When Black Hair Violates The Dress Code

 

dress code.

Mai Ly Degnan for NPR

Raising teenage girls can be a tough job. Raising black teenage girls as white parents can be even tougher. Aaron and Colleen Cook knew that when they adopted their twin daughters, Mya and Deanna.

As spring came around this year, the girls, who just turned 16, told their parents they wanted to get braided hair extensions. Their parents happily obliged, wanting Mya and Deanna to feel closer to their black heritage.

But when the girls got to school, they were asked to step out of class. Both were given several infractions for violating the dress code. Mystic Valley Regional Charter School, north of Boston, bans hair extensions in its dress code, deeming them “distracting.”

When administrators asked the girls to remove their braids, Mya and Deanna refused.

The next day, Colleen and Aaron Cook came to the school where, they say, they were told the girls’ hair needed to be “fixed.” The Cooks refused, telling administrators that there was nothing wrong with the hairstyle.

Enlarge this image

Mya and Deanna Cook, 16, with their parents, Aaron and Colleen Cook.

Courtesy of the Cook family.

As punishment, the girls were removed from their extracurricular activities, barred from prom, and threatened with suspension if they did not change their hair.

According to Colleen Cook, administrators at Mystic Valley have routinely reprimanded black students for dress code violations involving hair.

Other black girls have been pulled out of class, she says, lined up, asked if they had hair extensions and given detention if they did.

Colleen remembers when one student, who wore her hair in its natural texture, was taken out of class and told that she would need to relax, or chemically straighten, her hair before returning to school the next day.

In defense of their daughters, the Cooks brought in a yearbook to show school leaders the many white female students with hair extensions and dyed hair.

But, the Cooks say, the administration didn’t see that those students were in violation of the dress code, stating those hair alterations weren’t as obvious.

NPR reached out to Mystic Valley Regional for an interview several times without a response.

The Cooks contacted the NAACP, Anti-Defamation League, and the ACLU to file a complaint against the school, calling the dress code discriminatory to students of color, particularly black females.

After much pressure, the school suspended enforcement of the dress code until the end of the year.

Noticing a trend

In recent years, black girls have been sent home for wearing dreadshead wraps and even wearing their hair naturally.

In schools across the country, black student suspension rates are higher than their peers’. In charter schools, kindergarten through eighth grade, those rates are even higher.

In fact, Daniel J. Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, found that, at the highest suspending charter schools in the nation, the majority of students were black.

Though databases for infractions vary from state-to-state, in a recent analysis, half of suspensions in charter schools were for minor nonviolent offenses, including dress code violations.

Specifically, Losen’s research shows that in Massachusetts, the Cook’s home state, black students at charters lose 24 more days of instruction, due to suspension, than white students.

“Having a dress code is one thing, but denying an education for it defies logic,” says Losen.

Zero-tolerance leads to high suspension rates

Dorinda J. Carter Andrews, assistant dean of equity outreach initiatives at Michigan State University, says that black females are more likely to receive harsher discipline than their white and Latina counterparts.

Her research on zero-tolerance policies and their outcomes show that they enforce a marginalization of black girls in schools. Which can, in practice, criminalize their black identity.

“What does a headdress have to do with learning and success?” asks Carter Andrews.

She finds it strange that hair would even be part of a dress code. It’s not a choice, but an aspect of one’s body. Which raises a question: Is a zero-tolerance policy on hair — where students can be suspended without warning — less about a dress code and more about a racial code?

In her research, Carter Andrews has found that this type of policing has a detrimental effect on black girls in schools and how their peers view them, further enforcing negative stereotypes.

Black girls are often seen as being loud or aggressive, and are overly disciplined because of that stigma. Andrews finds that leads to low self-esteem and under-performance in school for these students.

Jamilia Blake, who looks at the “adultification” of black girls in schools, believes stereotypes of black adults are put on black children in schools, and black girls in particular.

Blake sees strict dress codes as a way of targeting certain students without using racial language. By using certain restrictions on hair styles and dress, school officials are enforcing the policing of black youth.

