“Should be required reading in every classroom.” —Nic Stone, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Dear Martin
“A true love letter to Los Angeles.” —Brandy Colbert, award-winning author of Little&Lion
“A brilliantly poetic take on one of the most defining moments in Black American history.” —Tiffany D. Jackson, author of Grown and Monday’s Not Coming
Perfect for fans of The Hate U Give, this unforgettable coming-of-age debut novel explores issues of race, class, and violence through the eyes of a wealthy black teenager whose family gets caught in the vortex of the 1992 Rodney King Riots.
Los Angeles, 1992
Ashley Bennett and her friends are living the charmed life. It’s the end of senior year and they’re spending more time at the beach than in the classroom. They can already feel the sunny days and endless possibilities of summer.
Everything changes one afternoon in April, when four LAPD officers are acquitted after beating a black man named Rodney King half to death. Suddenly, Ashley’s not just one of the girls. She’s one of the black kids.
As violent protests engulf LA and the city burns, Ashley tries to continue on as if life were normal. Even as her self-destructive sister gets dangerously involved in the riots. Even as the model black family façade her wealthy and prominent parents have built starts to crumble. Even as her best friends help spread a rumor that could completely derail the future of her classmate and fellow black kid, LaShawn Johnson.
With her world splintering around her, Ashley, along with the rest of LA, is left to question who is the us? And who is the them?
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
ON THE NEWS, they keep playing the video. The cops are striking the black man with their boots and batons across the soft of his body and the hard of his skull, until I guess they felt like they’d truly broken him, and, sure enough, they had. Four of the cops who beat him are on trial right now, a trial that some say is a battle for the very soul of the city, or even the country itself. It’s something I should give a shit about, but I don’t—not now.
Right now, birds chirp, palm trees sway, and it’s the kinda Friday where the city seems intent on being a postcard of itself. Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch are on the radio singing “Good Vibrations,” and it’s no Beach Boys, but it’ll do. Heather and I do the running man and hump the air to the beat; this even though she’s told us, in no uncertain terms, that this song is lame, and the rest of us have terrible taste in music. We’re several weeks away from being done with high school, and when I think about it too hard, it terrifies me. So right now I’m trying really hard not to care about anything at all.
After we exhaust ourselves, Heather and I collapse on the old pool chairs with their broken slats. The plastic creates geometry on my skin. Heather is pudgy and sometimes doesn’t shave her pits. I can see the dark of her hair in patches in the center of her pasty outstretched arms. How she manages to stay that pale given how long and how often we bake ourselves, I don’t know. It’s a spectacular feat of whiteness. Her lime-green toenail polish is chipped so that each nail vaguely resembles a state in the Midwest. Courtney’s pool vaguely resembles a kidney.
Across from us, Kimberly and Courtney stretch their bodies out across two fat plastic donuts that are pink and tacky and rainbow sprinkled. They float into each other’s orbits and back out again. Every so often they splash water at each other and shriek, “Omigod, stop it!”
Heather yells, “Jesus, get a room already.”
Courtney laughs and squeezes Kimberly’s boob like it’s a horn.
They’ve ditched class two times a week for the last month. I don’t ditch nearly as often as my friends do. But my parents and I are supposed to meet my crazy sister’s new husband tonight, and it’s gonna be a doozy of an evening, so it kinda felt like I owed it to my sanity to not be at school today.
These are the places we go—the mall, somebody’s pool, or our favorite, the beach. Our parents hate Venice because it’s dirty and there are too many homeless people, tourists, and boom boxes blasting, which means we love it. We flop across our boogie boards and stare into the horizon. Occasionally, a wave comes and we’ll half-heartedly ride it into the sand, our knees scraping against the grain. Then we stand, recover our bikinis from our butt cheeks, and charge back into the water like Valkyries. Afterward, we eat at this place the size of my closet, where even the walls are greasy. The interior is bloodred and peeling, and a fat Italian caricature in neon announces, “PIZZA!” Just in case you couldn’t tell. The previous owner, Georgi, was a skinny Italian with a villainous mustache who gave us free cookies; now the owner is a skinny Korean named Kim who does not.
After we eat, we watch the men with muscles like boulders under their skin, all of them so glazed and brown that the black men don’t look so different from the white men and everything in between. Most of them lift barbells, but some of them lift and balance on top of each other, a grunting tangle of bodies in short shorts and muscle tees. Last weekend, one of the men grabbed Kimberly and lifted her up to the sky like an offering.
