5 Anti-Racist Books for Parents and Young People (13–19)
Here, I will talk about books I would show to parents of teenagers — texts I think parents would find useful in opening dialogues with their children on race, identity and Black history.
This post is written in response to the parents close to me asking what texts they can use to discuss race and Black history with their children. Children that are on on the cusp of adolescence about to go through teenage angst! The grunting, deep baritones of a thirteen year-old boy followed by Micky Mouse murmurs from his Adam’s apple — when both boys and girls gain “attitude” after an early childhood of general pleasantness. No longer innocent. Oh, and a time when children begin to form opinions and arguments on deep things.
For me, I was twelve when I began to talk about police brutality, which was also the time when I was introduced to Flavor Flav, Chuck D and Public Enemy… boooooi!
I was thirteen years old the first time I listened to the hit album Straight Outta Compton by gangster rap group NWA. So, I guess that is also the time when I was “politicised.” While, I am by no means advocating parents giving a thirteen year-old 1980s gangster rap to listen to, with its colourful language, there are numerous texts that will inform our young people on race, identity politics, and Black history — challenging their opinions and forcing them to think more. There are texts that will inspire and motivate, and even contradict their own notions on these subjects. This is learning and part of the journey.
Here are five books that will challenge teens, who will have everything they think they know about all things distorted and reevaluated, making them ask more questions about inner-conflict and identity — from racism and crime to Black history and policing.
Boys Don’t Cry (2010), Malorie Blackman
Anti-racist reading is as much about reading books by authors of colour as it is about reading books about race as self-education. We must also read books by Black and brown authors that are not about race, since when we do anything it is racialised — be it: poetry, writing, business, politics… Being of colour in society is political because race is politics. I am a human being before I am Black but our existence runs contrary to that. Boys Don’t Cry by Malorie Blackman is simply one such texts that shows Black authors not directly writing about Blackness. The dehumanisation of Black people is so evident in literature, historically. Now, there are Black writers telling our stories but there are also Black writers that just tell stories. She has done both, whilst also advocating for diversity in young adults fiction for the best part of twenty years and she was one of my early introductions into English literature. Thank God! If it wasn’t for her, as a little youth, I probably would have believed every writer was white and male, let alone thinking about working-class representation as well!
Summary: Dante is seventeen, waiting to recieve his A-Level exam results, hoping for future of university education and journalism. When his ex-girlfriend Melanie turns up unexpectedly with a baby, his life is flipped upside down. Left holding, Dante has a life now that he did not expect and Malorie’s novel really is a page-turner.
‘Boys Don’t Cry’ starts strong and then goes on to tackle teenage pregnancy and fatherhood in the UK
It’s not long before the end that you realise the lead character Dante is Black. An intelligent move by Blackman and it allows readers to ask questions about “colourblindness” and the myth of a post-racial Britain in a society where white people are not socialised to think about themselves in racialised terms. White people do not think of themselves as “white people”, they are socialised to think of themselves as people. Boys Don’t Cry is a fantastic avenue into race, simply because Malorie Blackman writes characters as people, not Black people.
Appropriateness: Age 14+
Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change (2018), Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi
I first came across this text talking with my good friends in the BA Criminology department at Northampton. Whilst Taking Up Space was written in response to studying History at redbrick university Cambridge, it is sadly evident that the experiences of these two Black graduate could be applied to Black students studying elsewhere, including post-1992 higher education institutions. As Black students in a white institution, this text lights a match under the ivory asses of academia. It’s one such example of where art can run with activism and is an act of resistance against the political elite. In higher education, as both Black and woman, consistently having to prove that their existence is worthy in institutions that were not designed for them in mind —university is an ongoing struggle for students and staff that do not fit into the white, male, able-bodied, cis straight norms of society.
This book tackles issues pertinent to academia and the higher education sector, but when you begin to unpick them more, they are adaptable and / or vital to all sectors. Such subjects include: mental health, discrimination in the classroom, ethnicity award gaps, whitewashed curricula, the problems of activism and more. This is an excellent contribution to the history of Black British writing, also acting as an exploration into the issues diversity in education, with further testimony from Black students and Black graduates.
For anyone going to university or interested in going, this is a must read, delving into issues all prospective students should be aware of in their first year of study (important issues students are not always actively told about).
I Am Nobody’s Nigger (2013), Dean Atta
In his debut poetry collection, Dean Atta truly shows the mind of a revolutionary. It is intelligently written and quite romantic; from racism to one-night stands, Dean Atta tell us stories from his viewpoint, on race, sexuality and being a Londoner — speaking truth to power. With a title as provactive as that, the book itself is every bit worth its mettle. Meeting him last year (2019), when he came to Northampton, he was full of so much soul and this book now at seven years old is truly a testament to that spirit and an unapologetically political mind.
If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), James Baldwin
Summary: 1970s Harlem. It’s the time of Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. Tish is nineteen and pregnant, and artist Alonzo (Fonny), the father, and her fiancé, is in jail accused of a rape he did not commit. Friends since childhood, this is a novel by James Baldwin with the love story of Tish and Fonny entwined with a narrative of family, personhood and racial injustice.
When we think about Black Lives Matter, it is often interchangeable with Black trauma. Baldwin’s Beale Street is a novel about Black intimacy against the landscape of white American racism. James Baldwin wrote between the 1940s and the 1980s. Published in 1974, we follow a young Black couple whose lives are ripped asunder by false criminal charges, a narrative that is all too familiar more than thirty years after James Baldwin died in 1987.
This is a text for anyone that wants alternate perspectives on Black lives, or those that don’t just want crime (even though it features). People that are interested in the concept of Black families, or are just suckers for a love story.
Beginning with Your Last Breath (2016), Roy McFarlane
This is a collection of political-charged poetry that is unapologetically Black and British. It is Roy McFarlane’s debut collection, a Birmingham poet of Jamaican parentage. It explores race, identity, family and more in hard-hitting stanzas that also explore bereavement and violence in Britain’s recent history, including words written about the Windrush, the Brixton Riots and Police.
My favourite being about the Black Country, in that ‘place just off the M6’ and many poems that bring the histories of this country into a colloquial setting. Spiritual spoken words that can be pictured at both open-mics and conservative poetry readings. So many poems feel like people I know. Being from the Land of Brum, ‘that place just off the M6’ reminded of my Dad.
There is an African spiritual power here, of oral storytelling that has lasted thousands of years. If you are to buy a lockdown poetry book that is also politically and socially relevant to our current moment, let this be the verse.
There are so many texts to choose from when concocting lists such as this. With parents in mind and young people, I tried to keep it modern but also looking at lesser-known texts, amplifying Black British voices in the process. I could well have gone for obvious candidates like Natives by Akala or even one of Malorie Blackman’s more popular novels. But Boys Don’t Cry has a poetic quality and subtlety I think parents will enjoy more than the popular texts.