Title: Black Boy, White School
Author: Brian F. Walker
Publisher: Harper Teen
Other Reviews for This Author: None
There are books that follow the path of their predecessors to the letter and books that take the paths already trodden, only to soon branch off from them into unexplored territory. Black Boy, White School is a young adult novel that portrays the latter behavior. Initially, I was quite hesitant to start the book due to a number of factors: limited reviews and reactions on the book (which didn't get a big release) and a worry of it rehashing the same themes and cliches connected to racism. Books dealing with the subject obviously need to be out in the world, but too many of them don't dig deeply into the subject or enlighten the reader to new revelations regarding it. Black Boy, White School is a novel that deals with the PoC issues of the current generation - underlying racism, the excessively "white" nature of our country's culture, and the way that people of other races can lose themselves in an excessively white culture. It's a book that surprised me. Stuck with me, even, which is something I did not expect.
Ant has lived in East Cleveland all of his life. The gangs and the violence are an accepted part of the city's character, at least to people like Ant who have lived there all of their lives. People get shot. Gunned down like animals hunted at point-blank range. Drug deals, underage drinking, prostitution. It's like any other city in some ways - unflinching as to the harsher activities that it's home to. Ant has known this about East Cleveland and has managed to survive. He has a group of close friends and manages to keep out of trouble. He's never really felt the need to leave the city entirely, yet his mother has insisted that he apply to attend a boarding school on the east coast as a scholarship student. It would be his chance to make something of himself. At least, to his mom it would be.
East Cleveland changed for Ant when one of his best friends got caught in the crossfire of someone's gun. Someone's war fought on the streets just outside of his home. The convenience store. The school. No place was truly safe, but it never really hit home for Ant until he watched his friend die. The police did what they could, but Ant could tell that their sympathy for the situation was minimal. Young people died all of the time in East Cleveland. It wasn't uncommon for a life to be snuffed out early due to the violence. This, more than anything, proved to Ant that East Cleveland wasn't such an easy place to consider home anymore. How could your home be the reason that one of the most beloved people in your life dies too soon?
Ant's acceptance to prep school gives him a reason to leave East Cleveland, and he finally comes around to accepting it because of the sick combination of grief and discontent. Moving to Maine may be just the thing for Ant. A change of scenery could only help him put his life into perspective. Right? Even if a part of him still dreads going? The school turns out to be a lot of what Ant expected, and a lot of what he didn't. Ant's time in prep school shows him just how different East Cleveland is from Maine, and how different other places are, too. He comes to see just how subtle - or overt - racism can be. How white people can be completely oblivious to their attitudes. How hard it is to remain your true self when surrounded by a world of people who believe that you need to be just like them.
Raw. That's how Ant's character is portrayed. The third-person perspective does nothing to diminish that quality of the character. In some ways, it shows him for the vulnerable yet tough guy that he is. Anthony, aka Ant, shows the urban male viewpoint in a way that YA literature hasn't done before. It's an accessible characterization that shows the trials and issues involved in urban life, while still highlighting the issues outside of the urban life - issues that non-PoC readers may not be aware exist. Anthony's personality allows this to come out well. He doesn't feel like an authorial pawn used to show the vast array of racial issues present in today's society, but instead a regular kid who has to deal with a lot of crap that people may not think about initially. He's shown as initially very tough and adult for his age because of his living environment, but Walker uses the murder of Ant's friend as a way to show just how sensitive Ant is. He makes Ant a person - a kid who is still fourteen, even if he has grown up in East Cleveland. The vulnerability follows him to prep school as well, but he stuffs it away in order to survive. He is more confused than anything. The way Ant begins to redefine himself and becomes confused as to who he really is, is fascinating. He becomes less self-assured than he was at the beginning of Black Boy, White School, only to develop into a stronger person than he ever was by the end of the novel. Walker made a point to show that Ant had to experience growth in many ways to become more of an adult. He made Ant's character approachable instead of just another street-toughened teenager who is wise beyond his years. Ant's character's struggle is what makes him so dynamic, so three-dimensional. Who is Ant? Is he really Ant, or is he Anthony? Does he belong on the streets of East Cleveland, where everyone has to be street smart or die? The world of prep-school Maine, where there are mostly white people who seem to think he has to be good at basketball because he's black? Or somewhere in the middle? And which place makes him who he is? Which place allows him to be true to himself as a teenager and as a PoC? The questions are explored deftly. Walker obviously has thought and explored the mentality of his protagonist. The narrative suggests personal experience and true contemplation of the issues that a character like Ant would face. Nothing is just a surface character issue or problem. Ant never has to battle simple problems of racism or culture clash, but subtle ones. Ones that are ingrained into the common white-dominated society of today's country. Reading about Ant's journey as a white person gives me a limited perspective as to what it feels like to be him, yet I felt like the narrative gave me personal revelations as to what it's like for him - especially when dealing with white people.
