Themes in Young Adult Literature: Race and Ethnicity

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2856

Titles Discussed

Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons

The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow

Slave Day by Rob Thomas

Thematic Overview

To many Americans, it can seem as if the problems of racial discrimination are in the past, and this is especially true for young adults. When students read about...

(The entire section contains 2856 words.)

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Titles Discussed

Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons

The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow

Slave Day by Rob Thomas

Thematic Overview

To many Americans, it can seem as if the problems of racial discrimination are in the past, and this is especially true for young adults. When students read about the American Civil War, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, or the Holocaust, it is history. The problems couched in these events seem to belong to the past, and if a reader has never experienced racial tension, the politics of race can seem like they belong to a bygone era.

For other readers, the problems of race, anti-Semitism, systemic discrimination, or even violence are immediate. The feelings of powerlessness and the frustration to which they lead are present and pressing. The characters in these novels confront the problem of acting responsibly in societies designed to disempower them. They, like many young adults, have to figure out how to navigate their identities when that identity is in the minority.

As one of the high school characters of Slave Day puts it after his brother was killed in the First Gulf War, politics “don't change nothin'.” The narrator of the chapter bemoans the apathy, wondering how their teacher can hope to engage the students with civil rights and history when politics sent this character's brother half way around the world to die.

The best-known novel that is taught and recommended to young adult readers in regard to race is Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). As with Ellen Foster, the narrator is a young white girl caught up in legal battles with racial and classist tensions. To Kill a Mockingbird's popularity has endured for decades not only because of how well it is written, full of vibrant characters and an engaging plot, but, as Ellen Foster does, the novel complicates social assumptions about class and race, giving lie to the easy stereotypes of a social hierarchy favoring lighter-skinned people. The novel serves as a child's view of how American race relations often tragically play out.

Mildred D. Taylor's novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976) also follows children who are coming to grips with racial tension. Focusing on desegregation following Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, black children in the South are taken from their familiar if lackluster schools and integrated into traditionally white public schools. While the children deal with the expected snide comments and playground bullying, they are also the targets of more overt violence, such as the firebombing of their school bus.

Slave Day also grapples with systemic violence against black students, though it takes place in the more egalitarian 1990s. Young adult literature often addresses the more overt racism of the civil rights movement, as in John Lewis's 2013 memoir March, which covers his time working with the movement. Young adult novels in general have tended to look at more violent racism, which lends itself to dramatic confrontations, rather than the more subtle experiences of systemic racism.

Gibbons's Ellen Foster, Sharenow's The Berlin Boxing Club, and Thomas's Slave Day address race and ethnicity within the context of everyday perspectives, taking the reader through different experiences of socially constructed identities. They take the theme of race to its most fundamental level, challenging both the notions of race existing apart from societal creation and “color blindness” to race.

Works

Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons shifts and bends race in the story of Ellen, a ten-year-old white girl surviving extreme poverty and an abusive family. The novel moves back and forth in Ellen's narration, oscillating between her life with her alcoholic and abusive father and subsequent custodies with various guardians and her “new mama,” the foster family from whom Ellen takes her new surname.

The most direct address of race is the relationship between Ellen and her friend Starletta. At first, their friendship is one of convenience for Ellen. Both girls are dirt poor, so while Ellen assumes herself to be “better” than Starletta because she is white and Starletta is black, Ellen has no connections to white children, even in her extended family, because of the circumstances of her birth. She was born to a mean drunk father who drove her mother to suicide before drinking himself to death. Even though Ellen considers herself to be racially superior to Starletta, she envies Starletta's kind and loving family.

Ellen's father makes her life hell. Even after he dies—though not, as Ellen often fantasizes, by patricide—her affiliation with him continues to frustrate her attempts to be a member of her extended family. At her mother's funeral, Ellen's maternal grandmother calls her father racial slurs usually reserved for black people, even though he is white. When Ellen lives with her grandmother, the old woman compares Ellen's features to the “man who killed my girl,” and so Ellen is lumped with her father. Within her family, she is, like Starletta, judged by her appearance.

Her father's racism against black people complicates the novel more than Ellen's biases, and without it the novel's story would stagnate as Ellen's coming of age centers on a new racial awareness. Her father's drinking buddies, who, when they come around, terrorize Ellen and wreck the house that only she cleans, are all black. They embody racial stereotypes, such as the aforementioned destructiveness and drunkenness, as well as a threatening sexuality. Ellen hears one of them explain to her father that she is nearly “ripe” and ready to have children or at least have sex.

These men contrast starkly against Mavis, a worker on Ellen's grandmother's farm, and Starletta, who goes from being a young girl who still wets herself to a self-assured young woman. Ellen watches these two women and understands that, despite what her father would have her believe, race does not affect a person's character.

