I first read When We Was Fierce by e.E. Charlton-Trujilla and loved it. Once I got used to the “invented” language I couldn’t put it down. It was a perfect book in my eyes; free verse, a genre that my students and I adore. The rip-you-apart story. The fast-paced narrative. I was excited to get this in the hands of students knowing that much like my own heart broke, they too would get sucked into the story of T and his friends as they tried to survive in the inner city. I told my friends and colleagues to read it, even declaring it one of the must read books of the summer on Twitter.
A few days later, I woke up to this post on the blog Reading While White called When Whiteness Dominates Reviews systematically dismembering the book that I had just raved about. I was stunned. I felt stupid. I felt ashamed, once again made aware of how my own white privilege had colored my judgment. So I knew I had to learn more, I read more reviews, reached out on Twitter and quickly found the same views being shared; this book is unjust, this book should not be in classrooms. And it dawned on me…in my own heartbreak over the book. In my own eagerness to proclaim this book a must read, I had forgotten to check myself and the narrative that I had fallen in love with. I had forgotten to think of the picture that this book paints of what it means to be a young African American man in the US. That this book is probably the opposite of what my mostly white students need because it once again affirms the narrative that the media and others would like us to remember when we speak of inner city America. That this book, in its eagerness to highlight the lives of young men, may do more damage than good.
So for the past week I have watched the debate unfold, I have seen the responses of critics and praises, I have tried to think of what it must feel like to be the author who poured her heart into a book thinking it would be a good thing. And I have been ashamed. Ashamed at my own idiocy. Ashamed at how little I know. Ashamed at how quickly I bought into the same tragic story as a way to make my students think, where instead I should be looking for stories that combat this one-track narrative. Because that is what my students need to know; that this is not the story of all, that this is not what always happen, that this is not reality for all or even some.
In the end, the words that keep haunting me are the words from Jennifer Baker’s review. She writes, “Thinking of the young reader demographic I’d like someone to sit back and consider work created by so many marginalized artists that seeks to show an alternative while also showing truth and tell me if you would actually feel comfortable showing When We Was Fierce to a group of Black children and saying ‘This is how I see you.’”
This is how I see you. Can you imagine if white rural kids were portrayed like this? If Danish kids from small towns were portrayed that way? I would be indignant at the portrayal. I would be outraged. And so I write this review as a way to process out loud. For others to see just how easy it is to forget just how little we know. How much we still have to learn. And that’s it for me, in my own eagerness to try to add to the conversation about racial inequality I was going to give it more of the same. I was going to use this book as a way to start a discussion, but that discussion would have been about the wrong things. So now? Well, now I remember how much I have to learn, how little I know. How I cannot call myself an ally when I am so easily fooled. How we all have a long way to go in trying to change the social injustice that perpetuates our combined story. How I would never want a child to pick up a book in my classroom and think that this is how I saw them. That this is the legacy they must be forced into because that is how the world sees them. This book now becomes a teaching piece in my classroom; excerpts will be provided to discuss the portrayal, the starred reviews will be given and then the reviews that disagree. I will invite my students into the debate so that perhaps they can see the danger of a single story when we let our emotions roll us into a narrative that is unjust and damaging. Hopefully they will not be as easily fooled as me.
A few great articles that helped me think deeper: