The Black Kids is set in 1992 around the events of the Rodney King incident, the trial in which the officers who brutalized him were acquitted, and the riots in its aftermath in LA (see Wikipedia here). The book tells the story of a teenaged Ashley Bennett who attends a posh high school and hopes to go to Stanford. Her family are fairly wealthy—both parents well qualified and in good jobs, they live in an affluent neighbourhood, the only Black family there, and she has a full-time nanny/governess, Lucia. At school too while there are a few other Black kids, Ashley’s friends are mostly white. She and her sister Jo (Josephine) have been kept sheltered by their parents and given every opportunity to do well. Ashley is going through school (where she does fairly well) and also coping with the everyday happenings and challenges of high-school life, from cutting school to hang out with her friends, to the upcoming prom, and of course college admissions. But when the city begins to burn in the protests after the Rodney King trial, she suddenly finds she is no longer being seen as one of the kids, but as one of the ‘Black Kids’. As the situation becomes more tense, people around her seem to change, their prejudices come to the surface, and even her friends don’t seem the same anymore. Yet she tries to continue living her ordinary life. Can Ashley cope?
In Ashley and her family’s story we see the prejudices people have to live with every day, and how race, class and identity play a defining role. While the riots in the city bring people on edge and bring their prejudices to the surface, one can see in her narration, how even before that, even when her family was living a ‘normal’ life, how different their normal was—despite their education, their position and their wealth. They are living in an affluent neighbourhood but are questioned by firemen who can’t seem to accept that they could be living in such a place, Ashley’s mother driving with her in their new expensive car is stopped and must prove that she is the owner, and her parents are often taken for their own assistants in the places they work. Hearing prejudicial and discriminatory language is no surprise, and they must keep their heads down, go that extra mile and work extra hard at all they do just because of their identity. And this in normal times. This certainly makes one question what kind of society we live in—what do all those claims of recognizing and protecting human rights, living as free and equal beings really mean? Can we really claim to live in such societies when in some form or other this happens around us all the time?
I think the author does a great job in putting this across, and making us feel this injustice. And also indeed, with the violence and unrest in the city, the impact that Ashley sees around her, on her family (her father’s brother and their store), and the attitude of people around them, she begins to realise this truth and eventually questions things around her. Even who her friends really are, and perhaps at some level also where she herself belongs.
In much of the story, at some level one feels as though Ashley and her family are away from all that is happening around them, going on with daily life, never in any real danger, until things come closer home, and they must experience some of it first-hand. Amidst all this Ashley is also trying to cope with the problems of daily life, and in this she falters. She may not be a bad person but she certainly makes some foolish mistakes (some of which made one wonder whether she was any different from her friends) which she must eventually face up to.
Overall I felt this book deals with a really important and strong theme and puts the point of the prejudice, the discrimination across really well—it makes us feel how unjust society and the system are, and feel for what the characters must go through. At the same time, as a story, it didn’t really hold my attention as well as I expected it to.
A parallel post with more focus on the rights/discrimination aspects highlighted in the book appears on The Classroom Series, a research resource network on human rights (here).