Mavis, like Ellen and Starletta, is poor, living with her family in a shack on the edge of the fields. But, when Ellen sneaks down the old slave road to spy on Mavis, she sees her, her husband, and their children running around with each other, joking and laughing, eating together. Mavis's family, by enjoying each other, challenges Ellen's experience of family and her expectations of black people.

Starletta does the same, though she impresses Ellen through her ability to transform into a confident and capable young woman. Early in the novel, Starletta, despite being Ellen's age, still wets herself, cannot manage to produce the dollar for admission to a movie theater even though she has it on her somewhere, and cannot manage to speak much of the time.

By the end, Ellen is proud to invite Starletta to stay with her foster family for a weekend. Starletta confides in Ellen that she has a crush on a white boy, and Ellen realizes Starletta can and has rejected the usual racial politics of the South. The two of them connect more meaningfully than before as Ellen uses the weekend to try to cement herself in Starletta's mind as a real friend, not just another poor girl she happens to know.

At the end of the novel Ellen explains to Starletta, “I always thought I was special because I was white and when I thought about you being colored I said to myself it sure is a shame Starletta's colored. I sure would hate to be that way.” Then, Ellen realizes, “Nobody but a handful of folks I know pays attention to rules about how you treat somebody anyway.” She also now realizes that although she has faced difficulties in her life, that Starletta has faced even harder challenges and deserves to be treated as a respected friend, even if doing so breaks “the rules.” Though the social mores have changed, they are still deeply ingrained in Ellen; she feels like she's breaking the law when she has Starletta come over and take a nap beside her.

It is an important distinction between realizing social mores regarding race and accepting a marginalized person as “one of the good ones.” Karl Stern, the protagonist of The Berlin Boxing Club, comes upon the problem of being simultaneously accepted as a great athlete and reviled as a Jew in 1930s Germany.

The novel opens with an epigraph from Adolf Hilter's manifesto Mein Kampf (1925), “There is one kind of sport which should be especially encouraged, although many people … consider it brutal and vulgar, and that is boxing. … There is no other sport which equals this in developing the militant spirit, none that demands such a power of rapid decision or which gives the body the flexibility of good steel. … But, above all, a healthy youth has to learn to endure hard knocks.” Hitler's quote provides a good introduction to the novel's themes, especially its irony. Hitler is arguing for the refinement of the German people, and that is what Karl Stern thinks of himself as: Deutsche. His family does not attend temple, observe the high holy days, or speak Yiddish.

This does not stop the people around Karl, especially the National Socialist club at his school, from identifying him as Jewish. The opening scene with the aspiring Brown Shirts demonstrates the complicated systems of power that marginalize “othered” people. The bullies pull down Karl's pants, using his circumcised penis to prove his Jewishness. When Karl continues to deny his ethnicity, one of the boys says, “There's only one thing worse than a Jew, and that's a Jew who tries to pretend he's not a Jew.” A vague delineation is set up, where these boys seemingly admit, yes, the object of the racism is bad but not as bad as race traitors.

Karl suffers most from agreeing with his thuggish peers. He does not fit the stereotype of the self-hating Jew, but he does hate other Jews, especially Hasidic Jews. Their overt and separate racial identity is what offends Karl, whose family has assimilated into gentile German culture. But, as is the case when race becomes a binary, Karl still has Jewish ancestry. As far as Nazis are concerned, he is Jewish, and he has to defend himself against their anti-Semitism and violence.

The novel follows tropes of the race relations/sports movie, following in the footsteps of Remember the Titans (2000) or Invictus (2009), eschewing the more nuanced frustrations and anti-Semitism experienced by the Jewish characters in Michael Chabon's novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000). The themes of race, identity, and survival become complicated as Karl grows closer to Max Schmeling, the historical boxer who serves in the novel as Karl's boxing instructor.

Despite the events of Kristallnacht, Karl is under the impression that, as long as he can box and not appear too Jewish, he will be safe. As an athlete, he is immune to the tempests of public opinion. Not so, Max teaches him. After Schmeling loses a match to African American boxer Joe Louis, he is ostracized from German high society. Joseph Goebbels, a high-ranking Nazi politician, no longer extends dinner invitations to Max. Instead, he finds himself drafted as a paratrooper, a job likely to kill him as a punishment for losing a boxing match to a black man.

Karl finds himself apart from his family, being the least Jewish-looking among them, and without his identity as a boxer and Max Schmeling's pupil. Karl decides to make his own identity, apart from his ethnicity, his country, or his vocation.