Toward the end of the school year, the Cook twins, Mya and Deanna, were allowed to participate in their extracurricular activities. That was after much upset from friends and supporters and a word of warning from the Massachusetts attorney general to school leaders at Mystic Valley Regional Charter.

Meanwhile, the Cooks continue to advocate for their daughters as the dress code fight goes on. The school hasn’t made any plans, publicly, to change the regulations around hair.

Colleen Cook wants people to know that they’re fighting not just for their daughters, but for the other black girls in the school who have felt victimized.

Mystic Valley has put out a statement in defense of its dress code policy, stating that the restrictions on hair extensions exist so that the school can promote equity. Hair extensions — it reads — can be expensive.

The Cooks believe this experience has helped them realize the world their daughters have to face.

“When our daughters walk with us, they have our white privilege. When they’re not with us, they’re black children,” says Aaron Cook.

Colleen agrees, adding, “I feel like the school is pushing us to raise them as white children, but that’s not who they are or who they’re going to be.”

The Cooks value their children’s black heritage and want them to be proud of themselves at home and at school. They’ll continue to fight to make that happen.

Rainbow Alliance Offers Safe Space For Students

Fordham Observer

From left: Auge, Doman, Muñoz and Francesco comprise the E-Board. (IAN SOKOLOWSKI/THE OBSERVER)

By MOISES MENDEZ 
Contributing Writer

When discussing the LGBT+ acronym, it’s always important to include the “+” at the end. This reminds us that our community doesn’t just include lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people. The “+” is all inclusive, encompassing intersex, questioning youth, allies, those who identify as asexual, demisexual, polysexual/polyamorous, pansexual;  the list seems limitless and is added to constantly. When you’re a part of Rainbow Alliance at Fordham Lincoln Center,  you’ll always be included.

At the group’s first meeting, the theme was “Ice Cream and Identities.” Members were served ice cream and talked about all the identities within the LGBT+ alphabet soup. But, before we dove into the fun, we were all asked to introduce ourselves with our name, preferred pronouns, how we identify ourselves, and of course – the most important aspect of who we are – our favorite ice cream flavor. Some used terms that aren’t common but are gaining more attention as people continue to identify themselves as such. One member said that they were pansexual, another member identified as queer. These identities aren’t completely foreign, but are less used than someone identifying as gay, lesbian or bisexual.  During this first meeting, the group also debunked the misconceptions surrounding the different identities in the LGBT+ acronym.

The members began to uncover some common misunderstandings about sexual identity and gender identity. We talked about the difference between pansexual and bisexual, what being aromantic means as opposed to asexual and various other topics. This meeting consisted of all the members teaching one another and clarifying these misconceptions. For example, one member said, “There’s a common misconception that bisexual and pansexual are the same thing.” This person continued to debunk and clarify why people thought this and educated everyone on the difference between the two.

Lyndsey Auge, FCLC ’19, who just began her first year as President of Rainbow Alliance, talked about what the main objective of the club was. Auge said, “The objective, mainly, is to provide a safe place for students within the LGBT+ community and to have a place that offers an education about different identities, as well as topics within the communities. Aside from being a place to get some education, it also serves as place to build a community and have a family on campus.”

Outside of the general meetings that they hold every Tuesday from 5:30-6:30 p.m. in the Atrium, they have events throughout the school year to expand their safe space to other LGBT+ students and allies on campus. “[One event] we have [is] ‘Cue The Spotlight’ in the fall. It’s an art showcase, in which you can show queer art, if you choose, or you can come and support queer artists. The night can consist of slam poetry, spoken word, music, etc. People have also shown paintings that they’ve done,” Auge said.

Their biggest event of the year is Queer Prom, which, even if you’re not a part of the LGBT+ community, you should be excited for. Auge explained, “At the end of the year, we host Queer Prom, which last year was Rocky Horror-themed. It’s a fun time to listen to music, dance and eat free food. There’s always free food.” Anytime a club mentions free food, everyone knows that students will always attend. Auge also mentioned that the group is looking into a trip to Big Gay Ice Cream downtown in East Village.

