"It seems to me as though I've been upon this stage before
And juggled away the night for the same old crowd"
--Al Stewart, "One Stage Before"
"Then Brandon wondered how he should react. The other students were watching him, too. He felt as if he was up on a stage and no one had told him what part to play. This massive black boy was invading his space on the very first day of high school, dammit! It felt like his cool was a house of cards and this woolly black mammoth was shaking the floor. Brandon had gone to a private school from kindergarten through junior high, so he didn't know anyone here. He had no posse to take his back and validate his coolness permit. He remembered something his father had said about making career decisions. Nobody would dis him for dissing this dude, but they'd probably dis him for not. And they'd have him under a microscope for all this freakin' period. Observer, hell! he told himself; he was the one who was being observed, scanned, filed and categorized, labeled and tagged for the next four years by how he treated this huge black kid within the next forty minutes!"
--from "Phat Acceptance" by Jess Mowry
Last November 18th my wife's middle school participated in Teaching Tolerance's "Mix It Up At Lunch Day." While students in other, tougher places--where they truly fear for their personal safety at school--might scoff at our earnest and enthusiastic efforts to have students get to know kids in some of the "other" groups on campus, we certainly have testimony from students who are intimidated and discouraged by the barriers they perceive between groups.
" 'Well, I'm sorry, DeMaris, but you cannot eat at our table!'
" 'Because it makes everybody uncomfortable. Can't you tell that?'
" 'Yes. But I still don't know why. We were best friends for six years. How come all of a sudden you can't even sit at a lunch table with me?' Just saying it out loud made the sadness bunch up at the back of my throat, making my voice sound thick."
--from "Epiphany" by Ellen Wittlinger
But I expect that a number of those students will ease up on their cynicism after experiencing FACE RELATIONS, a stellar collection of short stories about the "relations" part of race relations. Written by some great YA authors who are, themselves, from a multiplicity of family backgrounds, and utilizing the wisdom of their own firsthand experiences within the changing American social structure, their fictional tales probe the subtleties and complexities that arise amid the interactions of variously hued adolescent characters in today's world.
"Sometimes I'm right and I can be wrong
My own beliefs are in my song
The butcher, the banker, the drummer and then
Makes no difference what group I'm in"
--Sly & the Family Stone, "Everyday People"
"When you go to a high school in a town so small that you have to look twice to see it when you're passing through, everyone knows who you are...That's especially true in school, where you've been with the same kids ever since you were in preschool together. As a result, they remember the time when you were five and you got yelled at by the teacher and expelled for a week because you bit a certain girl in the butt so hard that you left tooth marks."
--from "Skins" by Joseph Bruchac
Yes, the collection contains a wealth of humor, alongside the tension, and the questions posed by the stories. You can add Jess Mowry's hysterically funny leadoff piece, "Phat Acceptance" to my all-time Best of the Best short stories list. Not only a crackup with its Goths, Geeks, and Surferdudes, it also teases us with an intriguing little slice of history, as does Ms. Singer's own provocative piece, "Negress."
"Everyone is changed
Everyone is still the same
They can't get out of the game"
--Todd Rundgren, "Black and White"
"It gets worse. The girls are on me, something bad. 'You think you something special, huh? Little brown girl with straight hair showin' up the brother, huh? Who you think you are?'
" 'Just let me go,' I beg, pressing my books to my chest. I angle through them, but it is all pinches and shoves; my scalp burns needles from where they pull my hair. 'Runnin' to your mama?' they taunt. Please, I think, let me go. Let me disappear into my down jacket and be no different. I tie up my hair in a bun, but in math class a girl pokes it with a pencil and starts hissing, 'Chinky girl now?' "
--from "Gold" by Marina Budhos
The book is prefaced with a letter from the Outreach Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center (the folks responsible for Teaching Tolerance and "Mix It Up At Lunch Day"), which nudges us with, "What unwritten rules limit our ability to enjoy new experiences, explore new cultures, and to make new friends? Once you identify those rules, break them."
