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The Black Best Friend, a guest post by Joya Goffney

I was a girl wearing striped socks up to my knees, oversized headphones blasting screamo music, reading The Color Purple in a gym full of sweaty, talking student bodies during a school-wide free day. He was a boy who might have been sweaty from playing basketball or maybe fatigued from playing too many video games in the computer room—I can’t remember which, but he was more the basketball type.

It was nearing the end of our free day, and I don’t remember how he got my attention, but when I looked up, I fell out of a world of abuse and tragedy and into his amused brown eyes. He looked at me like I was adorable. I slipped one phone off my ear, but I still couldn’t really hear him. He was pointing to a textbook sitting on the bleachers beside me. So I handed it to him, still in a daze, still listening to Underoath. Then, further amused, he pointed to the binder that had been sitting under his textbook. Oh, he wanted that too.

But I was so out of it, and we were surrounded by chaos. What he must have thought of me—so caught up in my book that for the first time ever I wasn’t being overly attentive and nice. What I must have looked like to him—the type of girl to read during a free day, when there were plenty of basketballs up for grabs, boys to flirt with, and games to play. While my friends were all chillin’ outside, I was in the gym, reading about Black women who hadn’t any rights and hardly any voice… because maybe that’s how I felt, too.

My best friends were hanging out with a particular sect of upperclassmen who were alternative, and who thought I wasn’t like the other Black kids at our school, and because of this, thought I could laugh along to their Black jokes. I never spoke up when they laughed at my race. And my friends never really spoke up, either. I fell silent. My friends turned a blind eye and continued to expose me to those upperclassmen who made me feel so small. So, instead, I was in the gym, reading about Celie’s trauma, listening to hard rock, and falling into the eyes of a sweet boy who I thought could see me.

I handed him his binder. He might have said thank you, but I don’t remember saying you’re welcome. It was all implied. We were both so comfortable, and the exchange was so mundane, but the atmosphere had been charged. He wasn’t my obsession at the time, but I didn’t not have a crush on him. In reality, my casual crush on him was probably the most enduring of them all. He was so consistently cute and nice and there.

But, while I was a Black girl with short hair and glasses and white friends who nicknamed me Brownie, he was a white boy who liked to say the N-word when he got drunk at parties. I almost forgot that part of their story, because it had started out so sweet, and he had started out so sweet. I never thought he was capable of forming his lips around that word, but alas, I walked through the front door of his house with two of my Black friends. The party was in full-swing and overwhelmingly white. And the first thing out of his mouth was, “Hey, look! The n*****s are here” —hard R and everything.

The snap back into reality when you realize a non-Black friend isn’t a true ally and doesn’t have your back is more than disappointing—it’s reinforcement of fear that is always at the back of your mind. As Black people mingle with non-Black people, there’s an inkling of distrust, a waiting to be disappointed, a preparedness to distance ourselves from those who prove to be against us. Because it has happened time and time again, while navigating white spaces.

I was The Black Best Friend. I was the body they pointed to when they claimed to not be racist. I was the extra in my own movie. I was the one they called last, often the one they left out, the name tacked on at the end—an afterthought. I was a pet, a secretary, an experiment. So, it’s difficult to trust new white friends. Even after months of cordial meetings, even after we’ve laughed together and gone out together, because new white friends can switch up at the drop of a hat, and suddenly decide to feel differently about Black people. They have that choice. They can choose to care.

Quinn Jackson, of my debut novel Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry, has a painful snap back into reality when she watches her best friends degrade her humanity. She’s so jarred by the experience that she silences herself, refusing to explain to her white friends why she no longer wants to be around them. This is the kind of jarring experience that births distrust—not only for white people as a whole, but for her white friends, individually.

Recently, I spoke with an amazing, talented individual about how I chose to end my book, and it really made me think about who deserves to be forgiven. So, despite how Quinn decides to handle her situation, it is not her responsibility to soothe white guilt, educate white people of their privilege, or to learn to trust them again. It’s her responsibility, my responsibility, and your responsibility to not allow the disappointment to continuously cause pain and to rise against it by seeking joy.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Forrest Red

Joya Goffney grew up in New Waverly, a small town in East Texas. In high school, she challenged herself with to-do lists full of risk-taking items like ‘hug a random boy’ and ‘eat a cricket,’ which inspired her debut novel, Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry. With a passion for Black social psychology, she moved out of the countryside to attend the University of Texas in Austin, where she still resides. Learn more at https://www.joyagoffney.com and follow along on Twitter @Joya_Goffney and Instagram @Joya.Goffney.

Take 5: 5 of the Best Books I’ve Read in 2020, Nonfiction Edition

I personally tend to read far more fiction than I do nonfiction, though that it something that I am personally working on changing. And as you may have heard, TLT has decided to make the intentional effort to highlight and review more nonfiction in 2021 as part of our #FactsMatter project.

You Too? 25 Voices Shares Their #MeToo Stories by Janet Gurtler

Publisher’s Book Description:

A timely and heartfelt collection of essays inspired by the #MeToo movement, edited by acclaimed young adult and middle-grade author Janet Gurtler. Featuring Beth Revis, Mackenzi Lee, Ellen Hopkins, Saundra Mitchell, Jennifer Brown, Cheryl Rainfield and many more.

When #MeToo went viral, Janet Gurtler was among the millions of people who began to reflect on her past experiences. Things she had reluctantly accepted—male classmates groping her at recess, harassment at work—came back to her in startling clarity. She needed teens to know what she had not: that no young person should be subject to sexual assault, or made to feel unsafe, less than or degraded.

You Too? was born out of that need. By turns thoughtful and explosive, these personal stories encompass a wide range of experiences and will resonate with every reader who has wondered, “Why is this happening to me?” or secretly felt that their own mistreatment or abuse is somehow their fault—it’s not. Candid and empowering, You Too? is written for teens, but also an essential resource for the adults in their lives—an urgent, compassionate call to listen and create change.

