Disclaimer I requested a review copy from the author; that’s how much I wanted to read this book (since I don’t usually request books especially with my TBR being as scarily long as it is). Black Brother, Black Brother and some other Jewell Parker Rhodes books have been on my TBR for a minute, but at some point during the COVID-19 lockdown and Black Lives Matter protests when people were compiling lists of books to meet the moment, this one came across my notice again. On a whim, I decided to reach out to the author whom I knew in the way that we know people far away in this era of virtual connections. She had edited an online journal to which some of my writing had been accepted more than a decade ago, and then some years later I requested and she agreed to contribute copies of one of her children’s novels Ninth Ward to the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize project I founded in Antigua and Barbuda to nurture and showcase the literary arts. Ninth Ward became a favourite of the Cushion Club, a reading club for children, with which I volunteered. That’s the entire history and it will have no bearing on
My *spoiler* review of the book.
So believe me when I say I really liked this book. I have spoken so much about my slow reading on this site, I didn’t think I was capable of finishing a book inside of 24 hours but I did this one. After some hiccups, I was able to download an audio copy (courtesy a Parker Rhodes libro.fm gift promo code) yesterday (I’ve started writing this on September 4th 2020) and was so eager to start, I paused the other audio book to which I was listening. And including the times when work and life required more of my attention and the stops and (what’d I miss?) rewinds that are standard for me and the few audio books I’ve read, I finished it less than a day after I got it.
So I suppose my first note is that the teen drama featuring two mixed race brothers – one Black presenting, one white presenting – is a quick read. It drops you right in to the book’s central conflict from the first scene; the fault line between whiteness and blackness, and the resulting quakes caused by anti-Blackness. We are fully in to the point of view of main character and narrator Donte at the moment when he is being falsely accused of some transgression or other (the details don’t matter) at the new, fancy private school he and his brother attend. His brother Trey is a popular athlete and, for all intents and purposes, white; he gets the benefit of the doubt in a way Donte, his younger brother by two years, can only imagine. Teenage Donte being handcuffed (“the white plastic circles my wrist”) by police, walked through the school to the taunting of others (“I keep my head high”), and put in a cell at the station may have seemed improbable a year or even months ago before video of Black baby girls (as young as six), one crying for a second chance, went viral. We don’t have the luxury of pretending that this kind of thing can’t happen (especially in white enclaves like the one Donte’s family has recently moved to from their more diverse New York neighbourhood); nor of being as uncertain as Donte is that the mostly Black men in the adult cell across from him are actually guilty of what they’ve been accused – not after so many high profile stories about profiling. When, later in the story, his whole body clenches when police lights flash as he walks in the suburbs he lives in with his parents – his father white, his mother Black – we can’t blame him. Not after so many reports of extra judicial killing of Black men and boys by police. There was a similar moment in the film Blindspotting (starring Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs). Speaking of, I had a few moments like that reading Black Brother Black Brother, call back moments, moments of being reminded of something else – without the book feeling unoriginal.
The Black boy being a fish out of water at a new, mostly white school is reminiscent of Martha Southgate’s The Fall of Rome. There are also shades of Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give in which the main character and her half-brother attend a mostly white private school and in which she ruminates on the double identity she must affect as a result; and in which the main character must also find the courage to bear witness in court – in Hate she’s speaking for a friend and in Black Brother, it is for himself that Donte must speak up. It’s been a while since I read Richard Wright’s Native Son but there is a way Parker Rhodes writes the conflicted inner life of black youth, through Donte, the insecurity and softness and the tension and the rage, the complicated humanity, that reminded me of Bigger Thomas – not as dark perhaps but as immersive, as nuanced, in a way that makes your heart break. Donte’s inner maelstrom is tempered by the things he has that – again, it’s been a while but – Bigger doesn’t, like family that loves him, relationships that bolster and comfort him, and purpose. Speaking of, forgive me for doing this, but there’s a scene in Black Brother between Donte and his not-yet-coach where the not-yet-coach sees the rage and coaches the boy through calming it (“breathe”), that reminds me of a similar interaction, though the coach in this case is the musical theatre director who surprises a similarly wound up Shaka with an impromptu boxing lesson, in my book Musical Youth. And I realized that fencing is for the kids in Black Brother, especially Donte, what the creative process is for the teens in Musical Youth (they also have a significant character named Zahra/Zahara in common). “Zahra is beautiful. It’s the first time I ever thought that about a girl” – even that feels familiar.
But, as I said, for all that is familiar, this book is not a knock-off. The complex characterization of Donte, who also serves as the narrative voice, the point of view through which we experience the story, is especially complicatedly human. “I don’t want Trey to feel bad but I do want him to feel bad”. Then there is the visual, general descriptiveness, of the storytelling. “My head is pushed down and my body follows, collapsing in to the patrol car”. The loss of innocence. “I never thought there’d be a time where mom and dad couldn’t protect me. Is this growing up?” Another reference point, the Kerry Washington film American Son, in which, much as with Donte, the temperature in the room changes when officers are interacting with the Black mother as opposed to the white father, similarly over the fate of a son – and similarly the mother is all righteous indignation ready to take on the system while the father is just daddy (the book tackles those various levels of privilege). The relationships generally, the established ones (his parents, but especially his brother who accompanies him on his fencing journey) and the emerging ones (Zahra, a teammate and love interest, and his coach, Mr. Jones) are engaging and multi-faceted.
It is a bit of teen hubris to seek out a former Olympian to coach him through his schoolyard troubles but the use of fencing as a motif and a plot device is inspired and effective. Parker Rhodes gives insight to the history of the sport described by Donte as “athletic chess” giving it and the story a wider social context even as she makes it personal to the boy who identifies it as “my superpower”. Like Neo in The Matrix, he can read and anticipate the code. “I can see, feel the foil’s power.”
This is an important journey for Donte, who as a dark-skinned Black Boy, especially after his encounter with the police, a boy even then so polite he “sirs” the men he is locked up with, says “I don’t feel completely safe. I used to, not anymore.” He is a boy who learns, as Tamir Rice more fatally did, that the world is “not fair” when you’re in Black skin. “It’s like dad and Trey’s skin tone are a magic reflector.” As with the chess prodigy in Queen of Katwe, Donte and his crew from the community centre on the not-white side of town have to learn that they have earned their place in the room, and have as much right to be there as anyone else. And, boy, do they.
Beating his nemesis – the boy from the private school who’s a big man on campus because of fencing and other things – won’t change the world, but it does begin to shift something in Donte’s inner world. And it’s a beautiful thing to witness.
I didn’t like the on the nose repetition of Black Boy, Black Boy (though it is a taunt so I’m not supposed to) and other pointed remarks re the differentness/sameness of the brothers but perhaps that’s only because of how well the book does at revealing Donte’s story for the most part without the captions.
A really good and I would say necessary read for anyone trying to understand what we mean when we say Black Lives Matter; or anyone just in the market for a good story.