Thursday, August 12, 2010

Review: Sellout by Ebony Joy Wilkins

Found via: Reading in Color

I've said it before and I'll say it again: my social justice weak points are gender, sexual orientation, race and class. When a book hits any one of those sweet spots, I give it at least a second glance. Hit two or more, and its assured a spot on my to-read list. I've been waiting on this one since April, when Ari highlighted it as her Waiting on Wednesday title, since it looked like it was going to squarely hit race and class head on.

SelloutNaTasha is the only Black girl in her affluent New Jersey suburb. She spends a week every summer with her grandmother in Harlem, but otherwise NaTasha spends all of her time with her white girlfriends, doing things like silly contests to see whose hair grows the longest during the school year - a contest NaTasha knows she can't win with her nappy hair, even if her mom irons it straight regularly.

After a ballet recital where NaTasha's attempts to fit in with her white peers have disastrous results, her grandmother, Tilly, decides a mere week in Harlem isn't enough. NaTasha is going to spend most of her summer in the city, working with her grandmother at Amber's Place, a community center for troubled girls up in the Bronx.

After her first day at Amber's Place, NaTasha is sure she won't fit in with these girls any better than the white girls back home. For while these girls have brown skin, they immediately peg NaTasha as a sellout - someone who acts white and thinks she's better than her Black peers. But NaTasha decides to stick it out a bit longer, out of respect to Tilly, and hopes that sooner rather than later she really will find herself.

I totally understood Tilly's desire for NaTasha to get in touch with her roots. Her actions at the ballet recital (weaving scarves into her hair to give the illusion of a hair bun) indicate on some level that she's embarrassed or ashamed of who she is. Some time up in Harlem could do her some real good, showing her how other African American women love and accept the way they look. However, making her volunteer at Amber's Place really came out of nowhere. What is NaTasha supposed to learn from girls that have been abused, and even continue to abuse themselves? And then making NaTasha take part in the activities like she was just another girl - of course she and the girls are going to clash! To them, NaTasha doesn't have a real problem in the world. And in some ways, I felt that sending her to Amber's Place did make light of NaTasha's problems - they are rather "first world" problems (you need to feel that your basic needs are being met - food, shelter, safety - before you can start worrying about your identity and fitting in socially), but that doesn't make them any less real for NaTasha.

The other girls at Amber's Place, however, are totally and heartbreakingly real. Each of them has a story to tell, and especially Shaunda's and Monique's will make you rage at the injustices of the world that two otherwise bright young women would feel they are deserving of anything less than love and respect. Quiana, NaTasha's primary tormentor, also has a story to tell, making her anger perfectly understandable.

Once NaTasha gets to Harlem, the story really picks up and I enjoyed it - it's just the framing device, getting NaTasha into Harlem and the Bronx, falls a little flat and could have been handled with much more depth.
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