I felt a certain appreciation within the first few pages of Black Boy White School; clearly, what I was reading was authentic. The keen descriptions of inner city East Cleveland–a place I’ve never been to and probably will never go–have the rhythm of someone who has breathed that cold air and walked those cracked streets. Sure enough, when I checked the back cover I discovered the author, Brian F. Walker, lived a very similar life to his protagonist Anthony ‘Ant’ Jones. Both grew up in the ghetto and were given unheard-of opportunities when offered scholarships in posh New England boarding schools. It’s my best guess that Walker didn’t write this book to mirror his own challenges, but to guide the next generation with theirs.
When Ant arrives at Belton Academy, he is the target of unwitting discrimination. Despite his protests, everyone calls him Tony and figures he is from New York, like the rest of the black people there. This is not a book written to highlight blatant racism and you won’t find much of it; it’s about far more subtle ideas of perception. Ant might speak the obscene street dialect you’ll hear in most rap songs (when someone asks if he’s ever met Lebron James, his response is hilariously offensive), but he can also be surprisingly eloquent.
The contrast in dialogue highlights the theme of communication: characters often tiptoe around, trying to be politically correct, and what is said is often not what is meant. Ant, for the most part, says exactly what he means; other people simply do not. One interesting character is George, a black basketball star whose ideas about pleasing white people just enough to slide by earn him the nickname Uncle Tom. George lies to everybody, sometimes even to himself, to justify his goals. And George is not the only black character pretending to be someone he’s not. Ant’s change from baggy jeans to bowling shirts makes him question his own position in life. How can he rise above his background, without forgetting it?
Back home in Cleveland, Ant details the lives of kids whose goals include becoming thugs and ruling the street. There are moments that this book approaches a larger look at the identity of all black males, not just those in a ‘white world’—but it never quite gets there.
Where Black Boy White School veers off track is with a subplot involving the town’s hotheaded reaction to its new Somali immigrants. While this thread does serve to paint a picture of a much scarier kind of racism, the kind fueled by mob violence, it never really goes anywhere—anticlimactic and disappointing.
I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that at times I predicted a tragic ending, and at times I predicted a happy ending. The finals results feel deserved.
Bottom Line: Genuine dialogue and descriptions add merit to this tale of growing up in a supposedly ‘post-racist’ America.
Evan is a learning teenage writer whose ambition is to become a film director someday, but not until he’s published a few books first. In the meantime, he spends his time playing drums in his jazz band 3 AM Groove, writing for the school paper, building sets on stage crew, and trying to perfect his 100 greatest movies of all time list. He does not like long walks on the beach.