Karen’s Thoughts: This is a difficult but important read for teens and anyone else who lives in this world. Here 25 people, including teens authors like Beth Revis and Cheryl Rainfield share their personal experiences with sexual harassment, abuse and assault. As each person shares their personal stories, we learn more about the truth of this issue in our world and how to navigate these painful conversations to help change the world for future generations.

Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds

Publisher’s Book Description:

Stamped traces the history of racism and the many political, literary, and philosophical narratives that have been used to justify slavery, oppression, and genocide. Framed through the ideologies and thoughts of segregationists, assimilationists, and antiracists throughout history, the book demonstrates that the “construct of race has always been used to gain and keep power, whether financially or politically,” and that this power has been used to systemically and systematically oppress Black people in the United States for more than four hundred years.

Karen’s Thoughts: I remember learning about racism and the Civil Rights movement more than 30 years ago when I was in high school, and this year we have seen both a rise in violent hate crimes that are racially motivated and in a new growing movement that boldly proclaims that Black Lives Matter and we need to keep doing the work of breaking down systemic racism in all areas of our world. Here Ibram X. Kendi taps prolific YA author Jason Reynolds to make his more scholarly work on racism in America accessible to a younger audience. Each section of the book is divided into historical time periods and takes a deep look at issues that kids today may not know about. It’s another uneasy but necessary read, and in the more than capable hands of Jason Reynolds it’s an amazing nonfiction work for our times.

Super Sleuths: Solve This! Forensics by Kate Messner

Publisher’s Book Description:

C.S.I. meets National Geographic in this forensics-filled adventure. Examine the evidence and consider the suspects to put your crime-solving skills to the test.

Calling all budding sleuths! Solve your way through each entertaining, imaginary G-rated mystery to explore the forensic science of investigating and analyzing evidence. You’ll study smudges on a computer keyboard, dust for fingerprints, examine bite marks on a discarded snack, analyze toxicology tests on blood samples, and much, much more. Piece together the clues to see if you can solve each case.

Fans of true crime dramas, escape rooms, mysteries, and preeminent author Kate Messner will love this introduction to forensic science.

Karen’s Thoughts: Regular readers know that my teenage daughter is in the process of applying to college to major in forensic science, which means that my house if full of books about murder, serial killers, poisons and more. This is a fun little look at forensic science that helps us share the older kids passion with the younger sibling with less . . . graphic details. It explains the science and has fun puzzles to solve. Plus, it’s Kate Messner, who can always be trusted to do her due diligence when it comes to researching and writing juvenile nonfiction.

True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News by Cindy Otis

Publisher’s Book Description:

“If I could pick one book to hand to every teen—and adult—on earth, this is the one. True or False is accessible, thorough, and searingly honest, and we desperately needed it.” —Becky Albertalli, author of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

A former CIA analyst unveils the true history of fake news and gives readers tips on how to avoid falling victim to it in this highly designed informative YA nonfiction title.

“Fake news” is a term you’ve probably heard a lot in the last few years, but it’s not a new phenomenon. From the ancient Egyptians to the French Revolution to Jack the Ripper and the founding fathers, fake news has been around as long as human civilization. But that doesn’t mean that we should just give up on the idea of finding the truth.

In True or False, former CIA analyst Cindy Otis will take readers through the history and impact of misinformation over the centuries, sharing stories from the past and insights that readers today can gain from them. Then, she shares lessons learned in over a decade working for the CIA, including actionable tips on how to spot fake news, how to make sense of the information we receive each day, and, perhaps most importantly, how to understand and see past our own information biases, so that we can think critically about important issues and put events happening around us into context.

True or False includes a wealth of photo illustrations, informative inserts, and sidebars containing interesting facts and trivia sure to engage readers in critical thinking and analysis.

Karen’s Thoughts: This book chilled me to the bones. Cindy Otis takes a deep dive into the history of fake news and propaganda, both past and current. There are lots of important tips for how to analyze your news sources included. One of the chilling facts you will learn is that Americans and outside agitators purposefully create and use fake news websites to destabilize our country, but in the case of some of the American websites it’s really just college kids with lots of student debt creating websites to make lots of money quick and easy. I also learned that fake news websites were shared far more than real new websites in the 2016 election and that although both parties engage in the creation of fake news and propaganda, the conservative party tends to do so at a much higher rate than more liberal parties. Like You Too? and Stamped, this is a profoundly important and vital work of nonfiction designed to help us navigate one of the most pressing issues of our time.

Pocket Change Collectives: Various topics and authors

These are a collection of short, compact books on a wide variety of topics. I am including them together because it’s hard to emphasize one when part of their appeal is the format and size. You can read Amanda MacGregor’s review on these books here.

So these are my favorite nonfiction books for the year, which means I have now shared 10 of my top 20 reads of 2020. You can read my first Top 5 list for 2020 here. Join us next Monday for my next batch of 5. And tell me in the comments, what’s your favorite nonfiction of 2020?

Book Review: Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

Punching the Air

Publisher’s description

From award-winning, bestselling author Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five comes a powerful YA novel in verse about a boy who is wrongfully incarcerated. Perfect for fans of Jason Reynolds, Walter Dean Myers, and Elizabeth Acevedo. 

The story that I thought

was my life

didn’t start on the day

I was born 

Amal Shahid has always been an artist and a poet. But even in a diverse art school, he’s seen as disruptive and unmotivated by a biased system. Then one fateful night, an altercation in a gentrifying neighborhood escalates into tragedy. “Boys just being boys” turns out to be true only when those boys are white. 

