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Find more The Humanity of Black Lives
From the beginning, the cofounders were clear that their goal is larger than a focus on police brutality. Black Lives Matter seeks to “(re)build” a black liberation movement by affirming, celebrating, and humanizing black lives and by connecting people who work to end injustices facing black communities. It insists on the important historical role of black liberation movements for other pursuits of social justice and requires that attention be paid to the diverse experiences of blackness and American citizenship within our country.
The movement gained steam in 2014, when a Ferguson police officer shot 18-year-old Michael Brown. Protests, articles, and studies swept news stations and social media: the Guardian reported that young black men were five times more likely than white men to be killed by police officers, and the Huffington Post reported more than 250 black people killed by police in 2016. Throughout this time, #BlackLivesMatter mobilized people, offered community and solidarity, and generated discussion—a discussion that can enrich book groups.
Almost 20 years ago, Jacqueline Woodson and Walter Dean Myers were both writing compelling, acclaimed novels where immigrant and African American characters faced the violence of poverty and injustices of the legal system. However, thanks in part to social-media movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #WeNeedDiverseBooks, the variety and quantity of books by and about black lives is expanding, and this is good news, since they highlight the distinct ways in which black lives are erased from mainstream American life, even as they remain integral to our nation’s dreams of liberty and equality.
This tension is displayed in Alison Marie Behnke’s Racial Profiling: Everyday Inequality (2017), which explains the history and realities of institutionalized racism. Behnke examines injustices in home buying and the legalities of profiling through personal accounts, documentation, case studies, and graphs. The book offers ample discussion points regarding the structures of racism and could productively supplement novel reading. Other nonfiction works well worth discussing are Kenneth C. Davis’ In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives (2016) and John Lewis and Andrew Aydin’s March trilogy (2013–2016), all of which provide gripping perspectives on black history while also asking readers to consider that history’s influence in our present-day lives.
Spring 2017 saw an impressive crop of YA novels illustrating the diversity of black lives today, many focused upon teenage girls telling their first-person stories. Renée Watson’s Piecing Me Together confronts class divisions and the persistence of African American communities through the story of bright, ambitious, talented Jade. Jade has a loving and supportive family and friends. She’s also from a poor neighborhood, attending an exclusive school on a scholarship, and aware that she’s seen as someone to “fix” rather than as someone with something to give. Watson allows us to feel Jade’s pains and insecurities as she shudders through overt and “invisible” violence in her city and learns to speak up for herself to white friends, teachers, and her wealthier black mentor.
In Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, 16-year-old Starr also attends prep school in a whiter, wealthier area, and she has to learn to speak up in an even-harder environment: she’s the only witness to a policeman’s unprovoked shooting of her unarmed friend, placing her and her family between the police, the media, and a local gang. Tiffany D. Jackson’s Allegedly, meanwhile, confronts questions of black incarceration and motherhood, merging psychiatric evaluations and newspaper clippings to tell Mary Addison’s story. At age 9, Mary was convicted of murdering a white infant that she and her mother were babysitting. Now, 15 and pregnant, Mary must contest the conviction and uncover her past in order to keep the child she carries.
Finally, Ibi Zoboi’s American Street tells the story of a drug-related death, a police shooting of an unarmed black man, and a Haitian family “making it” in the U.S. Zoboi’s novel, largely told through the newly immigrated, teenage Fabiola, raises questions regarding the detention of immigrants, economic opportunities in the U.S., and life in Detroit through the lens of Fabiola’s religion, Vodou.
Individually, these novels pose questions that will urge readers to contextualize the books and their narrators. They discuss immigration and the economic choices facing black communities, particularly in the inner city, and lend themselves to ethical debates (questions of what characters believe and how that influences their actions) and issues surrounding racism’s depiction in policy and media. While the disproportionate violence suffered by black men is apparent throughout all the books, the female narrators push the stories toward nuanced depictions of multiple types of violence, both systemic and personal.
However, the largest contribution made by these books—fiction and nonfiction—is that they insist on the humanity of black lives. In discussing these books, readers will be able to participate in a political and artistic movement whose fight for justice will benefit the whole of our society.
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