Afterward he tried to convince us to come back to his place, like we would be dumb enough to go just because he was blond and tan and could balance like a circus elephant.
“I’ve got alcohol,” he said.
“Tempting, but no,” Heather said.
“I wasn’t talking to you anyway,” he said.
“Ew, we’re only seventeen,” Courtney yelled when he grabbed at her.
“Then maybe you shouldn’t walk around looking like that,” he snapped back.
Heather kneed him in the nuts; then we took off running down the boardwalk.
“Hey, you little sluts!”
Tourists with sunscreened noses took pictures of us running, our heads thrown back with laughter. But when we were far enough away, we crossed our arms in front of our chests, and Courtney bought a muscle tee with a kitten in a bikini that said “Venice, CA” from a nearby vendor. She threw it over herself like a security blanket.
That’s why we decided to go to Courtney’s house today. Here, we can wear our string bikinis like highlighters, bright neon signs that introduce us as women. It’s better that there’s nobody around to introduce us to.
Courtney gets out of the pool and walks over to where Heather and I lie on the deck chairs. She prances like the show pony she is across the hot concrete and squishes her butt next to mine until we’re both on the chair together. We’re so close I can feel her heartbeat. The hairs on her body are fine and blond; she shimmers a bit.
Courtney threads her arm through mine. The water from her body feels good against my skin.
“Would you rather... make out with Mr. Holmes, or with Steve Ruggles?” Kimberly’s stomach is already bright red. She burns easily, and once, after we went to Disneyland, she spent the whole week shedding herself like a snake.
“Both. At the same time,” Heather deadpans.
Steve Ruggles is built like a Twinkie, round and a little jaundiced. He sucks at intervals along the length of his arms, giving himself little purple bruises like lipstick smears. He has always been nice to me, but he’s also undeniably strange, a boy who kisses himself while we learn about the Battle of Gettysburg. Mr. Holmes is our AP physics teacher, and half his face is cut into jagged ridges like the cliffs along the ocean. The rumor is he was in a fire as a baby. Somebody else said it was a laboratory explosion. Both seem like superhero origin stories, and Mr. Holmes does kinda carry himself like somebody with a secret life. Although maybe that’s just because he’s different, and sometimes being different means hiding pieces of yourself away so other people’s mean can’t find them. Occasionally in class, I used to close one eye and see one half of him, then close the other to try to see the other half, like when you look at one of those charts at the eye doctor’s. When I did that for long enough, both the scars and the good started to fade, so his face was a soft, mostly kind blur. Anyway, I think he caught me once, and so now I keep both eyes open wider than usual around him.
“Leave them alone,” I say.
“I bet Mr. Holmes would be a good lay. Ugly guys try harder,” Kimberly says. Kimberly acts like she knows everything about everything, even sex, which she’s never had.
“So do you think I should do the entire thing or, like, leave a strip?” she says. The moles down the side of her sunburned body look like chocolate chips in strawberry ice cream.
“Leave your muff alone,” Heather says.
Kimberly is getting her hoo-ha waxed for prom next week, and you’d think she was going in for open-heart surgery.
“I think a strip looks good,” she says.
“Definitely.” Courtney agrees with everything Kimberly says. Their moms are best friends, and they were born two weeks apart. They’re more like sisters than friends. Kimberly’s first name is actually Courtney, too, ’cause their moms wanted their daughters to be twinsies. For a while, we called them Courtney One and Courtney Two, until Courtney Two had a growth spurt in sixth grade and everybody started calling her Big Courtney. That’s when she started going by her middle name. Kimberly is superskinny, tall, and blond; Courtney is skinny-ish, short, and blond. Both have fake noses, and I’ve known them since the first day of school when we were five and Kimberly (then Courtney Two) still wet the bed.
Growing older with other people means stretching and growing and shrinking in all the right or wrong places so that sometimes you look at your friend’s face and it’s like a fun-house mirror reflection of what it used to be. Like, I used to have buckteeth that pushed their way into the world well before the rest of me, and a big-ass bobblehead on a superskinny body. I think I’ve mostly grown into myself now—though I do worry that my head might still be a tad big. That’s the stuff you can see, though. It’s easier to see those changes in yourself than what happens on the inside. Easier to see that stuff in other people, too.