In addition to its exciting events planned for the year, Rainbow Alliance is one of the most accepting and inviting groups on campus. You don’t have to be queer to join and if you are queer,  they’ll make you feel proud to be queer. If you need a reason to join Rainbow Alliance, here’s what the president of the club had to say: “Rainbow is an accepting place, it’s a safe space for all to come and be who they are. It can also provide a space to learn about themselves and learn about others.” Auge explained that in Rainbow, you build a sense of family “that you really grow to care about.” If you’re still figuring yourself out, Rainbow Alliance is a safe and comfortable community to utilize.

Safe Spaces: Sanctuaries From Harrassmesnt

The Fordham Ram

The recent bias incident in Finlay Hall underscores the importance of students’ right to feel safe on campus. (Ram Archives)

By Matthew Michaels

Those who argue that safe spaces are part of a liberal agenda propagated by the “PC-police” unwittingly argue for people to feel unsafe. Safe spaces have historically been places where groups of people with common characteristics can join together and feel secure in the environment because they feel insecure in the larger general community. Safe spaces have been misinterpreted and the definition and purpose have been misaligned by the media, but the root issue and purpose remain.

The Fordham community was shaken up by a bias incident almost as soon as the school year commenced. On Sept. 3, residents of Finlay Hall woke up to find a message on their white board that was quite clearly offensive and intolerable. Our community cannot allow vicious attacks like those seen far too often — harassment of a group of people that serves to destroy our community.

As a resident assistant and a university tour guide, I know as well as anybody that Fordham encourages the use of the term “residence halls” in lieu of the near-ubiquitous “dorms.”

The school rightly believes, based on the Latin root of the word, that a dormitory is a mere place to sleep. By contrast, a residence hall is a place to live, to grow and to develop into men and women for others. In other words, a residence hall is a temporary home, and a home is a place where residents feel the utmost security. The development of character Fordham expects from its students cannot occur as long as any of us feel unsafe in our homes.
On tours, I often get the dreaded safety question: “Do students feel safe off campus?” What anxious parents should be asking is if students feel safe from on-campus abuse by those who make up our community. When one person in our community is threatened, we are all threatened. A home ceases to be a home. No person should feel unsafe at home.

Many people do not see the need for safe spaces because they do not feel unsafe. Those people are forgetting about the members of marginalized and historically repressed groups who do not feel safe. If you felt unsafe, you would appreciate safe spaces.

A common critique of safe spaces is that it coddles the minds of young adults. But I, and most advocates for safe spaces, agree that all college students should indeed be challenged. Making safe spaces around sexual orientation, religion or race is not preventing students from being challenged: it is preventing them from being harassed. Within the framework of safe spaces, students can simultaneously be safe and challenged. However, people should ever be challenged about something which they have no control over, such as their sexual orientation or skin color.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is one of the simplest and most well-known psychological theories, and it helps support the concept of safe spaces. The hierarchy is a pyramid with the most basic needs at the bottom and each level cannot be reached until the previous one is satisfied. Safety is second to the bottom as one of the most basic needs of the human experience, right after physiological needs such as air and water.

Without safety, members of our society are limited and will not reach other needs, like belonging and self-actualization. The lack of safe spaces would inhibit millions of Americans from reaching their full potential as they are stuck fighting for their own safety, something so many of us take for granted.

Safe spaces are likewise protected by Fordham’s Jesuit value of cura personalis. They promote the well-being of the whole person, mind and body. St. Ignatius would say that safe spaces are required to care for the whole person, and the entire society benefits from them.

The idea of safe spaces is that they provide vulnerable members of community with environments where they can be themselves while advancing the national conversation to progress and be more accepting. Safe spaces do not prohibit anybody’s freedom of speech. They protect people from being verbally assaulted from vitriolic bigots spewing venomous messages meant to incite harm and pain.

Fordham can sometimes be prone to a feeling of exceptionalism, but recent events have proven we are vulnerable to the same issues as any college campus. I have always been impressed with the student response to bias incidents like the one this month. However, condemning hateful actions after they occur is not enough. We must remember that if we do not make room for safe spaces on campus, there will be more incidents, and more students will be targets of hate, leading to a community where far too many are unsafe.

Matthew Michaels, GSB ’17, is a marketing major from Hightstown, New Jersey.

I’m Northwestern’s president. Here’s why safe spaces for students are important.