The story that I think

will be my life 

starts today

Suddenly, at just sixteen years old, Amal’s bright future is upended: he is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sent to prison. Despair and rage almost sink him until he turns to the refuge of his words, his art. This never should have been his story. But can he change it? 

With spellbinding lyricism, award-winning author Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam tell a moving and deeply profound story about how one boy is able to maintain his humanity and fight for the truth, in a system designed to strip him of both.

Amanda’s thoughts

This incredible novel in verse is definitely one of my top reads of 2020. The reality is that books about racism, the criminal justice system, and the prison industrial complex will always be both timely and timeless. But, I do think that at this particular time in history, maybe more people than ever will be drawn to this story and open to really sitting with what they learn from what happens to Amal and how it affects him.

As Amal goes through a trial and then is sent to a juvenile detention center, readers see the many ways racism and racist systems and institutions have tried to break Amal his entire life. Amal is fully aware of the fact that he has rarely even been seen as just a kid, that his every move can be misconstrued as threatening, angry, guilty. He’s not seen as a boy but a man, a criminal, a stereotype. Hardly anyone sees the real him—not the teachers at his arts high school, not the judge, not the corrections officers. Charged with aggravated assault and battery (Amal admits to being in the fight, to throwing the first punch, but not the last, the one that landed a white boy in a coma), Amal has too much time to ruminate over the many ways life has already been a prison for him. As he moves through the system and eventually falls into the routine of his life in prison, he constantly thinks of slave ships, of shackles, of auction blocks, of no freedom. Amal shows readers how he’s been boxed in his whole life.

Perhaps no page is more moving, more devastating, than the one where, on the day of his conviction, Amal memorizes his inmate number, his crime, and his time, and forgets his school ID number, his top colleges, and his class schedule. Stripped of his humanity, Amal becomes just another number in the school-to-prison pipeline. We see people fail Amal again and again, but also, surprisingly, we see people really see him for who he is and push him to retain his identity (an artist, a poet) while in prison. These people include other inmates who appreciate his talents, a corrections officer who understands his need to create art, and a teacher who visits and tells Amal she’s a prison abolitionist.

A deeply moving, profound, and infuriating look at how we fail Black boys, at the miscarriage of justice, at racist systems, and so much more. An essential purchase.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062996480
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/01/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Book Review: Saving Savannah by Tonya Bolden

Publisher’s description

From acclaimed author Tonya Bolden comes the story of a teen girl becoming a woman on her own terms against the backdrop of widespread social change in the early 1900s.

Savannah Riddle is lucky. As a daughter of an upper class African American family in Washington D.C., she attends one of the most rigorous public schools in the nation—black or white—and has her pick among the young men in her set. But lately the structure of her society—the fancy parties, the Sunday teas, the pretentious men, and shallow young women—has started to suffocate her.

Then Savannah meets Lloyd, a young West Indian man from the working class who opens Savannah’s eyes to how the other half lives. Inspired to fight for change, Savannah starts attending suffragist lectures and socialist meetings, finding herself drawn more and more to Lloyd’s world.

Set against the backdrop of the press for women’s rights, the Red Summer, and anarchist bombings, Saving Savannah is the story of a girl and the risks she must take to be the change in a world on the brink of dramatic transformation.

Amanda’s thoughts

17-year-old Savannah is hearing a lot of messages in 1919 Washington D.C. In the wake of WWI and the Spanish Flu, “onward and upward” is the motto of the times. She also hears a lot about being “a credit to the race” and “lifting as we climb.” Politically, there is a lot going on, particularly around the issue of women’s suffrage and the role that black women are allowed to play in that (and the issue of whether white women are considering them at all). Savannah feels a bit frustrated and disenchanted, embarrassed by the excess of the social circles her family is part of and curious about the wider world. Her uncle, a photographer, encourages her to find a challenge, a passion, a purpose. He urges her to stop just being an observer. When Savannah learns about a local school for girls, she begins to get involved helping there and, through her new contacts (many of whom are considered to be a “more radical element”), has her eyes opened to not just what is happening around the country but to what is happening in her very own city.

This book is a mix of a very character-driven story for about 50% or more of the book, then a very action-driven story for the remainder. I really loved this book. In fact, I’ve been in a horrible reading slump for most of the past few weeks (thanks, depression!) and have started and abandoned a giant stack of books as I try to decide what to read and review here for TLT. I got lost in Savannah’s world and loved watching her awakening. Her best friend Yolande is always there, being horrified at Savannah’s choice of company, admonishing her for being around “common” people who are not their kind of people. Savannah’s own parents are less than pleased with her choices, so it takes real strength for Savannah to strike out on her own and make real strides to educate herself and expand her views. As D.C. and other major cities erupt in riots, bombings, lynchings, and fires, Savannah finds herself more involved in the action than she ever could have dreamed.

This complex story will put readers right in the middle of all the action and introduces a wide swath of ideas and perspectives. Set just over 100 years ago, the quest for social justice and real change makes for a powerful and still (always) relevant topic. An author’s note, historical photographs, notes, and sources all provide further context for Savannah’s story and her awakening in this engaging and unique read.

ISBN-13: 9781681198040
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 01/14/2020

Four Little Words – Changing the Narrative, a guest post by Abigail Hing Wen

As a student rising through elementary and middle school in Ohio, I’d always wanted to join one of the amazing productions put on every year by the high school theater group. A part of me worried that my Asian Americanness would get in the way. After all, there were no Asian Americans in Oklahoma! or Guys and Dolls. Would casting me detract from authenticity? Could the directors overlook my Asian Americanness so that in spite of my face, I could join the chorus?

Abigail in dance squad.

My freshman year, I auditioned for the fall play. When the cast list posted, I wasn’t on it. But freshman were rarely cast for any roles but the chorus, and with the winter came a special class of one-act plays, directed by seniors. They were smaller and less prestigious; an opportunity for freshman, though still difficult to land.