For instance, now Courtney and Kimberly aren’t into much other than themselves and boys, but Courtney used to be big into bugs. She used to collect roly-polies and ladybugs and sometimes these nasty-looking beetles. And then when we were in junior high, she got big into lepidopterology, which is all about butterflies and moths and stuff. It’s a bit morbid, if you ask me, taking beautiful things and pinning them down to be admired. But that’s kinda like what happens to some girls between junior high and high school, when being pretty gets in the way of being a full person.
I miss what we used to talk about then, when we’d have sleepovers, our sleeping bags like cocoons, and play Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board and lift each other up higher and higher still with the tips of our fingers. I used to yammer endlessly about horses, even in junior high when my friends were more into the idea of riding boys. As far as I was concerned, Jason R. was all right, but he couldn’t cleanly jump a triple bar. And as far as I knew, he didn’t nuzzle you as though you were the only person in the world when you fed him baby carrots. And when Jason was drenched in sweat, it definitely didn’t look majestic, even if Courtney and all the rest of the eighth-grade girls begged to differ. Eventually, I took a jump too fast and fell and broke my clavicle right before graduating from eighth grade. I stopped riding then, which I think my parents secretly didn’t mind too much, ’cause they were paying a buttload for lessons. I was afraid that the next time I fell, I’d break my neck. I don’t remember being afraid much before that. Anyway, Jason R. tried to make out with me at a party last year, but he’s not anywhere near as cute as he was in eighth grade and he smells like spit, so I politely declined.
The other day, I leaned in to Courtney and said, “Remember your butterfly collection?” She scrunched up her new nose, frowned, and said, “That was so lame. Why would you even bring that up?” As if instead of whispering about butterflies I’d told the whole school how she’d wet her sleeping bag at my house that one time in junior high.
We’re cheerleaders, and that makes some people think we’re stupid, but we’re not. Our bodies are power—like what I feel in my thighs when I bend and throw my full weight into a back tuck, that rush of blood to my head as for a few moments I feel weightless, knees tucked into my chest, skirt flying, before gravity catches up to me. Right there, in a tumbling pass, is the light and heavy of being a girl all at once.
“?‘Woman is the nigger of the world,’?” Heather declared one day at lunch while Kimberly and Courtney tried on each other’s lip gloss. It was around the time she stopped shaving her pits. At first I thought maybe I’d heard her wrong. But I know what that word feels like in my ears, the way my heart beats faster when I hear it. Even so, I tried to rationalize it. “I’m a Jewess and you’re a Negress,” she used to say as a joke. For a little while in ninth grade she even called us the two “Esses.” I think it was her way of trying to find the black humor in the black numbers tattooed up her bubbe’s forearm, the black humor in my black skin.
Courtney sighed and said, “Don’t say that word with Ashley sitting right here.”
“It’s cool. I get what she means,” I said. I’m always saying things are cool when maybe they aren’t. Sometimes I have so much to say that I can’t say anything at all.
The doorbell rings and it’s the boys. Things were easier before them. The first boy came in sixth grade. Travis Wilson and Courtney walked around school hand in hand and even kissed at the spring formal before they broke up that summer, when she decided he was taking up too much of her time. The second boy came the next fall. Brandon Sanders wasn’t so bright, but he was pretty, and Kimberly liked having him around because she was going through her awkward phase when everybody called her Big Courtney. She needed to feel pretty. To feel wanted. I think that’s why she let him touch her boobs, and down below, too, which he then told the whole school about so that the boys ran around saying “Sniff my fingers” as a joke for a month straight. We became known as the “fast” girls, which meant that the other girls talked shit about us, but also wanted to be us. The third boy came for Heather. Charlie Thomas played in a band in his garage, and Heather would sit around and listen to them practice. Sometimes she would drag us along, too. Her relationship with Charlie ended when she caught him with the lead singer, Keith, and we probably should’ve seen that coming. Soon enough we were under attack, and there were more boys and more boys still. Boys with muscles. Boys with money. Funny boys. Skinny boys. Boys who were men and should’ve known better. Boys who told me how cool I was and asked if they should buy my friends red roses or pink roses or no roses at all. Boys at school dances who brushed up against my fingertips and thighs and told me how pretty I was before running off to dark corners with my blond friends.
