[Nonfiction Wednesday] The Skin and Bones of Race and all its Meanings in Julius Lester’s “Let’s Talk About Race” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between The World and Me”

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Myra here.

We are delighted to join the Nonfiction Picture Book meme 2016 hosted by Alyson Beecher @ Kid Lit Frenzy. We would also be linking our nonfiction choices with our reading themes throughout the year.

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These two books explore in great depth what race signifies – all its political meanings and permutations, its renderings and reflective nature. While the narratives could be challenging, there is no doubt that these two books are immensely thought-provoking, and both divisive and inclusive at the same time.


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Let’s Talk About Race

Written by: Julius Lester Illustrations by: Karen Barbour
Published by: Harper Collins Publishers, 2005 ISBN: 0060285966 (ISBN13: 9780060285968)
Borrowed a copy from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

I wish I had known about this book much earlier as this would have been a perfect read-aloud to my higher-degree class on multicultural children’s literature. While the title seems openly confrontative, the text is anything but. As the reader opens the book, “Let’s talk about Race” becomes more like an invitation for a casual chat over coffee rather than a boorish challenge to be met at street corners.

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The whole notion of “race” is packaged within one’s own personal narrative – making me realize that only a gifted weaver of words would be able to manage something so exquisitely simple and true as this. Yet, award-winning Julius Lester is also unflinching in his sharing of his truths – as he zooms in and out in his discussion about race and story, its roots and beginnings, and how often people tend towards ethnocentrism (the belief that one’s culture or race is better than another’s) as they move towards self-definition and establishing one’s differentness from another.

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However, rather than being angry about this or indignant or self-righteous – he posited a helpful premise as to why this is so:

Because they feel bad about themselves. Because they are afraid. Because.

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He also manages to show how this permeates an individual’s very being – and that it transcends race or cultural background, this persistent habit of one-upping each other insidiously creeps into the tiny things that signify status, wealth, or one’s perceived position in society. Then Lester offers a new way of seeing, a different way of looking at each other:

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How would it be like to go outside of one’s skin: taking off one’s clothes, removing one’s colour – and seeing what is “beneath our skin”? Stripped bare of all our well-considered affordances, our smart phones, our skin colour – what it would be like to know another’s story and truly see one another as individuals?

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Lester’s gentle questioning and incisively-formed insights are matched by the surreal colours of Karen Barbour who managed to interpret Lester’s text in a visually arresting manner that is both soothing and jarring. This is a book that manages to embrace inclusivity while at the same time acknowledging our distinct personal narratives. It is a book that should be found in every classroom. For teachers who wish to use this book, here is a weblink that contains a list of suggested discussion questions for your thoughtful young readers.


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Between The World And Me

Written by: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Published by: Spiegel & Grau, 2015 ISBN: 0812993543 (ISBN13: 9780812993547) Book Awards: National Book Award for Nonfiction (2015), ALA Alex Award (2016), Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction (2015), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Nonfiction (2015)
Bought my own copy of the book. Book photos taken by me.

In contrast to Lester’s gentle, almost-teaching tone in Let’s Talk About Race, this seemingly-innocuous title belies the highly confrontative and often angry words found in this little book that is meant to be Ta-Nehisi Coates’ letter to his young son. It is a difficult book to read – not just because of the nature of its contents that is highly politicized, but also because Coates couched his musings in a philosophical treatise that is often convoluted and intellectually challenging. This is tempered by the occasional black and white photographs that he includes as part of his narrative.

I find the first part of the book harder to read as I felt almost physically assaulted by the indignation, the righteous anger, and the disingenuous fear that permeates everything. There is a very distinct us versus them that left me wondering where I, as a brown reader, a Southeast Asian of mixed ethnicity who is living in another Asian country that is not my country of birth, should position myself amidst all this rage and fear. Here is an illustration of the visceral aspect of Coates’ writing – I took a photo of the page and edited it using an iPhone app.

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As soon as I stopped juxtaposing my own personal history of oppression and years of colonization and my recent years of moving to another country – with all this physical rendering of race that is painted as all-too-violent and real – then I saw with Coates’ eyes; but it takes effort and will – Coates can be quite alienating that you may not even want to consider this worth doing. The quote below paints a stark truth that is as frightening as it is all-too-real.

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My personal copy is riddled with a great many post-it notes as I do feel that this is a hugely important text that marks a step forward when it comes to providing illumination about matters pertaining to race. In the wake of the #blacklivesmatter campaign, I would even go all-teacherly and claim that this should be required reading in the classroom – if only for the discussions and arguments and conversations it would no doubt engender.

It was fatherhood that made Coates expand his level of consciousness beyond a delicately-built safety net that is deliberately confined – perhaps for safety, out of fear, or a lived reality of hypervigilance that is marked by constantly looking over one’s shoulders growing up in the streets of Baltimore.

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This grudgingly-more-expansive manner of thinking is a gift that he wanted to impart with his son, his own personal struggle and contradictions that I choose to highlight here as we explore the reading theme of what it’s like to be a child of the universe or a citizen of the world:

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I admire Ta-Nehisi Coates for his strength borne out of articulated vulnerability, his conviction borne out of a constant alertness to danger, his sense of rootedness that he challenged by visiting a European country – which again served to demonstrate ties of connectedness rather than separation, and his capacity to transform ugliness into something life-affirming and beautiful.

Here is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Acceptance Speech as he received the National Book Award:

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Between the World and Mecounts towards my Book Riot Read Harder ChallengeRead a book about politics, in your country or another – fiction or nonfiction (13/24)

3 Comments on [Nonfiction Wednesday] The Skin and Bones of Race and all its Meanings in Julius Lester’s “Let’s Talk About Race” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between The World and Me”

  1. You always find great picture books that I’ve forgotten about or have never read!
    I started reading Between the World and Me but it wasn’t the right time to read it. I had too much going on and couldn’t give it the attention it needs. I’ve heard great things.

    Like

  2. What a great post! I’d like to find Let’s Talk about Race. It looks fabulous! I’ve heard similar things to what you said about Between the World and Me – that it’s a challenging text.

    Like

  3. Thanks for reminding me of Let’s Talk About Race. It actually looks like something I’d want to read.

    Like

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