January 15, 2016

Morton Schapiro is president of Northwestern University.

 

College presidents have always received a lot of mail. But these days we get more than ever. Much of it relates to student unrest, and most of the messages are unpleasant.

Our usual practice is to thank the sender for writing and leave it at that. The combination of receiving more than 100 emails and letters a day and recognizing that the purpose of many writers is to rebuke, rather than discuss, leaves us little choice about how to respond.

But that certainly doesn’t mean we don’t think long and hard about the issues being raised. Some writers ask why our campus is so focused on how “black lives matter.” Others express a mixture of curiosity and rage about microaggressions and trigger warnings. And finally, what about those oft-criticized “safe spaces”? On this last topic, here are two stories. The first was told to me privately by another institution’s president, and the second takes place at my institution, Northwestern University.

A group of black students were having lunch together in a campus dining hall. There were a couple of empty seats, and two white students asked if they could join them. One of the black students asked why, in light of empty tables nearby. The reply was that these students wanted to stretch themselves by engaging in the kind of uncomfortable learning the college encourages. The black students politely said no. Is this really so scandalous?

I find two aspects of this story to be of particular interest.

First, the familiar question is “Why do the black students eat together in the cafeteria?” I think I have some insight on this based on 16 years of living on or near a college campus: Many groups eat together in the cafeteria, but people seem to notice only when the students are black. Athletes often eat with athletes; fraternity and sorority members with their Greek brothers and sisters; a cappella group members with fellow singers; actors with actors; marching band members with marching band members; and so on.

And that brings me to the second aspect: We all deserve safe spaces. Those black students had every right to enjoy their lunches in peace. There are plenty of times and places to engage in uncomfortable learning, but that wasn’t one of them. The white students, while well-meaning, didn’t have the right to unilaterally decide when uncomfortable learning would take place.

Now for the story from Northwestern. For more than four decades, we have had a building on campus called the Black House, a space specifically meant to be a center for black student life. This summer some well-intentioned staff members suggested that we place one of our multicultural offices there. The pushback from students, and especially alumni, was immediate and powerful. It wasn’t until I attended a listening session that I fully understood why. One black alumna from the 1980s said that she and her peers had fought to keep a house of their own on campus. While the black community should always have an important voice in multicultural activities on campus, she said, we should put that office elsewhere, leaving a small house with a proud history as a safe space exclusively for blacks.

A recent white graduate agreed. She argued that everyone needed a safe space and that for her, as a Jew, it had been the Hillel house. She knew that when she was there, she could relax and not worry about being interrogated by non-Jews about Israeli politics or other concerns. So why is the Black House an issue in the eyes of some alumni who write saying that we should integrate all of our students into a single community rather than isolate them into groups? I have never gotten a single note questioning the presence of Hillel, of our Catholic Center or any of the other safe spaces on campus.

I’m an economist, not a sociologist or psychologist, but those experts tell me that students don’t fully embrace uncomfortable learning unless they are themselves comfortable. Safe spaces provide that comfort. The irony, it seems, is that the best hope we have of creating an inclusive community is to first create spaces where members of each group feel safe.

I suspect this commentary will generate even more mail than usual. Let me just say in advance, thanks for writing.

The Real Reason Black Kids Benefit From Black Teachers

Photo

CreditK. L. Ricks

For black students, having even one black teacher can make a huge difference. That’s the conclusion of a new study, which found that that black boys who had a black teacher during their elementary school years were less likely to drop out of high school. It also linked the presence of black teachers to kids’ expectations of attending college.

I wasn’t surprised to hear this. I’m one of a small fraction of black teachers in my district. I know that, as much as many would like to think that good intentions and talent are the only important qualities for educators, students respond differently to teachers whom they can relate to.

The week before the study was released, I showed my ninth graders a film about Kalief Browder, a black teenager who was arrested at age 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack, spent three years on Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime and died by suicide after his release. I was moved by the impassioned mini-essays about police brutality and stop-and-frisk my students produced and the honest experiences they shared. I realized it’s not just that my students live these topics every day. It’s also that they are teenagers who have seen me interact with law enforcement during our trips off campus. They trusted me because they knew I lived them as well.