Our boys are drunk.
Michael immediately walks over to the boom box and turns off our good vibrations. In the front yard, you can hear the hum of Courtney’s gardener pushing a leaf blower across the lawn.
“This song is shit, you guys,” he says, fumbling with the radio dial.
Michael is Kimberly’s douche boyfriend. He’s got these big, beautiful, sleepy eyes that always look like they’re on the verge of winking at you. But it’s not that you’re in on any joke, it’s that you are the joke. Like, if we were one of those third-grade coat hanger Styrofoam solar-system dioramas, he thinks he’s the sun and Kimberly is the Earth, even though Earth isn’t all that important unless you’re on it. He’s joined by Trevor, because Michael and Trevor are best friends who go everywhere together. Trevor is tall, with floppy hair that he lets fall into his face before he pushes it back. Michael is shorter, with tightly curled hair and muscles like a pit bull. He’s on the wrestling team, but nobody much cares about the wrestlers. Michael is handsome because his face comes together in a way that people think is interesting, which is why people care about him even though his sport is full of boys in leotards bending each other into pretzels and shoving their skindogs in each other’s faces.
Kimberly and Michael have been together since the end of ninth grade, before he shot up in height, so that for a while she was very tall and he was very short, but they were both beautiful, so nobody gave ’em too much shit. Kimberly has already picked out their children’s names—Christy, Linda, and Naomi, after the models. And if they pop out a boy, his name will be Georgi, after the Italian who gave us free cookies. I think Kimberly mostly likes Michael because he’s from New York and doesn’t give a fuck, and she spends her summers there with her father. He wooed her and all the rest of us with those gruff vowels that drag out around corners and stop abruptly against consonants. Later, we found out that his real accent isn’t nearly that thick and that he’d stolen those vowels from the outer boroughs. But by then it didn’t matter; Kimberly was hooked. Heather says it’s classic daddy issues.
We know Michael and Trevor about as well as you can know boys our age, by which I mean we laugh at their jokes and yell ugh when they annoy us and don’t rat them out when they do truly stupid shit, like light branches on fire and set them in the middle of the road just to see how passing cars respond. Honestly, sometimes being friends with boys our age is exhausting. It feels like it’s a lot of listening to a bunch of jibber jabber about everything they like and why what we like is silly. Just because sometimes our music comes wrapped in glitter doesn’t mean it’s empty.
Michael finally decides on Power 106. He raises his hands in the air and they become weapons, his thumb and index fingers cocked like two guns.
He drunkenly swaggers through the lyrics he doesn’t know. Like I said, Michael grew up partially in New York, so he likes to pretend he’s more street savvy than the rest of us, even though he grew up in Midtown and lives in Brentwood.
Trevor joins in at the chorus, “?‘Here is something you can’t understand—how I could just kill a man! Here is something you can’t understand—how I could just kill a man!’?”
They yell a few more verses and then run and cannonball into the pool.
Kimberly giggles at her boyfriend, and Courtney yells, “What the fuck?” because now she’s wet again.
A plane flies overhead. Trevor traces its path through the sky with his finger.
“God, I can’t get wait to get out of this shithole,” Trevor says. “Move somewhere with a little fucking culture.”
He just got his acceptance letter from NYU three days ago, and all of a sudden now everything about Los Angeles and California sucks. He also went to India with his parents last summer and now he’s oh so deep and a vegetarian. Kimberly and Michael make out across from me, which is awkward enough, but even more so after what happened last week. Normally I’d be talking, too, but the deeper she thrusts her tongue into his mouth, the more I feel like a dog with a mouthful of peanut butter.
“LA has plenty of culture,” Heather says.
“Yeah? Like what?”
“I mean, maybe if you actually ventured out of the Westside...”
“Dude, just ’cause you’ve gone to a taco stand or two doesn’t mean you know shit, either.”
Trevor and Heather are always fighting, mostly because both can be equally insufferable. They both act like they’re the only ones who watch CNN or read the newspaper and the rest of us know nothing about life just because we can’t quote Sonic Youth deep cuts. Heather says the rest of us are book smart but not life smart, that we’re sheltered from life’s realities. But, like, I’m black. I’m not that sheltered.
