Book Review: Let’s Talk about Race By Julius Lester
HARPERCOLLINS/AMISTAD; $15.99; 32 PAGES; AGES 6-10
Facing race with kids
In our talk-television culture, few subjects are taboo. But one that still makes people squirm is race. Are we the same or different? Do we see differences as a positive or a negative? Are we really one thing or another? Julius Lester takes up these questions in “Let’s Talk About Race.” Sounds risky, like taking a long walk on a short pier, only here it’s telling a long story in a short picture book. And it works surprisingly well. Lester begins with an idea: “I am a story.” He declares his favorite food (fish), hobbies (photography and crossword puzzles), religion (Jewish), nationality (from the United States) and finally race (black). Then he asks, “How does your story begin?”
By providing a gracious model, he immediately draws the reader in. It’s all about dialogue. Then he quickly moves from personal to racial identity. Races, he explains, tell stories about themselves too, often revolving around the refrain, “MY RACE IS BETTER THAN YOUR RACE.” Lester labels such a put-down for what it is — an expression of self-doubt and fear. Then he connects the dots: Race, gender, religion and socio-economic status can confer privilege or elicit prejudice. Lester cleverly demonstrates the folly of race as a divider. He invites us to slip out of our skins and get down to our skeletons. “Then everything would be normal except we would look at each other and couldn’t tell who was a man, who was a woman, who was white, black, Hispanic or Asian.”
Good point. So, he asks, which story to believe — the one about how “my race is better than yours” or the one about how underneath, “I look like you and you look like me?” The right answer is a no-brainer. Point Reyes illustrator Karen Barbour fills the pages with vibrant abstract paintings that are playful and poignant. There are few entry-level books about race, and certainly none as attractive as this one. Together Lester and Barbour create an easy catalyst for conversations (many conversations!) that is candid yet casual, provocative yet affirming, assured but never preachy.
“Let’s Talk About Race” is just a beginning. There is much left to talk about and many unanswered questions. What is race, anyway? Just a gene pool or something more? Historical experience, cultural affinity, something to do with power, or nothing more than perception? Then there is the question about how race shapes not only identity but also destiny, and so often adversely. There is, sadly, a need for a companion volume, perhaps titled “Let’s Talk About Racism.”
Susan Faust is a librarian at San Francisco’s Katherine Delmar Burke School.