has a diverse group of friends over to listen to music, playing a variety of mainstream white artists, everyone would have heard them and could sing along. Non-white artists mostly went unrecognized by his white friends, but non-white friends were familiar with the music.

Problem for me: I grew up with an understanding of music that ended with Gustav Mahler. I can tell you that Richard Wagner was a complete jerk on every level, basically invented the Aryan ideal of white, Germanic manliness– and also was so very sensitive he could only wear silk or satin underwear– but the points Joseph was making about Nelly required a bit of research. I was totally out of my depth because not only was I ignorant of the non-white music he referenced, I… also didn’t know the white stuff. (Cue memories of sitting at the edge of the school cafeteria because I had no idea what was going on and didn’t even fit in with the misfits. Remember my story about researching transmission of folklore? Yeah, that was me. But at least no one called me a terrorist– another story in The Black Friend.)

That said, even though I was way out of there on the cultural references, I appreciated his perspective on the issue, because what he says about his type of music is true about mine– and then some. The Classical music world (my darling baby, I love it so much) is woefully ignorant of the entire history of Black composers and musicians. (Did you know Jessye Norman sang Sieglinde at the Met, though? She’s phenomenal, and the experience of watching her is enhanced by the gut-deep knowledge that if Wagner had been alive to see and hear her, it would have killed him to experience her brilliance.) I only really started to think seriously about this problem by reading articles by the wonderful scholar Dr. Kira Thurman and following her tips to learn about such figures as George Bridgetower and Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. I’m dropping those notes here not to show off, but because I want to prove that there is good, diverse material out there the white Classical music world is ignoring. (Children’s book world: there’s picture book biography material out there in those names. Hop to it.) And I say “ignoring” rather than “ignorant of” because given the work of such people as Dr. Thurman, the information is there. If you’re not using it, you’re ignoring it.

Every story in The Black Friend felt a bit like that to me as I read, on a personal level: I got something from everything he wrote, but I knew, honestly, that this is a book for middle grade and high school kids who will thoroughly enjoy adding all his music ideas to their phones. And I hope they will.

One last note: it will, it absolutely will, drag up memories and stories for you, whoever you are. That substitute teacher story combined with a racist-relative-story reminded me of the time my husband and I were looking to go from keeping the Changeling with our wonderful part-time babysitter to putting her in a small home daycare. It was a deeply emotional experience for me; the babysitter was a friend, a companion, the person I’d trusted with my baby for so long. We found a potential daycare, and, wonder of wonders, the daycare was looking to hire an assistant and was interested in hiring our babysitter! Get her a stable job right away and ease our kid’s transition and keep in touch with her? Win, win, win!

Until it all fell apart. The daycare owner turned out to be horribly racist. Our babysitter’s first language was not English and the daycare owner kept criticizing it. (NB: Our babysitter worked hard on her English, she was basically fluent, and as a pedantic academic I will tell you that Madam Daycare Lady made several common grammar bloopers of her own while I’m relatively sure her Spanish was nonexistent.) Further, she made snide remarks about our babysitter’s family and her mother (I will not go into the babysitter’s family situation here, but suffice it to say I was livid— I knew the mother and you cannot find a mother anywhere who did more for her family).

We did not send our daughter there. The lady semi-apologized to us (not to the babysitter, the one she’d harmed, but us, because she was losing our money) and said she “really wasn’t racist.” This is about 6 years ago so I’m not 100% sure what we replied, but I hope we said, “Oh, but you are.”

There’s one thing, though, that, after reading The Black Friend, I know now I would do, wish I had done, for the babysitter. I was upset that she’d had to go through that experience. I was horrified by it. I brought her tissues as she cried in my living room and said she’d rather not work with the person. I told her she certainly shouldn’t consider working with her, and my daughter would never go there.

I don’t think I said: “And I’m so sorry we brought you there, that we put you in that situation.” Today, I hope I would take that level of responsibility. Whether or not it was deliberate, she was there because I made the introduction. I would like to acknowledge that.

And I hope that you, too, will read this book and consider your own responsibilities.

Box, the story of Henry Brown, a man who was born enslaved and mailed himself to freedom, is told in haunting, lyrical, thoughtful verse by Carole Boston Weatherford with art by Michele Wood, an illustrator whose work reflects and enhances the geometry and layers of the text. I was so incredibly impressed that I immediately gave my daughter’s school library the copy I was sent for review and bought my own.

To me, this was a book which drew out every layer of beauty and suffering in a way that was intuitive both to my soul and my training. The poetry is exquisite in its own right, and the levels of meaning and nuance in form and substance elevate it further.

The book tells Brown’s story in a series of sixains to reflect the box as a cube, which are each a poem alone, but also part of a growing narrative. The thought, the detail, and the skill are stunning, and the way the poetry draws you in is as immersive as any storytelling, while simultaneously using poetic techniques to evoke emotional and thoughtful responses.

Teaching note: You could use these during April, Poetry Month, pulling a few sixains out to show how you can take an manipulate a form. “Letter” is a poetic letter in six lines. “Manifest” is a poem of six words, six lines, meaning each one-word line has a LOT of work to do, pulling the whole six words into a punch to the gut. “Family” is longer, more lyrical, more diffuse. Can your students choose a form and use it in three different ways to do three different jobs?

Why do I suggest this for April, Poetry Month, not Black History Month, you wonder? (But you could do both.) You know the answer already.

Poetry, like music, is not just the “mainstream” white material Frederick Joseph so correctly points out we white audiences keep going back to. Add to that “mainstream” material! Read Gwendolyn Brooks and, yes, Carole Boston Weatherford!

As for the illustrations: the textures and colours are incredible and evocative. There’s a contrast between the softness and fluidity Wood uses in representation of family and sorrow (especially, to my mind, as Henry loses his wife, Nancy, and their children in “Snatched”), and the geometric lines as the box is built and mailed. I love the use of lines and textures for quilts vs formal textiles, for wood vs brick. And the potent, brilliant colours call to mind some strange, lovely blend of Vincent van Gogh and Ashley Bryan.

Once again, a thank you to Candlewick for the review copies. I felt quite humbled by the level of skill, emotion, and impact these books held.