During auditions, the seniors sat in the front row of the auditorium while we hopefuls huddled on the floor before them. They challenged us: how far would you go? would you run naked across the stage?

I can’t remember my answer, but I remember the attitude that dominated that room: whatever they threw at us—a crazy dance routine, a passionate stage kiss—we were game.

I auditioned along with dozens of other hopefuls.

When the cast list posted, I pressed forward with the mob, anxiously scanned the list, read deeper and deeper—and there I was!

In a one-act play called “Four Little Words,” I had been cast as the Sixth Actress of seven actresses.

When I arrived for rehearsal, I could scarcely contain my excitement. Two senior guys were directing. There were about a dozen of us actors—I had joined an exclusive little club.

Eagerly, I flipped through the thin blue booklet we were given, searching for my role. It was a story of a director trying to cast for the role of a maid who only had four words in the whole play: “Your taxicab is waiting.”

He proceeded to audition one egotistical actress after another. Each prima donna embellished on the four little words, refusing to stay in character, while he grew more and more despairing, exhausted by these women who wouldn’t shut up.

Meanwhile, the sixth actress—me—sat at the end of the line without speaking. The seventh actress burst onto the scene, large than life.

And then when the director was about to tear out his hair, my character finally spoke.

“Vosh naya. Skoogoo. Urr-urr. Saltzey. Kcki-icki skaya. Woozey.”[1]

The office boy turned to the director and said, “Gee, boss! She can’t talk English!”

The poor exhausted director came to life.

“She’s hired!” he cried. “I never want to hear English again!”

I was suddenly, intensely aware I was the only minority in that auditorium. The words weren’t even a real foreign language. They were a made up language, the kind of talk random people occasionally babbled at me when they passed me on the street.

I had been cast not despite my Asian Americanness, not even for it, but because of the perception of it.

Abigail in show choir.

In the weeks that followed, I never breathed a word about the play’s contents to my parents or my friends. I told my parents they didn’t need to attend, though, since I missed the bus for practices, my mom dutifully picked me up late after school every day.

We actresses sat in a row each rehearsal. I sat in silence, my head bowed, as my role called for, until the cue for my four little words. Each time I spoke those lines, I died a little with the shame of it. But I’d been cast. I got a role when so many others didn’t. I’d agreed with all the other hopefuls that I was game for anything. How could I rock the boat now and appear ungrateful?

“Is that Chinese?” the fifth actress asked me one afternoon.

I was born in the United States. English was the only language I spoke at home. I had studied French for two years and that was my second language. When people complemented me on my excellent English skills, it had been a point of soreness, but also irrational pride.

I don’t remember what I answered. But I remember the feeling.

I started leaving rehearsals early. One time, I skipped, making some excuse. The next day, after I recited my lines, the fifth actress said to me, “You know, Bob (not his real name, but the one-act’s real-life director) played your role yesterday and he was hilarious. Why don’t you ham it up more?”

Until I wrote this piece and my critique partner pointed it out, I didn’t recognize that the hamming up of the role was probably a racist caricature, as much as the role itself was. Instead, I felt like a failure. Of course Bob was hilarious. And I couldn’t be. For so many reasons I couldn’t in that role.

A good friend, one of three other Chinese Americans in the grades above me, came to the one-acts. I didn’t know he was in the audience until he came up afterwards and congratulated me with a huge grin.

Not until three years later, when he and I were both students at Harvard, that I confessed how ashamed I’d felt to play it.

“I was actually really mad when I saw the show,” he admitted.

Why had we never talked about it? Why didn’t I have more self-confidence to refuse the role? I doubt it even went on my college application. It was something I endured and buried away. I simply didn’t know better. Those student directors and the supervising theater directors and faculty may not have realized what they were doing, although I think they did in hindsight—I walked in on an argument in which the director was trying to convince the play’s leading man to take his bow with me on his arms and he was refusing. Not wanting to be the cause of a fuss, I quickly offered to take my bow with the other actresses.

As I’ve explored film options for Loveboat, Taipei, I’ve had the opportunity to meet Asian American producers who have struggled to get their work made in the United States or to gain traction in Hollywood. They have been told there are not enough qualified Asian American actors.

“That’s because they don’t have a chance to practice,” one discouraged director told me. “They’re not cast as leads in high school plays or musicals.” And in an already fiercely competitive market, with so few roles for Asian Americans, what actor could go into it with any real hope?

But I am also told there is incredible talent out there. I’m running into it. My hope for a Loveboat, Taipei film someday is that its cast of over 30 Asian American characters will open up opportunities for this talent to come forward and shine on the screen. I want to see new stars discovered, and to see them move into other lead roles in Hollywood in which race doesn’t matter.

With Crazy Rich Asians, Always Be My Maybe, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, The Farewell and Ghost Bride, we are starting to see changes. We still have a ways to go, but I am honored and grateful to be playing a part in this new world.

Meet Abigail Hing Wen

Photo credit: Olga Pichkova

Abigail Hing Wen holds a BA from Harvard and a JD from Columbia. She also earned her Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Like Ever, she is obsessed with musicals. When she’s not writing stories or listening to her favorite score, she is busy working in venture capital and artificial intelligence in Silicon Valley, where she lives with her husband and two sons. Loveboat, Taipei is her first novel. Visit AbigailHingWen.com.

About Loveboat, Taipei

Perfect for fans of Jenny Han and Sarah Dessen, and praised as “an intense rush of rebellion and romance” by #1 New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Garber, this romantic and layered Own Voices debut from Abigail Hing Wen is a dazzling, fun-filled romp.

“Our cousins have done this program,” Sophie whispers. “Best kept secret. Zerosupervision.

