Monday, August 24, 2009

When the Black Girl Sings Leaves Me Wanting More

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

In my quest to find new book blogs, I stumbled across Reading in Color, a spunky new blog written by the lovely Ari (aka Miss Attitude). She's young, black and committed to promoting books written by, for and about People of Color (POC). After scrolling through her posts, I knew she was the perfect person to help me with another of my quests - ever since I adopted my daughter (who is part African-American, part caucasian/Cajun), I've been trying to find books featuring bi-racial, adopted and/or black characters. My baby's not even walking yet, but I want her to have a library of books featuring interesting people whose experiences might be similar to hers. Who knows what will happen as she discovers her own, individual identity - I just want to make sure she's exposed to every side of her unique heritage. Ari came through in a big way, recommending sites like The Brown Bookshelf and Color Online as well as a whole list of books. Among her suggestions was When the Black Girl Sings by Bil Wright. While I didn't love the book, I think it offers a lot of insights into adoption, race, family, identity and life itself.
The novel stars Lahni Schuler, a black teenager who lives in Connecticut with her adoptive parents, who are white. Although her mom and dad adore her, they're having trouble getting along with each other. With their impending divorce, Lahni feels her world crumble even more. She's already dealing with a new school - a private one full of snooty white girls who make her feel very, very black. Plus, she's being stalked by a wannabe gangsta. Not only is he white, but he's also a complete whack job. Angry at her dad, worried about her mom, and feeling sorry for herself, Lahnie's not exactly a happy camper.
One day, Lahni's mother finds just what they need to put their lives back together: religion. Resigned, Lahni trudges along to the Church of the Good Shepherd, hoping it will cheer up her mom. She's amazed to find herself moved to tears by the congregation's resident choir, led by a flamboyant black pianist and an equally black diva named Carietta Chisolm. Lahni enlists their help in training for an upcoming school talent competition. In the bosom of the choir, she finally feels a sense of belonging. Still, she's got issues: How does she deal with her parents' dissolving relationship? Will she survive in a school that seems bent on ostracizing her? How is she going to shake her creepy stalker? And, should she even be entering a singing competition when the other girls seem so much more talented? As Lahni tackles her problems, she'll learn a thing or two about who she really is - and how, in the end, that knowledge is all that really matters.
As much as I wanted to love this book, I found the writing a little lackluster, the characters a little too flat and the plot a little too predictable. What I do appreciate is Wright's straightforwardness in tackling issues of race, specifically how a black child might feel growing up in a white family and community. Despite the conflicts Lahni faces, her adoption is portrayed in a positive light - her parents couldn't care less about her ethnicity, they love her for her. But it also shows how different a parent's view can be from that of a child who feels like an outsider every day of her life. I also enjoyed the characters of Marcus Delacroix III (the choir director/pianist) and Carietta Chisolm - although both are larger than life, they come off as both interesting and believable.
So, yeah, there's lots to love about this book, I just wanted a little more depth. When the Black Girl Sings starts off so strongly; I mean, the first two lines read: "I never once let any of them see me naked. Until that Friday, when I had no choice" (2). Who can resist reading on? Unfortunately, the writing fizzles along the way, making it a weaker story than it could have been. I'm still glad I read it as it gave me a lot to think about - I just wanted more from the author.
(Note: I'm still looking for books with bi-racial, adopted and/or black characters to add to my list. Bring on the recommendations! And thanks again, Ari, for all your help!)
Grade: C
If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for sexual content (in conversations, not action)

4 comments:

  1. That opening line would have had me going too! Too bad it fizzled out for you, though, the premise sounds fascinating.

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  2. I think it's wonderful that you are trying to feel and understand some of the challenges your daughter may face growing up. Hopefully, people will be more integrated and tolerant in her lifetime and it won't even be an issue, but I assume it might still be for her.

    My granddaughter has a little black friend that was adopted by a Caucasian couple. She's only 5 but she is quite caught up with that fact she's the only one in her family and among her friends that has a different color skin.

    I applaud your empathy with your daughter. Whatever the circumstances our children need that caring and attempt at understanding.

    Wow! Such a long comment. I should quit already, but I wanted to say thanks for sharing links to other terrific book bloggers. Can't wait to visit them.

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  3. I have a book suggestion for you. It's called the Book of Negroes and it's amazing. I review it here: http://nosebook.mapledesign.ca/?p=344#content
    Also, I just noticed that the main character in your latest review shares my name and the spelling! That is very unusual. How exciting for me!

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