The fact that my skin color matches that of my students doesn’t give me any superpowers as an educator. But it does give me the ability to see them in a way that’s untarnished by the stereotypes, biases and cultural disconnects that fuel inequality and injustice — like the outlook that made Trayvon Martin, carrying Skittles, appear dangerously suspicious to the man who took his life. Like the assumptions that studies show make people see black boys as less innocent than their white peers.

I’m connected to them because of our shared racial identity. But it’s more than that: I’m familiar with the world they inhabit. I can see their charms and challenges, without the filters of “minority” or “urban” or “at risk.” And I show them, through the pizza I order for their birthdays. Through the full days without schoolwork that I offer them from time to time because life is hard and we all need a break. Through teenage comedy that I laugh at with them, before reminding them not to make said jokes in certain settings. Through the pictures of my wife I show them — my wife, who looks like us.

To be clear, many of my nonblack colleagues see our kids’ incredible potential just as I do and are powerful advocates for them. The ability to treat students like people and love the mess out of them doesn’t rely directly on race.

Still, we live in a world of zero-tolerance policies, where students are kicked out of class for the “insubordination” of refusing to move to a different desk or for drinking juice, and where everyday misbehavior can elicit a call to the authorities. I find myself wondering, have the adults responsible never wanted to sit near their friends? Did they not drink juice in high school? Can they not see younger versions of themselves in our kids?

Black students need teachers who understand that they’re capable of the full range of anxieties and insecurities, greatness and success, hilarious moments and generous surprises. The amount of melanin in my skin is neither necessary nor sufficient for this: It’s not a magic formula. But I can remember a time when I looked and sounded like my students. That helps me see myself in them, and all they’re capable of. I hope they can see themselves in me.

Why I Use Skype to Teach World Geography and Cross-Cultural Competency

Why I Use Skype to Teach World Geography and Cross-Cultural Competency

My computer rings and I feel the excitement bubbling up in my suburban Maryland classroom. My first-graders know a Mystery Skype game is about to start. They grab their supplies: large, laminated world maps, dry erase markers, and magnifying glasses — and join their team on the rug.

Aloud they wonder how many hints they will need to determine where the other children are and what clues they will share. In teams of four, my students formulate several questions to help them solve the mystery:

  • Are you in the northern or southern hemisphere?
  • Are you near an ocean?
  • Is it morning or afternoon for you?
  • Are you in a big continent?
  • What is your main language?

I turn on the Smart Board to begin the adventure. One by one, my students come to the webcam, introduce themselves, and ask questions in the order they’ve agreed to. Soon, my room is alive with the children’s chatter. Huddled over their maps, they eliminate continents and countries. Magnifying glasses come out. When the whole class thinks that they’ve figured out the other children’s location, they shout out: “Are you in Chile?”
They’re not correct, so they return to study their maps and ask more questions. Finally, my class solves the mystery, and the students in the other class take their turn.

This session, my class is meeting with a group of second-graders in a bilingual school in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Their native tongue is Spanish, but their English is wonderful. My students learn that even though their partners have strong accents, they can understand them if they concentrate. The children in Argentina squeal with delight when they discover we’re in North America, especially because they’ve never met children in the United States before. The two groups then chat about their areas, cultures, and schools. My students are shocked to discover that children in Argentina also trade Pokemon cards and play similar recess games. The two groups also discern differences in time zone, season, and continent during the conversation.

As a teacher at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, MD, I continually find that Mystery Skype gives students valuable hands-on experience with world geography and helps them develop cross-cultural competency.


Mary-Catherine Irving’s first-graders participate in a Mystery Skype lesson. Credit: McDonogh School

A Window to the World

While many teachers view their Smart Board as a piece of technology to facilitate students’ computer and Internet use, I see it as a window to the world. As we meet children and adults on every continent this year, my students learn to collaborate, hone their communication skills, develop empathy, and enrich their problem-solving ability.