And just like that, Ever Wong’s summer takes an unexpected turnGone is Chien Tan, the strict educational program in Taiwan that Ever was expecting. In its place, she finds Loveboat: a summer-long free-for-all where hookups abound, adults turn a blind eye, snake-blood sake flows abundantly, and the nightlife runs nonstop.

But not every student is quite what they seem:

Ever is working toward becoming a doctor but nurses a secret passion for dance.

Rick Woo is the Yale-bound child prodigy bane of Ever’s existence whose perfection hides a secret.

Boy-crazy, fashion-obsessed Sophie Ha turns out to have more to her than meets the eye.

And under sexy Xavier Yeh’s shell is buried a shameful truth he’ll never admit.

When these students’ lives collide, it’s guaranteed to be a summer Ever will never forget.

ISBN-13: 9780062957276
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/07/2020


Sunday Reflections: The Okay Sign, a Game of Gotcha, and a Symbol of Hate, Why It’s Important to Stay Informed

tltbutton5

When I first began working as a librarian, one of my supervisors told me she felt it was important for her staff to read the newspaper everyday. To visit blogs. To thumb through magazines. It was built into part of our daily work because she felt it was important for her staff to be aware of current events, the news, and various moments of pop culture. Over the years, this bit of wisdom has served me well. Perhaps none so much as recently.

Many teens like to play a game where they make what looks like an okay symbol with their hands and if you look at it, they then get to punch you. I have heard this game referred to as gotcha. This hand gesture, the okay sign, has also been co-opted by the white nationalist party. Much like the Swatiska, which had a different meaning before being co-opted by the Nazi party, this hand sign has morphed in meaning. What makes it particularly insidious is that not everyone is aware of the various potential meanings of this hand gesture, which can put those of us who work with teens at a serious disadvantage.

Is that an OK sign? A white power symbol? Or just an online troll?

A few weeks ago, one of the teen library pages I follow uploaded a picture of their Teen Advisory Board. Brimming with pride, as they should be, this library shared this picture on Facebook and I was immediately alarmed to see a teen in the picture making this symbol now associated with white nationalism/pride. I immediately sent them a “just in case you aren’t aware” message, because I wanted them to avoid the media firestorm that could potentially happen. Just in case you aren’t aware, I told them, that hand sign is now considered a sign of the white pride movement and I would hate for you to keep posting this picture and possibly get into a lot of trouble for doing so.

The teen librarian and I conversed back and forth briefly. They had no idea that this hand gesture could potentially mean that and felt that her kids were just partaking in the gotcha game, which is of course a strong possibility. But the truth is, despite the teens intentions, sharing that picture far and wide on social media was inviting a PR nightmare. So the picture was edited so that none of the teens hands were showing.

A lot of things happened here. I just happened to be online when the picture was posted and saw it pretty quickly. I just happened to know the potential controversy that this picture could have caused. And when I privately contacted the librarian, they also just happened to be online right then.

Shortly before this had happened, there had been a couple of other incidents of schools posting photos with students engaging in white nationalist behavior and there was a justifiable firestorm that erupted as a result. Reading about these two incidents in the news made me aware of the hand gesture itself and I had seen first hand the very real social media push back that happened in their wake.

Urban Dictionary: The Circle Game

One of the things that makes the hand gesture so insidious is that because they are co-opting an existing hand gesture, and something that is such a popular game among a lot of teens, it does put a lot of naive and innocent people at risk. It also gives offenders plausible deniability should they get called out. Take, for example, the recent picture from Baraboo. There were multiple students making the Heil Hitler salute, which has undeniable meaning to us. We instantly recognize it as being a form of hate speech. But also in that picture you see a young man making the “ok” sign below the waist. In context, it would be hard for him to say that he was playing a game of gotcha because everyone around him his doing the Nazi salute, but if you are posting a picture of a teen group standing with their arms at their sides and only one teen in the group is making the hang gesture, it’s hard to know what their intentions are. But it’s important that we know what the possible meanings of this are to help prevent us and our libraries from being accused of supporting or promoting white nationalism. One of the other important things that a previous supervisor taught me is that my goal is to make sure that I don’t set the library up for bad PR.

I’m not sharing the Baraboo photo here, because it can be upsetting for many to see the Heil Hitler. There is an article discussing the photo here that you can read.

Please note, Snopes currently lists the ok sign as a white power hand sign as unproven. Other online sites also list it as being unproven. But there is reason to believe that it can be a symbol of white power, and that alone should give us all pause in how we approach it.

I had several takeaways from this. One, my previous supervisor was 100% correct, we should make it a part of our daily mission to be aware of what is happening in the world all around us, it makes us better at our jobs. And two, we should make sure everyone on our staff is aware as well. It’s pretty common for libraries to post pictures of program attendees online as part of their promotions, but I hope that we are all doing our due diligence in making sure that everything about those pictures represents as message we are comfortable putting out into the public. Just a month ago, I would never have thought twice about the picture that I had seen, but with a little more knowledge and awareness, I was alarmed and wanted to help prevent my fellow librarians from the social media backlash that was sure to occur if they left those pictures up for very long.

ADL: Hate Symbols Database

One final thing I would like to note about this. On Thursday, a brutal attack on two Mosques in Christchurch happened. It was horrific in every way and resulted in the tragic end of multiple lives. Upon arraignment while entering a plea, the offender in these attacks was photographed making this very hand gesture. It is doubtful that he was referring to a childish game of gotcha. We all need to be aware of this and other symbols associated with white nationalism and make sure that we aren’t being unwitting purveyors of this hateful message.

How History (and Librarians) Inspire Freedom of the Press, a guest post by Mary Cronk Farrell

standingWhen I got my first real job as a broadcast journalist at age 21, I believed my work would contribute to the common good. I believed the stories I reported, first as a radio journalist and later in television news, would help people understand events in our local community more clearly, feel more empathy and maybe open their minds or change their hearts.