“You guys want to go somewhere else?” Michael says. On his left ear are three freckles and a sunburn that gets worse by the minute.
“The Beverly Center?”
“God, you guys are so lame sometimes.”
“Shut up and shave your pits.”
“Nobody’s ever home at the house down the street from mine. Some Saudi prince bought it and they’re doing major construction on it. They’re, like, never there. And they’ve got a bitchin’ pool.”
“Why do we need to go to another pool when we’re already at a pool?”
“?’Cause it has a slide and a cave and shit?”
Michael lives several blocks over, and so we decide to walk. Days like this, the salt of the ocean sticks in your nostrils and on your skin. Gravel rolls underfoot. There are homes with ivy hedges like forts and homes like wacky sculptures or with windows made up of other tiny windows. Occasionally you’ll see a fading home fighting against being demolished for something in Technicolor.
The boys go barefoot, their wet feet leaving sloppy prints across the concrete.
As we walk, a red double-decker tour bus pulls up alongside us and stops in front of one of the houses. The voice inside it bellows, “This is where Tom Hanks lives.”
“No, he doesn’t!” we say.
Several ruddy-faced tourists stick their cameras out the windows. The dude who actually lives here is an accountant to the stars, according to Courtney. Maybe even to Tom Hanks. So perhaps the tour bus driver isn’t that far off after all. Heather flashes them as they pull away.
Trevor drapes his arm around my shoulder. Everyone thinks he looks a little like Jason Priestley, but I think that’s being generous. Trevor’s my prom date, but I’m not into him like that. Sometimes it’s nice just to be near another person, to feel their warmth and the blood coursing through their veins, and to feel the both of you alive.
“Oh shiiiit, love connection.” Kimberly makes kissing faces in our direction. Michael looks back at us and rolls his eyes.
“Our kids would be so hot,” Trevor says. “Mixed kids are the hottest.”
Then he pulls away from me and retches into Tom Hanks’s accountant’s petunias.
There’s a hole in the construction fence where you can just raise the green tarp and enter. I pause in front of it. “Guys, maybe we shouldn’t go in there.”
“Are you afraid?” Kimberly says.
Yes. Breaking and entering isn’t exactly something someone who looks like me should do all willy-nilly. Or at all. But I don’t want to call attention to myself. Not like that.
“No,” I say. “It’s just that...”
“You don’t have to come, Ash. Nobody’s making you do anything,” Kimberly says. She says it all sweet and shit, but we all know it’s a challenge.
“Dude, I promise you it’s worth it.” Michael winks.
Inside, the addition to the house is a skeleton, all bones and no meat, not yet. The dust sticks to our bodies as we walk through wood and nails and concrete slabs, but also beer bottles and cigarette butts. A tractor presides over all these building blocks like a promise. The pool remains untouched, an oasis, as though the owners decided that it—and only it—was perfect, which it is.
A few dead flies float on the water’s surface. Trevor bends over to scoop them up with his hand.
Courtney, Heather, Kimberly, and I hold hands and jump. There’s the rush of water, the cold, the velocity of our bodies. We sink, and then back up we pop.
“Marco...,” Courtney yells.
“Polo...” Trevor belly flops in. Just like that, it’s on.
We continue our call-and-response across the length of the pool. Courtney finds Heather first, and then Heather finds Kimberly. Kimberly finds Trevor, and Trevor finds Michael, until the only person left to be discovered is me. I’ve gotten good at being invisible. I swim under the water to the grotto. There, my friends are echoes. Dampened, they sound far away.
Inside, the walls are made of fake rock that’s slightly slimy to the touch. There’s a plastic opening where a light source should be, but the bulb’s broken. Obscured from view, everything in the grotto feels like a secret.
“Marco!” Michael yells. He reaches his hands out and runs his fingertips across my shoulders, my face, my hair.
I don’t say anything back. He splashes the water around us in mini waves.
You should know right now that I’m mostly a good person. I think.
I don’t talk back to my parents, much. I would help an elderly person across the street, if there were any around. I get mostly As, with a few Bs in the subjects I don’t care about. I even listen when Heather drones on about how plastic bags and aerosol hair spray make the planet hotter. All this is to say that I’m a good daughter. A good student. A good friend. A good sister. I don’t have a choice.