I started using Skype in my teaching in 2005, two years after the platform debuted. At the time my school was holding fundraisers to help a school in New Orleans affected by Hurricane Katrina. I reached out to a teacher, and our classes began to meet. We discussed local food, holidays, and our school communities. The video was often very pixilated, but the children’s idea exchanges revealed the power of these sessions. Our students became friends, and soon my class wanted to use Skype to share school events with their peers in New Orleans.

Skype’s potential as a teaching tool increased after Microsoft purchased the platform in 2011. Microsoft aims for teachers to learn and participate in a global community through activities such as Mystery Skype and virtual field trips. In addition, Microsoft educational consultants select guest speakers, ranging from engineers to authors to marine biologists, whom teachers vet to ensure productive learning for students. Today, more than 500,000 teachers and experts on all seven continents use Skype in the Classroom. More than 10 million students, speaking 64 languages, have seen other parts of the world in their classes through this technology.

Virtual Field Trips

I use Skype in the Classroom a great deal now. Typically, I’ll hold two or three sessions a month at various times in the day, during social studies, morning meeting, or lunch.

My first-graders have taken part in several virtual field trips, guided by guest speakers. Every two months, we take a gander through the platform and my students choose which experts to meet. As part of a unit on penguins, we met a penguin researcher outdoors in the middle of a rookery in Antarctica in December. Although my students know it’s cold in Antarctica, it was not until they met with Ms. Pennycook that they began to understand just how cold it is. They saw she had to wrap her laptop up in hand-warmers so it would not crash. She also showed them how desolate her home was while she conducted her research over several months.


Ms. Irving takes her students on a virtual field trip to Antarctica to learn about penguins. Credit: McDonogh School

In October, we met with a great white shark expert 30 feet underwater in a shark cage. Seeing sharks swimming around made my first-graders truly grasp their enormity.


First-graders learn about sharks in a virtual field trip in Ms. Irving’s class. Credit: McDonogh School

In November, we met with a paleontologist as he scaled a wall filled with dinosaur fossils in Utah. In each case, we never left the classroom.

Before each of these 45-minute sessions, I email with the experts to plan the lesson. I also show a video or read nonfiction to my students so they have sufficient background knowledge to ask meaningful questions. During Q&As, I am impressed with how seriously these experts treat my young students. When we were chatting with Ms. Pennycook in Antarctica, one student asked how the penguins know when to make the journey back to the rookery where they were born. She responded that scientists have not yet answered that question. She suggested my students read, learn math, and problem-solve with groups. Perhaps they would join her one day to answer that question.

My first-graders and I have virtually met some tougher circumstances this year as well. After Hurricane Matthew hit the Bahamas last fall, we connected with a teacher whose town in Nassau had been devastated. Initially we were only able to talk with the teacher by phone because the school was closed due to the conditions after the storm. My students raised money to help the class buy cleaning supplies by completing chores at home. When the school’s power was restored, her students met mine and described how they prepare for a storm of that magnitude and what it was like to live through it. We listened in awe.

Cross-Cultural Relationships

Skype in the Classroom helps my students cultivate virtual pen pal relationships.  For the past few years, my classes have had a relationship with students in Buenos Aires. We frequently hold morning meetings together, or meet to play games. Bilingual Simon Says and Rock, Paper, Scissors are favorites. During these sessions, the two groups teach one another poems, songs, and games from their countries. My students are now most avid Spanish students. Our Spanish teacher remarked that they are the only first-graders she has ever had who take notes, because they have a reason to learn the language.

My students are not the only ones building relationships abroad. I have tapped into a worldwide network of educators who are as passionate about bringing the world into their classrooms as I am. We frequently collaborate about teaching methods and content via Skype.

Over the years, I have developed some deep friendships. When my partner teacher in New Orleans had breast cancer, I supported her throughout her recovery. When my colleague in Argentina was contemplating changing schools, we Skyped at night to discuss her options. In fact, I have traveled to New Orleans, Mexico, and Argentina to visit teachers I had only met online, and hosted them when they came to visit. My colleague in Argentina stayed in my home for a month last winter, teaching with me and visiting other schools in Baltimore. I never could have imagined that I would make friends around the world with whom I would talk about my students, family, and life!