With a protagonist like Ant, it's hard to say that the secondary characters live up to his standards. While Ant's journey is something the reader will remember - and indeed, the reader will remember it a lot more than they expect - the secondary characters are tools in this case. Well-used tools, but tools none the less. They all have definitive personalities and places that they come from that allow Ant to see a new side of the social issues he's confronted with as a PoC teenager. There's Brody, the roommate at prep school and the foil to Ant. Brody is a pretty 'average' teenage male who is basically a white, middle class foil to Ant. They strike up a friendship that is very male, very based on their status as roommates and freshman at the prep school. Brody gives Ant some insights into the school's lifestyle and how the middle class white family can have inherent racism (Brody's family is more so the visual for that issue than Brody himself). Brody also makes it clear that Ant is like any other guy at the end of the day, and their friendship's normalcy helps that. There are also a few other PoC students like Ant that go through varying experiences. There is the rebellious PoC chick that doesn't want to conform to the white basis of the school's psychology, and the PoC basketball star that loves playing the system by being a very whitened version of his former self. Contrasting, unique characters that both challenge Ant's personal perspective on life. However, neither of them were memorable beyond their roles in the story. What Walker did best with the secondary characters was in the creation of their dialogues with Ant. Ant would get into conversations about becoming a "white" PoC, or about the wrongness of traditional hazing. His perspective would always be unique and challenging, yet he would inevitably have to mull over the new thoughts brought in by other characters. Walker used them smartly, even if they were tools. As an author, Walker allowed his secondary characters to showcase the intelligence and moral conundrums that were running through his protagonist's mind. He allowed them to show just how diverse a minority group can be - how it's more than just being black, but being black and from New York City and its own divisions based on neighborhoods. The differences between Ant, a resident of East Cleveland, and the other PoC students from New York were obvious in and of themselves. The secondary characters ultimately became excellent ways to further the book's themes and ideas, though I was disappointed with their development as actual characters.
Walker's writing style is well executed in Black Boy, White School. It's that classic, simple style that male YA authors tend to go for. It's a bit too simple in terms of the novel's length - it could easily have been expanded a bit to give more of the characters and situations depth, more time to simmer and grow in their presence within the narrative. Yet it speaks to the character of Ant, using the third person view as a way to see into his head while still getting a better look at what the world surrounding him was like. Walker doesn't include anything that's fluffy in the novel, although a few scenes don't add as much as one would hope they would. The emotional impact of the novel is strong because of all of the questions brought up by Ant's character, and Walker's writing is best shown in this marriage of characterization in the protagonist coupled with the questions that the narrative throws at him. He manages to make the reader think and pack emotional significance into the thought, netting sympathy for Ant as a protagonist while also using the scenario to bring thoughtful themes into the mix. The ending of the novel is a bit of a downturn for Walker's abilities, though. It causes the issues to come to a head in Ant's mind and forces him to think about the way things are going for him, but it also uses a very classic YA scene that will have readers going, "Oh, this again?" Black Boy, White School is a book that is meant to pack a punch without going through the same route as other YA novels. It's quieter but stronger in how it tells its story, yet it ended with a scenario that has been done to death. Walker's style on the whole was strong despite this misstep, and I found it to go deeper than the styles of other writers who focus on male PoC issues, such as Walter Dean Myers.
Black Boy, White School is a read that is meant to make the reader think. The novel is a bit too constructed to fulfill this need, sacrificing secondary character development and a subtle ending in order to bring its themes to a head. However, Walker has a very strong protagonist that grows substantially. Ant asks tough questions that will have readers realizing new things about themselves and the society they live in. The writing is solid; simple in its way, yet telling amidst all of the clean-cut prose. Readers will appreciate the voice and the way the read provides a window to today's society that feels fresh and accessible to PoC readers and non-PoC readers alike. Black Boy, White School has its shortcomings, but is a surprisingly rich YA novel that will keep the reader contemplating the world as they know it.
Cover: I love the way the font is done. So much. The face is also very striking because of the simple colors used around it. Face covers are eh, but this one is thankfully accurate to the protagonist and manages to set itself apart because of the design.
Rating: 4.0 Stars
Copy: Received from publisher/publicist for review (Thank you, Heather and Harper Collins!)