 

Was I too idealistic? Was believing that the news media played a crucial role, not just in preserving democracy, but also as a force for good in our lives nothing but a fanciful notion of a naïve do-gooder?

 

It certainly seems so today.

 

But in researching the stories of black women who risked their lives to serve their county in a segregated army during World War II, I discovered evidence of how a free press pushed our nation to progress toward equality, how newspaper stories about injustice inspired people to empathy, and how the press rallied citizens to demand fairness.

Ranks of the all-black #6888th Postal Battalion of Women’s Army Corps, 1945. (National Archives)

Ranks of the all-black #6888th Postal Battalion of Women’s Army Corps, 1945. (National Archives)

In the spring of 1945, black members of the Women’s Army Corps stationed at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, had withstood all they could stand. Day after day they donned blue work uniforms and reported to Lowell Army hospital to wash dishes and scrub floors. White WACs at the same hospital wore white uniforms for jobs as lab technicians, nurse’s aides and assisting wounded soldiers write letters home.

Major Charity Adams inspects Women’s Army Corps ranks, February 1945. (National Archives)

Major Charity Adams inspects Women’s Army Corps ranks, February 1945. (National Archives)

Throughout World War II, complaints arose, and inspections verified that black WACs were too often assigned to menial jobs not prescribed for WACs. One inspection at Fort Breckinridge, Kentucky, found thirty black WACs working in the laundry, fifteen assigned to service jobs, including dishwashing at the base club, and five “well-educated negro women…administration school graduates…employed sweeping warehouse floors.”* At Fort Knox, Kentucky, black WACs worked in the kitchen, a white officer saying, “Most of these girls are much better off now than they were in civilian life.”*

 

At Fort Devens, the black women tried to work through the system, sending their complaints of discrimination up the chain of command to no avail. Alice E. Young, 23, had finished one year of nursing school while working as a student nurse in a Washington, D.C. hospital. She’d joined the army due to promises she’d be trained as a nurses’ aide and worked at Lovell awaiting a space in the training program.

 

But one day the commander of the hospital Colonel Walter M. Crandall toured her ward and saw Alice taking a white soldier’s temperature. “No colored WACs,” he announced, would take temperatures in his hospital. “They are here to scrub and wash floors, wash dishes and do all the dirty work.”**

 

Alice was demoted to hospital orderly, her hopes of going to med tech school dashed. She cleaned the hospital hallways and kitchen, washed dishes, cooked and served food and took out the garbage. Sixty percent of the black WACs at Lovell had similar duties.

Devens WACS Stage Sitdown, The Chicago Defender, March 24, 1945.

Devens WACS Stage Sitdown, The Chicago Defender, March 24, 1945.

They decided to strike. According to the New York Times, 96 black WACs initially refused orders to go to work due to discriminatory assignments. After several days, most eventually went back to work under threat of court martial for insubordination, a death penalty offense in wartime.

 

But Alice and three others who walked away from their posts at the hospital did not return and were court martialed. “These women made this gesture of protest in hope that someday their descendants might enjoy fully the rights and liberties promised to Americans,”** their attorney said.

 

Major news sources like the New York Times and Time Magazine covered the strike and the women’s trial, as well as small town newspapers like the Daily Sun in Lewiston, Maine, and African American newspapers across the country. When the army court convicted the four women and sentenced them to one year of hard labor with no pay and dishonorable discharge, the story received wide coverage.

Army Court Convicts 4 WACs of Disobeying Superior, The Washington Post, March 21, 1945.

Army Court Convicts 4 WACs of Disobeying Superior, The Washington Post, March 21, 1945.

Many Americans both white and black read about the unfairness the striking women had faced. They protested the harsh penalty by writing letters to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Secretary of War, Congress and editors of newspapers. Many called for punishment of Colonial Crandall, rather than the women.

 

The news stories and subsequent uproar by citizens made a difference. The War Department found a way to reverse the verdict on a technicality and reinstate Alice and the others to active duty. The Army did not investigate Colonel Crandall’s behavior, but he was relieved of his hospital command and pressured to retire. In addition, the army changed policies at Lovell Hospital prohibiting black WACs from being assigned to menial jobs not done by white WACs.

Headline, front page, The Afro American, Baltimore, MD, April 28, 1945.

Headline, front page, The Afro American, Baltimore, MD, April 28, 1945.

The pervasiveness of our news media today allows us to be even better informed than Americans during WWII, but it requires diligence and critical thinking due to the massive amounts of information at our fingertips, and the phenomenon of “fake news.”   Reporters Without Borders, an organization that tracks freedom of information, ranks the United States 45th out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index. We fall below a host of European countries and others around the world including Ghana, South Korea, Uruguay and South Africa.

 

With the news media’s ever-increasing focus on the sensational and the obvious partisanship of news outlets, I’ve become more jaded and I don’t regret I’ve left the business. But librarians inspire me to keep faith with my ideals. They’re on the front lines championing freedom of information and teaching students critical skills to assess the news they see. They inspire us all to work within our own spheres of influence to defend our freedom of the press which is critical to democracy and a powerful force for truth and justice.

 

* When the Nation was in Need: Blacks in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II, by Martha S. Putney (Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2001)

**United States V. Morrison, Anna G, A., Green, Mary, E., Young Alice E., Murphy, Johnnie, A. (Proceedings of a General Court-Martial, Fort Devens, M.A., March 19, 1945)

 

Meet Mary Cronk Farrell

Mary Cronk Farrell 2015. (534x640)Mary Cronk Farrell, author of critically acclaimed and award-winning Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific, now releases the incredible story of how black women in the army helped change the course of World War II:  Standing Up Against Hate: How Black Women in the Army Helped Change the Course of WWII (Abrams, January 2019).