Far-Reaching Benefits

Many teachers wonder whether these virtual visits benefit them and their students. Looking back over my own experience, I realize that my students and I are more passionate about learning and our place in the world after connecting with others via Skype. During this school year, my students traveled more than 50,000 miles through Skype and my Smart Board.

My former student, Andrew, perfectly captured the significance of what he was learning this way: “Through Skype, I have talked with people all around the world. It makes me wonder if we all really do have a lot in common.”

 

Mary-Catherine Irving

Mary-Catherine Irving has taught first grade for 27 years. In 2016, she was selected as a Microsoft Innovative Educator as well as a Skype Master Teacher. NAIS selected her as an Innovative Educator in 2011. In addition, she is a certified National Geographic Educator. She can be reached at Mirving@McDonogh.org to provide guidance if you wish to try bringing the world into your room.

New Crop of Young Adult Novels Explores Race and Police Brutality

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Students in Philadelphia waiting for an autograph from Angie Thomas, whose novel, “The Hate U Give,” won critical raves. CreditMark Makela for The New York Times

Angie Thomas started writing her young-adult novel, “The Hate U Give,” in reaction to a fatal shooting that took place some 2,000 miles away. But to her it felt deeply personal.

Ms. Thomas was a college student in Jackson, Miss., when a white transit police officer shot Oscar Grant III, an unarmed, 22-year-old African-American man, on a train platform in Oakland, Calif., in 2009. She was shocked when some of her white classmates said he had probably deserved it. She responded with a short story about a teenage girl who is drawn to activism after a white officer shoots her childhood best friend.

That story grew into a 444-page novel, as shootings of unarmed young black men continued.

Ms. Thomas worried that no one would publish a young-adult novel about such a raw and polarizing subject. Instead, 13 publishers bid in a frenzied auction. Balzer & Bray bought it in a two-book deal, and Fox 2000 optioned the film rights.

When “The Hate U Give” came out last month, it became an instant critical and commercial hit, with more than 100,000 copies in print. The novel — one of several new children’s books that use fiction to address police shootings of unarmed black teenagers — debuted at the top of The New York Times’s Young Adult best-seller list, and has drawn ecstatic praise from critics, librarians, book sellers and prominent young-adult novelists. John Green, the author of “The Fault in Our Stars,” called the work “a stunning, brilliant, gut-wrenching novel that will be remembered as a classic of our time.”

“The Hate U Give,” which takes its title from a phrase coined by the rapper Tupac Shakur, is one of a cluster of young-adult novels that confront police brutality, racial profiling and the Black Lives Matter movement. Several are debut novels from young African-American writers who have turned to fiction as a form of activism, hoping that their stories can help frame and illuminate the persistence of racial injustice for young readers.

“For me, specifically for black teenagers, it’s a reflection of what we’re all facing right now,” said Jay Coles, a 21-year-old college student from Indianapolis, who sold his first novel, “Tyler Johnson Was Here,” to Little, Brown Books for Young Readers this year. Mr. Coles said he had started writing the book, which centers on a black teenager whose twin brother is shot by a police officer, as a way to process his depression and rage after Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida in 2012.

This fall, Crown Books for Young Readers will publish Nic Stone’s debut novel, “Dear Martin,” about a black high school scholarship student at an Atlanta prep school who becomes a victim of racial profiling when an off-duty officer fires at him and his best friend during an argument at a traffic light.

In “Ghost Boys,” a middle-grade novel by Jewell Parker Rhodes, the ghost of a young black boy who was shot by a white police officer witnesses the aftermath of his death, and meets the ghosts of other black boys, including Emmett Till, the black teenager who was killed by white men in 1955. The novel, which Little, Brown Books for Young Readers will release next spring, was partly inspired by the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

Teachers and librarians across the country have embraced the new body of children’s literature dealing with racial bias and injustice. Hundreds of schools and libraries have ordered copies of “The Hate U Give.” Other recent young-adult novels about violence against black teenagers, including Kekla Magoon’s “How It Went Down,” have been used in high school classrooms to talk about racial inequality.

Some educators see fiction as a particularly potent tool for engaging with volatile topics and instilling empathy in young readers.

“Kids have so many questions, and they want to engage on these topics,” said Deborah Taylor, a youth librarian in Baltimore. “We kind of shy away from the notion that this is a fact of life for our kids.”

