Jesse Jackson Doris Innis - Essay

Doris Innis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Juvenile books about Harlem and its residents fall into three main categories (or traps); those that romanticize life in Harlem, those that oversimplify it, and those that portray Harlem as a place from which the lucky ones escape. Tessie falls partly into the second category, but mostly into the third. These attitudes are obvious from the beginning. Bright 14-year old Tessie returns from a summer camp stay which has apparently dimmed her memories of unpleasant aspects of Harlem life and reacts as if she's returned to a minor nightmare. Tessie's escape route opens up when she wins a scholarship to Hobbe, an exclusive private school…. Tessie takes her scholarship, and the story chiefly concerns her resulting cross pressures; to win acceptance by Hobbe students without having her Harlem friends feel she has changed. The author handles this basic conflict in such confused and unconvincing ways that the end product is almost a hymn to the rather prevalent notion, more challenged now than ever before: to be white and middle class. Tessie's addiction to white social and aesthetic values is exemplified in the entire chapter devoted to what the author calls Tessie's hair problem, which, since it is kinky, she straightens, to conform to white standards of what hair should look like. Readers will inevitably be left with the unfortunate impression that Tessie, her verbal protestations to the contrary, has chosen the world of Hobbe and that it is the best of all possible worlds. (p. 169)

Doris Innis, in School Library Journal (reprinted from the October, 1968 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co. A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1968), October, 1968.