Breathing While Black (Twofer Book Review)

I happened across both of these books when I read a news article about the South Carolina police association trying to have both books removed as student summer reading choices. Um, hello. I would hope the cops know that the quickest way to get a kid to do something is to tell them they can’t. Oh, you did know that? Good job, then. Except I don’t think that’s what happened here. Now, I pretty much never agree with censorship, and what we have here looks an awful lot like Fahrenheit 451 meets the Third Reich, from an institution that is historically sucky at holding itself accountable. And I’m not saying all cops are bad cops. But I’d ask: If a good cop covers for a bad cop, is he still a good cop?

The bigger problem is it’s not just cops, not in this age of #BarbecueBecky and #CouponCarl and #PoolPatrolPaul and-and-and, the list goes on, ad nauseum.

The thing to remember is that America is rife with incidents of white people calling police on black people for everyday activities. Breathing While Black. And yes, this is hostile, given relations between law enforcement and people of color in America, and how horrifically often such incidents escalate into loss of life at the hands of police. It’s nothing less than white people trying to weaponize police in support of their own bigotry.

Back to the books. First, it’s imperative I point out that neither book demonizes cops; both books include a police officer as something of a hero figure, which highlights the depth of the problem and provides balance. Second, I wonder how it didn’t occur to anyone involved in this challenge to have some South Carolina police representatives actually read the books, then hold town-hall type events or offer to participate in classroom discussions. You know, interact with their communities. Educate. Try to make things better.

Hopefully the kids did like I did and immediately got copies and read them. Banned books generally shoot straight to the top of my TBR list. Both of these titles absolutely belong in school reading curricula, and I don’t care what the cops have to say about it.

On to the reviews.


The Hate U GiveThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a stellar (heh…the protagonist’s name is Starr) story about a young girl who’s life is plenty complicated enough, thank you, with the two worlds she lives in and keeps meticulously separated, careful not to be the “sassy black girl” at her mostly-white prep school and careful not to sound “too white” when kicking with her homies. Then comes the night she is the passenger witness to a traffic-stop killing, white cop vs black kid. And it’s not enough that she must deal with seeing her friend murdered in front of her and being held at gunpoint herself, for the crime of Riding in a Car While Black; things are further complicated by her cop uncle and her white boyfriend. Starr’s universe explodes as she finds herself in national headlines, wrangling the monumental contradictions of right vs wrong, justifiable fear vs speaking out for justice, black vs white.

Excellent characterizations and great pacing–I couldn’t put it down. A deeply emotional story told without being maudlin.


All American BoysAll American Boys by Jason Reynolds

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this after reading The Hate U Give, and I might have liked it more if I’d read it first. In comparison this book reads as slightly dumbed down, less nuanced, which seems a bit unfair. It’s still a compelling story, though, about a black teenager who is brutally beaten by a white cop for the crime of Shopping While Black. The POV alternates between Rashad, as he grapples with a parent who also assumes the worst of him and the enormity of being a national cause and a trending hashtag, and Quinn, the white teenager who witnessed the beating and must now struggle with the realization that a hero from his childhood is the accused cop. Both boys learn first-hand that racism and police brutality are alive and well in America long after MLK and Affirmative Action. As each of them sees that they each have the ability to write their own entries into the history books — what will they write?

Both books are easy YA reads with a lot of depth that adults can also enjoy. Both are timely and important.

Bookshelves for both: current-social-events, racism, ya, banned-and-challenged

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Author: Deborah Lee

I like trees, dreaming, magic, books, paper, floating, dreaming, rhinos, rocks, stargazing, wine, dragonflies, trains, and silence to hear the world breathe.

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