 

Connect with Mary online: 

Website: www.MaryCronkFarrell.com

Blog: http://www.marycronkfarrell.net/blog

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Author-Mary-Cronk-Farrell-180125525368386/

Twitter: @MaryCronkFarrel

Instagram:  MaryCronkFarrell

 

About  Standing Up Against Hate: How Black Women in the Army Helped Change the Course of WWII

standingStanding Up Against Hate tells the stories of the African American women who enlisted in the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in World War II. They quickly discovered that they faced as many obstacles in the armed forces as they did in everyday life. However, they refused to back down. They interrupted careers and left family, friends, and loved ones to venture into unknown and sometimes dangerous territory. They survived racial prejudice and discrimination with dignity, succeeded in jobs women had never worked before, and made crucial contributions to the military war effort. The book centers around Charity Adams, who commanded the only black WAAC battalion sent overseas and became the highest ranking African American woman in the military by the end of the war. Along with Adams’s story are those of other black women who played a crucial role in integrating the armed forces. Their tales are both inspiring and heart-wrenching. The book includes a timeline, bibliography, and index.

(ISBN-13: 9781419731600 Publisher: ABRAMS Publication date: 01/08/2019)

SEE AMANDA’S REVIEW HERE

 

Book Review: Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Publisher’s description

hearts unNew York Times best-selling author Cynthia Leitich Smith turns to realistic fiction with the thoughtful story of a Native teen navigating the complicated, confusing waters of high school — and first love.

When Louise Wolfe’s first real boyfriend mocks and disrespects Native people in front of her, she breaks things off and dumps him over e-mail. It’s her senior year, anyway, and she’d rather spend her time with her family and friends and working on the school newspaper. The editors pair her up with Joey Kairouz, the ambitious new photojournalist, and in no time the paper’s staff find themselves with a major story to cover: the school musical director’s inclusive approach to casting The Wizard of Oz has been provoking backlash in their mostly white, middle-class Kansas town. From the newly formed Parents Against Revisionist Theater to anonymous threats, long-held prejudices are being laid bare and hostilities are spreading against teachers, parents, and students — especially the cast members at the center of the controversy, including Lou’s little brother, who’s playing the Tin Man. As tensions mount at school, so does a romance between Lou and Joey — but as she’s learned, “dating while Native” can be difficult. In trying to protect her own heart, will Lou break Joey’s?

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Go ahead and place your order for this book before you even read the review. The tl;dr version of this review is that the book is pretty great and when is the last time you read a book with a female main character who is Native? 

 

Louise is a complicated character. Having recently moved from Texas to Kansas, Muscogee (Creek) Louise describes her family as middle middle class. They have a lot of family in Indian Country, Oklahoma, but in her new town in Kansas, she and her brother, Hughie, are definitely in the minority. Louise splits with her boyfriend, Cam, after his disparaging remarks about Native people, and tests out potential crushes on new boys, only to find that the Choctaw boy she thinks is cute only dates white girls and her seemingly-nice classmate Pete conflates Native people with alcoholics. It’s while working on the school newspaper as a features reporter that Louise meets Joey, an Arab American boy she bonds with over their shared interest in journalism. Things at school become increasingly tense when Hughie and two other students of color are cast in the school play, with some white parents forming a group to protest these roles going to non-white kids (for the first time ever). Hughie and the two other students receive threatening notes telling them to go back to where they came from. The newspaper covers the controversy, and Hughie grows conflicted over taking a role in a play by L. Frank Baum after he learns of Baum’s racism and his calls for genocide of Native people. Louise deals with racist remarks, ignorance, and microaggressions, trying to educate others and do her job as a reporter in the midst of cries of “reverse racism” and political correctness gone too far.

 

While Louise never wavers in her quest to educate others, she has a lot of room to grow as a friend. Her alleged best friend, Shelby, is largely absent in the book, usually busy working and not really understood well by Louise, who has trouble seeing beyond herself sometimes. She has a lot to learn about friendships, dating, and understanding others. But these flaws make her real, and interesting. Readers see her grow and change as she makes more connections with people in her new town and stands up for what she believes in and what she knows is right. Mvskoke words are sprinkled throughout the next, with a glossary appended as well as an important author’s note. This book also accomplished the near-impossible: it made me miss high school for two seconds, reminding me of my love for writing for the school newspaper and the frustrations and community that can come with that. This is a nice mix of romance, routine high school drama, and more serious topics like racism, bullying, and becoming more socially aware. Sure to inspire interesting classroom discussions, this is a must-have for all collections. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780763681142
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publication date: 10/09/2018

Sunday Reflections: Wrestling with Local History

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This weekend, the city of Mount Vernon, Ohio is awash in the arts as we celebrate the annual Dan Emmett festival.

2018 Ohio Festival Schedule | OhioFestivals.net

If you’ve never visited the Midwest, the local small town festival is a glorious affair that celebrates, well, anything. In Fredericktown the celebrate the tomato, in Marion it’s popcorn, and in Circleville it’s pumpkin. But throughout the summer and fall, you can finally find a small town festival somewhere to celebrate something and it’s really quite charming. You wander from booth to booth, there are a few rides here and there, local talent shows, and my personal favorite, fried fair food.

dixie

In Mount Vernon, we celebrate the arts and our local artistic claim to fame, Dixie song writer Dan Emmett. Dan Emmet is said to have written the popular anthem Dixie, though there are also claims that he stole the song from a local black family, the Snowdens. He also was a regular participant in minstrel shows, which were popular during the time but now (most of us) recognize that black face is unacceptable and that a lot of the popular art that we celebrate when we celebrate Dan Emmett is, in fact, really quite racist.

The first day of the Dan Emmett festival this year, a man came in asking for a print out of lyrics to the song Dixie because he wanted to prove to his wife that the song was racist.