Sports culture has long complicated race relations, and Slave Day uses the microcosm of a Southern high school, its football team, and its traditions to address the problems of the relationships between black and white students as well as fragmented black identity. The novel follows a group of students and teachers at Robert E. Lee High School on Slave Day, when student council members are auctioned off to raise money for homecoming. The first-person accounts throughout the day come from young men and women, both black and white, and a white teacher, all offering glimpses into the complicated justifications for racism, through history, tradition, and prejudice.

Keene, a black student, calls for a boycott of Slave Day, hoping the large black population of Robert E. Lee will side with him in denouncing the demeaning event. This does not hold water with his parents, who force Keene to cross his own picket lines and attend school on Slave Day. Making the best of a bad situation, he buys another black student, Shawn. Keene's idea is to embarrass the popular Shawn enough so that at least he will realize how degrading Slave Day is.

The problem with Keene's plan is that Shawn thinks “the Civil Rights movement ended 20 years ago,” and that Slave Day is “good, clean fun.” Keene making Shawn pick up a trail of cotton balls in the hallways does not do much to change Shawn's mind; he turns the chore into a joke, a minstrel show complete with “massa” and eye popping. It is not until later when Keene paraphrases Robert E. Lee in writing a speech for Shawn that Shawn sees the civil rights movement might not be so comfortably in the past.

As Keene and Shawn draw the attention of other, more militant black students, Keene is drawn into spreading rumors of racism in the school administration and exaggerating actual instances of bigotry. In the former, he accuses Marcus “Mr. History” Twilley of getting the only black woman in National Honor Society kicked out of the organization. As for the latter, he takes advantage of the black football players' quitting in protest of their coach's assertion that black players “fold” when they are hit. Keene uses this instance to demonize the coaches rather than support the fellow players.

Spurred on by his misinterpretation of Malcolm X's decree of “by any means necessary,” Keene vandalizes Mr. Twilley's car. Looking at his work, he thinks of Laurence, the black student who is bound to be valedictorian. Keene realizes that by doing that, Laurence will do more for the black students of his high school than eggs and shoe polish on a teacher's car.

The struggle between Keene and Shawn typifies the question of blackness in America. The characters criticize each other for saying “cool … like it's 1980-something,” or accusing each other of wanting to be white. They regulate each other's black identity, so when Keene is told to vandalize Twilley's car, he thinks to himself, “I don't want to be white.”

While Keene is not proud of himself for that, he does dismantle Slave Day. The principal calls him in, bemoaning that an honor student (“one of the good ones”) has made Slave Day such a hassle that it is not worth it. Even if it is a “fun tradition” in the eyes of many students and administrators, it ends.

Conclusions

Young adult novels dealing with race and ethnicity are part of a rich tradition including Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and To Kill a Mockingbird, with Ellen Foster's use of ethnographic language reminiscent of Zora Neale Hurston's 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. The novels discussed here update these themes, examining the issues of racism and racial identity on this side of the civil rights movement. These novels take a past that is easy to condemn and reveal it in the present.

This consciousness-raising works as well as it does because contemporary readers can relate better to the covert and systemic racism of power systems, as opposed to bombing churches and burning crosses. Contemporary race politics in young adult literature needs to address how individuals understand race in relation to histories of economic inequality and prejudiced penal systems, especially as the gap between the American wealthy and poor expands.

Authors of young adult fiction may also revisit the central questions of the civil rights movement's philosophies. With the high-profile deaths of unarmed black men and the militarization of police, along with the increasing economization of politics, disempowerment becomes a fatal condition and the purview of socially conscious artists. As young people gain a better understanding of themselves and the world around them and are free to pursue their identities, they will look to literature as a template and sounding board for their most personal questions.

Further Reading

  • Doll, Jen. “The Ongoing Problem of Race in Y.A.” Wire. Atlantic Monthly Group, 26 Apr. 2012. Web. 7 July 2015.
  • Osa, Osayimwense. The All White World of Children's Books and African American Children's Literature. Trenton: Africa World, 1995. Print.
  • Rev. of The Berlin Boxing Club, by Robert Sharenow. Kirkus. Kirkus, 4 Apr. 2011. Web. 16 May 2015. <https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/robert-sharenow/berlin-boxing-club/>.
  • Rev. of Ellen Foster, by Kaye Gibbons. Kirkus. Kirkus, 15 May 1987. Web. 16 May 2015. <https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/kaye-gibbons-6/ellen-foster/>.
  • Rev. of Slave Day, by Rob Thomas. Kirkus. Kirkus, 20 May 2010. Web. 16 May 2015. <https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/rob-thomas/slave-day/>.

Bibliography

  • Chabon, Michael. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay: A Novel. New York: Random, 2000. Print.
  • Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1960. Print.
  • Lewis, John, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell, and Chris Ross. March. Marietta: Top Shelf, 2013. Print.
  • Taylor, Mildred D. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. New York: Dial, 1976. Print.
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