“When you go out there in the world, you’re not just you, Ashley,” my grandma Opal said one summer while she braided my hair into four long strands that she embellished with yellow ribbons, “you’re all of us, your family, black folks. You have to be better than those white kids around you. It’s not fair, but that’s the way it is.”
“I’m good, Grandma,” I said.
And I still am. Mostly.
“I found you...,” Michael whispers into the dark.
You should also know that I wasn’t entirely honest about Michael. Yes, he’s a douche. But he’s also really funny in a New Yorky way, smart and a little overconfident, but also somehow self-deprecating and insecure, and he can be really sweet and a great listener, and he’s got these beautiful curls like the ribbon on your favorite present.
Beneath the surface, he wraps his legs around mine and I wrap my arms around his shoulders until we’re intertwined and our heartbeats pound in tandem. He smells like sunscreen. Water pours in sheets around us like rain. The last time we were alone together it was raining, but instead of some fancy-ass pool, the two of us were in Michael’s crappy car. His lips graze my collarbone, and even though he’s Kimberly’s, together we’re electric.
“Polo!” I yell.
Kimberly and Courtney get into an argument over the rules of Marco Polo—Kimberly thinks you can get out of the pool to avoid being tagged, but Courtney insists that’s cheating, since we didn’t agree upon “fish out of water” rules beforehand. To broker peace, I suggest we stop swimming and start drinking.
We pass the bottle around like a communion cup. I roll the bitter of the beer around on my tongue. I don’t like beer, but we’re underage, so we can’t be choosy.
“What the hell?”
A crew of burly men in neon reflective vests and white hard hats enters, their faces red and sun chapped.
We scramble out of the pool and run through wood and glass and nails and trash. Pain hits my left foot, deep and searing. A piece of glass, part of a shattered beer bottle, is the culprit. The blood trickles in dark red lines down my foot.
I’m not supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be in AP physics right now, reviewing momentum and impulse. Right now, Mr. Holmes would be going into and out of focus.
“I’m calling the cops!” another hard hat yells after us.
“?‘Fuck tha police, fuck fuck fuck tha police.’?” Trevor laughs, then punctuates it with a belch.
Across town, the trial lets out for the day. The members of the jury step out into the open air and lift their faces to the sky, glad that after a long, dark day, there’s a bit of sunshine left.
No, I don’t care about any of it now. But I will.
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide for
The Black Kids
By Christina Hammonds Reed
About the Book
Seventeen-year-old Ashley Bennett is rich, popular, pretty, and Black. As her senior year of high school winds down, Ashley has been spending lazy days at the beach, and soaking poolside with her besties Courtney, Heather and Kimberly. That is until the officers accused of beating Rodney King are acquitted and the 1992 race riots break out. Torn between her idyllic LA life and the throes of racial unrest, Ashley is faced with questions about what it means to be Black, to be a good person, to be a friend, and, ultimately, to speak up in the name of life’s injustices. The reality of the times hits closer to home when her older sister, Jo, finds herself in trouble as a result of her activism; a Black star athlete at her school is suspended after Ashley inadvertently starts a rumor about him looting; and her family’s generations-old store is looted. With racial tensions escalating at school and in the city, Ashley reckons not only with her own identity, but also with how she has accepted and enabled her friends’ micro and macroaggressions. What happens when wealth and status can no longer protect you? This is what Ashley must grapple with, and the realizations she makes are life changing.
1. Throughout the book, Ashley realizes there is a lot about her family history that she either doesn’t know or doesn’t understand, or that no one talks about. As the story unfolds, however, she finds that speaking about things such as Grandma Opal’s death, the family store, and Jo’s mental health are essential for reconciling and moving forward as a family. In what ways do you think secrecy and avoidance shape Ashley’s view of herself as a daughter, sister, and friend? How might things have turned out differently if everyone had been more forthright? Do you feel there is ever a time when it’s better not to reveal family histories? Explain your answers.
2. A former Brownie, Ashley recalls singing this line from a camp song: “Make new friends, but keep the old; one is silver, the other is gold.” Based on Ashley’s relationships with Kimberly and Courtney, and later on with Lana and LaShawn, do you agree or disagree with this line from the song? Explain your answer using examples from the book or your own life.