The cluster of novels is also arriving at a moment when the children’s book industry is struggling to address the lack of diversity in the stories it publishes, and the scarcity of children’s books by African-American authors.

While the number of children’s books featuring African-American characters has grown in the last decade, the number of books by black authors has barely budged, according to data collected by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education. Out of some 3,400 children’s books published in 2016, 278 featured black characters, up from 153 in 2006. But only 92 of those books were written by black authors, roughly the same number as a decade ago.

The epidemic of police violence against unarmed African-Americans has been well covered through nonfiction, in books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me,” which won the National Book Award, and Wesley Lowery’s “They Can’t Kill Us All.” But children’s book authors have only recently begun to tackle the subject in greater numbers.

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Ms. Thomas’s first novel explores the issues of racism and police brutality. It set off a bidding war among publishers.CreditMark Makela for The New York Times

“This isn’t a literary trend. This is an issue of our time,” said the novelist Jason Reynolds, who teamed up with Brendan Kiely to write “All American Boys,” a 2015 novel about an African-American teenager who is assaulted by an officer who mistakes him for a shoplifter at a bodega.

Over the last two years, Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Kiely have visited more than 100 schools around the country, speaking to some 40,000 students about the book. Mr. Reynolds said they occasionally encountered resistance from nervous school administrators. Scheduled talks at a school in Newark and a young-adult literary festival in Texas were canceled over concerns about the politically charged topic, Mr. Reynolds said.

The overwhelmingly positive reception to “The Hate U Give” has stunned Ms. Thomas, 29, a former teenage rapper who worked as a church receptionist in Jackson while finishing her novel. “I knew that while the topic was timely, it was also controversial,” she said.

“I say, ‘It probably will make you uncomfortable,’” she said. “I’m not here to give you comfort.’”

As a bookworm growing up in a poor neighborhood in Jackson, Ms. Thomas didn’t have many literary role models. She tore through the Harry Potter books and other series at the library after school, but characters whose lives felt familiar to her were scarce.

“For me, hip-hop was a mirror when young-adult books were not,” she said. “I could see myself in a Nas song more than I could see myself in a book.”

In her first year at Belhaven University, she took a creative writing class, and felt out of place as the only black student in the classroom. One day, her professor asked students to talk about their travels over the summer. Ms. Thomas, who was raised by her single mother and grandmother, had never left Mississippi. When she got to her car in the parking lot, she cried.

But her professor encouraged her to draw on her own experience in her writing. “He told me that my stories, and the stories of people in my community, mattered,” she said. When she turned in the story about Starr, the narrator of “The Hate U Give,” he told her that she could turn it into a novel.

“The Hate U Give” takes place in a neighborhood modeled on the community Ms. Thomas grew up in, where drugs and gang violence were inescapable but people looked out for one another. Starr shares many of the author’s traits — she loves basketball and Tupac, and shuttles between two worlds: her affluent, mostly white private school and her impoverished neighborhood.

One night after a party, Starr watches as her friend, Khalil, is pulled over, shot and killed by a white police officer. She struggles with the risks of coming forward as a witness, as protests erupt in her neighborhood.

“I wanted to make this as personal as possible, so that people can understand why so many of us are so hurt and so angry,” Ms. Thomas said.

Since the book’s release on Feb. 28, Ms. Thomas has been touring the country, and has had emotional discussions with young readers. At an event in Jackson, a group of girls in middle school told her that they had never met an author who looked like them.

On a recent afternoon in Philadelphia, Ms. Thomas met with 41 teenagers from local schools who had gathered in a basement at a library. She wore a camouflage jacket covered with buttons bearing slogans like “Resist,” and put on a flower crown that one of the students had given her.

The students laughed when she described how she had to send her book editors links to the Urban Dictionary definition of “lit,” a slang term, and cheered when she told them that the novel was being adapted into a movie.

One student asked who inspired her to keep writing when she faced so many obstacles. A young man asked her about a central character modeled on Tupac. Others asked her about the challenges of writing about such a contentious topic.

“I want you to realize your voice matters,” she told the students. “Writing is a form of activism.”