The Hustle in good company in Booklist’s Black History Month round-up:
Spotlight on BLACK HISTORY;
The first time I began to be aware of the troublous nature of race in America was when I was in first grade, during the heyday of the open-school movement. I rode a bus from my lily-white neighborhood on a hill to a more diverse neighborhood in a valley, joining a minority so small that, for our classmates, we were a bit of a curiosity; I am laughably easy to find in my class picture. As young as we were, we all had a sense of being enlisted as ethnic ambassadors for our parents, a hopeful experiment in how things might be different.
The next year, for whatever reasons, the experiment was over, and I was back to the school down the street. I never saw those first-grade playmates again, though I wondered about their lives. I was reminded of this by Doug Merlino’s The Hustle, in which the author recounts a similar experiment with a high-school basketball team comprising students from opposite ends of Seattle’s racial divide. The team won the state championship and then went their very separate ways. Over 20 years later, Merlino catches up with his teammates, finding their lives diverging in ways that are all the more disturbing for being expected, with law firms and wineries on one side, drugs and murder on the other. It pains me to suspect I’d learn the same things of my first-grade classmates.
Wes Moore’s The Other Wes Moore makes a great complementary read, tracing the divergent paths of two kids from the same side of the tracks in Baltimore, which is also the setting for TaNehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle. Sobering and inspiring, both memoirs depict heroic efforts to escape from or rise above the blighted ruins of the drug wars.
A few years later, I learned more about race. My father was a newspaper reporter covering a Seattle militant group named after Black Panther leader George Jackson. This explains why there was a copy of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice sitting in his study. Suffice it to say that Cleaver’s memoir is not age-appropriate reading for a curious fourth-grader, and its searing vision of an America at war provided a clark counterpoint to the hopeful chords of “Free to Be You and Me” that rang through our classrooms then. I was recently reminded of thosedays while reading Kris Nelscott’s Days of Rage, the sixth Smokey Dalton mystery. Set in the wake of the King assassination, the story reaches back across a century of racially motivated crime, providing a window on black history that is utterly compelling in a way Walter Mosley fans will appreciate.
Thinking back on first grade, my clearest memories are of music. I recall records being played at a friend’s house, Bill Withers and Stevie Wonder and something alarming that I learned much later was Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. I also remember singing folk songs in the classroom, including the one about John Henry, who so hauntingly “died with a hammer in his hand.” So t was fascinated to stumble upon Scott Reynolds Nelson’s Steel Drivin’ Man in our Black History Month display. What a revelation to learn all that lies behind the words of the song, ferreting through history’s byways and back alleys along with theauthor of what amounts to a research thriller.
The Beautiful Struggle” A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood. By Ta-Nehisi Coates. 2008. Speigel & Grau, $14 (9780385527460).
Days of Rage. By Kris Nelscott. 2006. Minotaur, $24.95 (9781429907354).
The Hustle: One Team and Ten Lives in Black and White. By Doug Merlino. 2010. Bloomsbury, $26 (9781608192151).
The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates. By Wes Moore. 2010. Spiegel & Grau, $15 (9780385528207).
Soul on Ice. By Eldridge Cleaver. 1969. Dell/Delta, $15 (9780385333795).
Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend. By Scott Reynolds Nelson. 2006. Oxford, $14.95 (9780195341195).
David Wright is Reader Services’ Librarian, Seattle (WA) Public Library.