3. For Ashley, her family’s wealth and status afford her the luxury of living in an upper-middle class neighborhood and attending an elite private school with a majority of white students. Throughout her life so far, these were commonalities that solidified her relationship with Courtney and Kimberly. Conversely, these privileges distanced Ashley from the other Black kids at her school, many of whom commuted and received scholarships. To what extent do you feel we inherently pick friends based on social and economic commonalities? How do race and culture factor in? What are the benefits and drawbacks to each?
4. Ashley often feels that she finds favor with her mother because she is an “easier” child to raise than her sister Jo, not necessarily because she is seen or valued as an individual. In what ways do you feel that this dynamic influences Ashley’s decisions throughout the book? How might reconciliation between Jo and their mother influence Ashley’s identity, as well as her relationships with both her mother and with Jo?
5. In addition to racism, The Black Kids also highlights colorism within the Black community. Ashley describes her cousin Morgan as “light-skinned, with long curls like Jo’s,” saying that even as a child Morgan understood that these features afforded her privilege and proximity to whiteness that her cousin did not have. Why do you think Morgan relied so heavily on anti-Black taunts in their childhood? Do you feel that those sentiments changed at all for her during the riots? Explain your answers.
6. Based on your initial impression of LaShawn and what you learn about him over the course of the book, do you find that your opinion of him changed in any way? If so, how? If Ashley had never started the rumor about LaShawn looting his shoes, do you think he still would have eventually become a friend or romantic interest?
7. Throughout the book, Ashley speaks often of feeling that her Blackness is distinct from others’, creating an “us vs. them” mentality. This notion is challenged, however, as she encounters new friends whose Blackness doesn’t fit into her simple dichotomy. Discuss how characters such as Lana, LaShawn, and Candace broaden Ashley’s thinking about how Blackness can be experienced and defined. Provide textual evidence to support your responses.
8. Though a subtle theme, hair plays a critical role in Ashley’s ability to ultimately find peace in her Blackness. This is revealed in instances such as her childhood with Morgan, in memories of getting her hair braided with Lucia, and finally in allowing Candace to braid her hair with beads. How do these personal hair experiences affect Ashley? Ashley notes that her mother thinks hair beads look “tacky,” but she still chooses to have them in her hair. How does this small action show growth in Ashley, if at all?
9. Ashley reflects often on what it means to be a good person and to make mistakes. Explain the importance of this self-reflection and how it shapes the decisions that she makes. Do you engage in self-reflection around your character and decisions? What does that look like in your life?
10. “If white kids can run around wearing their bodies like they’re invincible, what do the rest of us do? Those of us who are breakable?” In what ways do Ashley’s white friends’ actions compare to her own? How about the other Black kids? What does it mean in this quote to be “breakable”?
11. In the book, we come to understand that Ashley’s white friend Kimberly doesn’t consider her “blackity black.” This idea of being palatable to her white peers, or less stereotypically Black, is something that Ashley discusses often in narration, particularly as she dives into Jo’s old music collection. How do you think Ashley feels when Kimberly calls her out for listening to Funkadelic? If you were in her shoes, what would you have said to Kimberly? Do you believe there are certain criteria that must be met—beyond skin color—in order to be considered Black?
12. As Ashley comes to know and understand more about her surroundings during the riots and reveals to Lana that she started the rumor about LaShawn, she finally decides to make things right with him. What do you think of her timing? How would you have responded if you were LaShawn?
13. “Sometimes it’s hard being a girl, and it’s hard being black. Being both is like carrying a double load, but you’re not supposed to complain about it.” Here, Ashley explores the intersecting identity of belonging to both a race and a gender that have been systemically marginalized. How does the idea of being a Black girl, as explained in the above quote, manifest in the lives of Ashley, Jo, Morgan, and others? How do these characters differ from one another in how they live out Black girlhood and its many challenges?
14. How does The Black Kids encourage readers to engage in difficult conversations surrounding racism-created traumas and how they happen in friendships, families, and other relationships? Do any instances of these traumas, such as Ashley’s history of being called the “N” word or LaShawn being accused of looting his shoes, resonate with you? Explain your answer. If not, what did you take away from this book about the ways that overt and covert racism affect people of color broadly, and Black people specifically?
15. Why do you think the author decided to write out a separate section for Ashley’s encounters with the “N” word? What is the impact and effect of this section’s format, where readers see an abbreviated list as opposed to a narrative approach?