Civil War songs: Dan Emmett’s legacy in Knox County

At the library, we have a display case up with a variety of items celebrating the life of Dan Emmett and the Dan Emmett festival. One of the items in that display is the very old sheet music to the song Dixie, which has a picture of four men wearing black face on its front cover.

Earlier this year, a local group exploring the issue of racism in our community met to discuss whether or not having a Dan Emmett festival is racist in and of itself.

Mount Vernon’s Blackface Minstrel – The Collegian Magazine

I currently work in a community which is 97% white. I previously worked in a community that was much more diverse, but was also at one time considered the headquarters of the KKK. That’s a lot of local history to wrestle with.

This weekend, White Nationalists met to reconvene one year after the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlotesville. Although they may not recognize it yet, this community too will have a lot of complicated local history to wrestle with.

The truth is, most towns in this country have a lot of local history that they have to wrestle with, and in the year 2018, we see this happening on a national level. I never imagined that I would actually live in a time where we discussed race riots as something other than in the past, but these past couple of years we have seen the resurgence of white nationalism, neo-nazis, racism, hate crimes and more. Make no mistake, these things have always been present, they have just been more well hidden in my lifetime to white people like me than they are now. Today, these issues are once again front and center, making it harder for comfortable white people like myself to pretend that we live in a just world or that racism is anything other than it is: real, hateful, and deadly.

Public libraries serve their local communities. We are steeped in local culture and history, we preserve, protect and celebrate it. But what happens when that history is full of racism?

In Mount Vernon, there are people who want to rename the Dan Emmett festival. Some people want to adopt a new name that incorporates the history of the Snowdens into the festival as well. Some people just want to drop any human from the name of the festival at all. I’m not going to lie, as we reflect on our country’s history and discuss things like statues named after Confederate soldiers, I see the wisdom in celebrating tomatoes and popcorn as opposed to people. People are complicated and even the best of us are not perfect.

I have walked the streets of the Dan Emmett festival. I have watched friends sing. I have eaten funnel cake and buckets of fries. I have felt that sense of community as I nodded hi to people that I recognized from the library or stopped to pet that cute dog on the leash. There are lots of charms to living and working in a small, rural Midwest community. In fact, Mount Vernon, Ohio has a rich and thriving arts community and it is definitely something to be proud of.

There’s also a lot of ugly history to wrestle with, as there is everywhere. And you would be surprised how often librarians are asked to do this. How do we preserve that local history? How do we talk about it? How do we present it or display it? Should we include Confederate flags or figures in our local history displays? Should we put up sheet music with black face characters on the cover? Should we ignore it? Pretend it didn’t happen? Put it on display without comment?

Working with local history can be a complex challenge because people are invested in their local communities. On a global scale, we have never figured out how to talk about the violent and racist past of United States history. We can’t do it on the macro level, and we certainly haven’t figured out how to do it on the micro level. This falls under the umbrella of things I never learned in library school. Where are those conversations about how to deal with local history in local public libraries?

Four years ago, on August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson. Protests broke out in the surrounding community. The Ferguson library became a haven for the local community, staying open. They are now tasked with preserving the history of that time in the local community. What they do in this project of preservation matters.

‘In This Together’: Ferguson Library Stays Open Amid Violence

When we talk about the Nazis and World War II, we often reflect on how we personally might have responded. Racism today is no less urgent, those conversations are happening. I think often about what I want the history books to say about me, about who I am right now and the choices I am making. I want to be on the right side of history.

History, it turns out, doesn’t stay in the past. It’s time once again for public libraries to think about what it means to be neutral or not and how we engage in current events by how we talk about and present history in our libraries.

We have to wrestle with our local history because our local futures depend on it.

Book Review: I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Medina, Stacey Robinson, and John Jennings

Publisher’s description

alfonsoAlfonso Jones can’t wait to play the role of Hamlet in his school’s hip-hop rendition of the classic Shakespearean play. He also wants to let his best friend, Danetta, know how he really feels about her. But as he is buying his first suit, an off-duty police officer mistakes a clothes hanger for a gun, and he shoots Alfonso.

When Alfonso wakes up in the afterlife, he’s on a ghost train guided by well-known victims of police shootings, who teach him what he needs to know about this subterranean spiritual world. Meanwhile, Alfonso’s family and friends struggle with their grief and seek justice for Alfonso in the streets. As they confront their new realities, both Alfonso and those he loves realize the work that lies ahead in the fight for justice.

In the first graphic novel for young readers to focus on police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement, as in Hamlet, the dead shall speak—and the living yield even more surprises.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

What a phenomenal graphic novel. I was completely wrapped up in the world of Alfonso and the ancestors for this story, alternately cheering for activism and hope and crying for injustice and discouragement.

Alfonso is feeling pretty good about life. He loves playing his trumpet, acting, attending his arts high school, being a bike messenger, and flirting with Danetta. The best thing in his life, though, is that his father, who has been incarcerated Alfonso’s entire life, is being released, finally exonerated of a crime he did not commit. But while out shopping for a suit to wear to meet his father, Alfonso is shot and killed by a white off-duty cop. Once dead, Alfonso joins a group of ghosts on a train. These ghosts are the ancestors who are seeking justice and rest. Alfonso learns about their lives and the ways they were killed by police while also going to see scenes from his past as well as what he’s missing in the present. Alfonso is able to see how his parents are coping, to follow the white police officer who killed him, and to see how his name lives on in the media, the justice system, and the many large protests that spring up after his death. An Ancestors Wall at the end lists the names of victims of police violence. This look at the prison industrial complex, the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality, and the various systems of violence and oppression that have always existed in this country is devastating and important. 

 

ISBN-13: 9781620142639
Publisher: Lee & Low Books, Inc.
Publication date: 10/15/2017