Thursday, March 29, 2012

Why You Need to Read The Hunger Games

Katniss and Rue
Yes, you...mature adult fan of contemporary African American themed need to read The Hunger Games. Not because it's all your 13 year old talks about. Not because it's the latest multi-generational blockbuster.

You need to read The Hunger Games for its transgressive vision of "race" in America.

A quick refresher for those who have ignored the hype: The Hunger Games tells the story of a courageous, compassionate 16 year old named Katniss, living in a dystopian future North America. As punishment for a failed rebellion, teenagers are randomly selected to compete in the ultimate "Survivor" style reality show: a fight to the death among the 24 young "tributes". When her little sister is selected, Katniss volunteers to take her place, eventually launching a revolution against the cruelty of The Capitol.

Now here's where it gets interesting. For all the horrors of this future world, it seems that racism is not one of them. There are hints that warfare has wiped out much of the world's population, perhaps leading to widespread racial mixing out of necessity. The description of the heroine is racially ambiguous: she has "olive skin", and "straight, black hair", yet Prim, her beloved little sister, is pale and blond.There are likable characters of all apparent ethnicities, and never a suggestion that the callous Capitol residents belong to a specific ethnic group.

 Katniss's initial ally in the Games is 12 year old Rue, who has "thick dark hair and dark satiny brown skin". Katniss is drawn to Rue, whose intelligence, charm, and vulnerability powerfully remind her of her own sister, despite the obvious physical differences, and Katniss feels impelled to protect Rue in the same way she protected Prim by volunteering for the Games.

The bond of sisterhood between Rue and Katniss goes far beyond the "sassy black friend" cliche. Rue plays a pivotal role in the trilogy, and Katniss's devotion to her marks the heroine's moral transition from caring only about her own family to caring about all the vulnerable people in her society.

Cinna encourages Katniss
This notion of a racially-blind universe has not gone over well with all readers. Some were shocked and even offended that Rue was played by a black actress in the film, despite author Suzanne Collins' explicit statement that the character is African American. Others criticized the filmmakers for casting bi-racial Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Katniss's brilliant and empathetic stylist who gives her some desperately needed self-confidence at a crucial moment. Cinna's race is never described in the books, (he is said to have dark hair) but there is no indication that he is white rather than say Indian, Asian, Latino...or African American.

It is unfortunate that pre-conceptions of white as "normal" have prevented some readers from appreciating the book's message. Yet for African American children, The Hunger Games is the rare mainstream children's book that allows them to see themselves as heroes, rather than ghettoized stereotypes, and that presents a world where race is truly irrelevant.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Getting ready for...Silver Sparrow

Henrietta Lacks was clearly a popular choice; thanks to the 18 participants who came out for a rousing discussion of medical research, race, ethics and class last Tuesday! I hope everyone enjoyed it as much as I did.

We're shifting gears next month with Silver Sparrow, a  stunning, painful story of betrayal and disillusionment, from Atlanta author Tayari Jones, (see my post from last October ).  Dana and Chaurisse are sisters, but only Dana knows it. She and her mother Gwen are the "secret" family, the illegitimate wife and daughter James Witherspoon hides from his "real" family and the rest of the world. Although James persuades himself that he's doing right by them, Dana's resentment at always being second best eventually leads to devastating revelations for everyone involved. Jones creates a cast of fascinating and memorable characters, and a fully realized setting in Atlanta's black community of the late 70s and 80.

 Silver Sparrow has struck a chord with many readers; it's won numerous awards, and has been profiled on NPR's All Things Considered, blacklitchat, The Root, and the African American Book Club.

As usual, I've reserved copies for AAL group members, so call 847-448-8620 or stop by the Evanston Public Library Reader's Services desk to get one. I'll see all of you next month, April 10th, 7:00 pm at Evanston Public Library!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

In praise of Deborah Lacks

Deborah Lacks with an image of her mother's cells
Henrietta Lacks continues to fascinate scientists, sociologists, and ordinary people of all backgrounds. Yet it was her daughter Deborah who held my attention as I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. This young woman, who lost her mother as a baby, managed to survive an abusive stepmother, lecherous cousins, teen pregnancy, and two failed marriages. Her formal education was limited, her health and family problems numerous. Yet through it all she persevered, and managed to channel her anger and terror over losing her mother and sister into determination to do better for herself and her family. Her slowly growing friendship with author Rebecca Skloot was for me the emotional heart of the book.

To learn more about Deborah,  the Lacks family, and Skloot's foundation to provide financial assistance to needy individuals who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefiting from those contributions,  visit The Immortal Life website. There are interviews with Skloot, discussion questions, and updates on HeLa cell research. You can even submit your own video to share your thoughts about the book!

And of course, don't forget to join us at EPL on Tuesday March 13th for our discussion! 7:00 pm, Small Meeting Room, 1703 Orrington Avenue, Evanston. We have copies available for book group participants: just call us at 847-448-8620 to get one.