FACE RELATIONS provides ammunition for readers to do exactly that, stocked as it is with new perspectives galore, as its variety of teen characters reevaluate their relationships with peers and reconsider their feelings about who they, themselves, are and where they've come from. A fine sense of realistic optimism weaves through the collection, leaving us feeling hopeful at the end of each story.
"My eyes burn into him. For a moment, his dark pupils become video screens and Emmaline and her pain flash across the bridge of his nose. The time I spent working on that story, interviewing Emmaline and all the others, carrying their pain around in my notebook, gave me a companion. They talked about feeling scared and unsafe. I feel scared and unsafe all the time.
"All the time."
--from "Snow" by Sherri Winston
Thoroughly entertaining, and consistently thought-provoking, FACE RELATIONS will serve superbly as both a component within a middle school short story unit, and as a prelude for catalyzing change for the better among diverse middle school students.
on May 17, 2004
"The kids were a typical Santa Cruz mix -- meaning that most of them were white -- from surfers in tank-tops, hoodies and shorts, to hip-hops in big-jeans and backward-turned caps. A pair of gothics, boy and girl, had so many piercings that Brandon winced, even though he was wearing an earring himself. There were also a couple of obvious jocks."
I assume Jess Mowry is describing a typical 9th grade World History class in Santa Cruz, California in this early paragraph of his peppery and hilarious story, "Phat Acceptance", which opens this great anthology dealing with modern-day race relations. Another clue is when Mowry teases us with a mention of a youth gang from the early 1960s who were known as the "Tola Rats" for their stomping ground of Capitola, Ca, a little seaside town bordering Santa Cruz. Mowry goes on to illustrate this mix:
"...one of the jocks could have been on TV as a model for all-American boys. There was also a skinhead in boots and suspenders who could have passed for an albino ape, though the only "statement" he seemed to make was that some Caucasians had lame-looking skulls and should have kept something on top of them. ....The other students included three Asians, two slender girls who were Vietnamese... and a pair of rolly Mexican boys in tattered white T-shirts and faded big-jeans. ....The black race hadn't been represented, until this ebony mountain of blubber had lumbered casually into the room."
So begins Brandon Williams' -- age 14, blond, blue-eyed, and a sidewalk surfer -- first day of high school, and we might also assume his introduction into the real world of race relations, being that he's gone to a private school from kindergarten through 8th grade.
I love Mowry's style of seemingly writing about one thing while actually writing about another ("Phat Acceptance"), and even though pedigreed Kirkus Reviews didn't seem to think this story was funny, or even important enough to mention -- citing, instead, Rita Williams-Garcia's offering, "Mr. Ruben", as "the only really funny story in the collection" -- I would recommend this book for Mowry's story alone, and I'm not surprised that Simon & Schuster chose it to open this well-compiled and thought-provoking anthology.
While I agree that "Mr. Ruben" is indeed quite amusing, I think it's significant that Ms. Marilyn Singer's poignant (and also quite funny) contribution, "Negress", wasn't mentioned either. I've read enough Kirkus Reviews, especially those dealing with "minority" and social issues, to know that when they ignore something it's often just the thing I do want to read; and much more importantly, often just the thing young people want to read. As a middle-school librarian, I'm much more concerned with this than what conservative reviewers may think kids "should" read.
The eleven stories in "Face Relations" are by no means all funny, though every one is hopeful without being saccharine or preachy. I highly recommend Marina Budhos' Caribbean story "Gold". Sherri Winston's devastating, yet happily-ending, "Snow" -- about a black principal "cleaning up" a troubled and predominantly black school by favoring lighter-skinned and non-Haitian students, rouses one to anger and is not to be missed -- which is probably why Kirkus didn't mention it either.
"Then my junior year, I challenged King. Told him too many non-African-American students were treated like second-class citizens. We were right here, in this office. He yanked me from my seat and told me to get out and go cool off. ...'Your Haitian story, Noelle, concerns me'."
All in all, I think "Face Relations" will be a welcome and, more importantly, much-read addition to any school library or a young person's collection.