16. Though they are sisters, Ashley often mentions that she feels distant from Jo and the way that she has chosen to live her life. This is amplified by Jo’s struggle with her mental health. Using textual evidence, compare the sisters’ actions and reactions to the harsh events of the LA riots. Do you find that the sisters are, in fact, as different as Ashley believes, or do you think there are more similarities between them than she thinks? Discuss what might have had to happen for the two to have found more comfort and support in each other throughout the time frame of the novel.
17. Though they live in a predominantly white neighborhood, Ashley’s parents emphasize the importance of meaningful and positive Black representation in their lives. Ashley speaks fondly of visiting Leimert Park to buy an ankara, and visiting Black Santa during the winter holidays. In your opinion, to what extent should parents shape and tailor their children’s understanding of Blackness? When, if ever, does that tailoring become harmful?
18. In what ways have present-day riots and movements such as #BlackLivesMatter affirmed the humanity of Black people in the eyes of others? How do contemporary movements compare to the LA riots as presented in The Black Kids? Do you think that social media makes a difference in seeking justice and fighting racism? Explain your answers.
19. The Black Kids takes place during Ashley’s senior year, a time when young people are stepping out of adolescence and into adulthood. In what ways, if any, do you think that graduating from high school in 1992 in LA shaped real-life students’ outlook on the world after graduation? If possible, provide evidence from the text to support your conclusions.
20. If dates were never mentioned, would you know that The Black Kids was a historical fiction novel? Explain your answer. If so, what does this say about our progress as a nation?
1. Early in the story, Ashley’s mom is unwilling to intervene on behalf of the Black boys who had an encounter with the police. However, when it is her own daughter facing false accusations and undeserved charges, she goes above and beyond with her personal connections to help her. Consider your own identity, privileges, and resources. Write them down on an index card and role-play the scene outside the convenience store with your class. Take note of the differences in how you and your peers reimagine the situation based on your personal identities and histories.
2. Shortly after the videotaped beating of Rodney King, fifteen-year-old Black girl Latasha Harlins was murdered by a Korean convenience store owner after being wrongly accused of stealing orange juice. Though this event added kindling to the eventual LA Riots, ultimately it was the acquittal of the police who beat Rodney King that is recognized as the primary event that sparked the riots. Research Latasha Harlins’s and Rodney King’s cases and write an analysis essay in which you discuss why the victims were not historicized in the same manner.
3. The Black Kids offers a glimpse into young people’s lives at a time in which racial tensions in America were high. Read one of the following texts that offer a similar perspective and cover events from different time periods. After reading, discuss the trends that are consistent across the texts. What were the major differences in approaches to racial justice, treatment of genders, and how they resolved?
Saving Savannah by Tonya Bolden
Red Summer of 1919
It All Comes Down to This by Karen English
1965 Watts Riots
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
shooting of Oscar Grant
4. There are a number of factors that define who we are, the decisions we make, and the fate of our lives. Understanding this, author Brenda Stevenson wrote The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Race Riots. In groups of three, assign each person to read a section of the book, including portions about Latasha Harlins, storeowner and murderer Soon Ja Du, and the judge who presided over the case, Joyce Karlin. After reading, discuss how your perspective on the case shifts, if at all. Time permitting, conversations may extend into present day tensions and cases of racial injustice.
5. Throughout the book, Ashley struggles to speak out against the racist and insensitive comments her friends make to her and about their other Black classmates. Choose one of these scenes, and rewrite it either with a different outcome or from a different character’s perspective. Do you notice anything new or unexpected when examining from this angle? Is there any advice or insights you would share with the characters?
6. Mental health struggles can be difficult to deal with, whether they are your own or happening to a friend or loved one. In addition to having a relationship with a licensed therapist, many find that affirmations help to overcome negative and self-sabotaging thoughts. An example of an affirmation would be: “I am worthy of friendship, even though I’ve made mistakes.” Using Post-it notes, write three sets of affirmations: Two for two different characters in The Black Kids, and one for yourself. How do you think these phrases might impact the characters that you selected? How do they impact you?
Melanie Kirkwood Marshall holds a BA in Secondary English Education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a M.Ed in Reading Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has taught in many learning contexts from High School ELA teacher to Primary Literacy Interventionist. Currently, Melanie is completing her doctoral studies in Multicultural Children’s Literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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