Slay

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Kiera is a teen coder and videogame player who tires of the racism and toxicity in the online gaming world. This inspires her to create her own virtual reality MMORPG* called Slay.  Slay exists as a place for Black gamers to celebrate Black excellence. Joining the game requires a passcode, which can only be obtained from a current member – and only after asking the right question. She keeps Slay secret from her parents, her sister and especially her boyfriend. His view of Blackness is very rigid and holds no room for videogames or the people who play them.

Things fall apart when a Slay gamer is killed by another participant. Suddenly this undercover game is public knowledge. Certain people claim that it’s racist because Slay’s a space only for Black players, but these critics never acknowledge the persistent racism gamers of color have to contend with in mainstream online games. The pressure on Kiera builds with the talk of lawsuits. The suits claim that excluding White people violates their civil rights.  Media depictions emerge suggesting that the game targets at-risk and poor Black youth. Things continue to escalate, forcing Kiera to make a bold decision in an attempt to save the game and have it be recognized for what it really is.

This book is no fantasy. The harassment described in the book are things gamers of color (as well as female and queer gamers) regularly experience. The narrative accurately depicts how media “experts,” who know nothing about the game or gaming, pontificate and spread inaccurate information with great confidence. This book does a powerful job of using the lens of the game to explore Black identity, respectability politics,** toxic male behavior and how anonymity can be both a weapon and a shield.

It is not necessary to be a gamer to love this book. The plotlines around Kiera’s relationships with family and friends, and the lives of the Slay players we meet are realistic and relatable. Author Brittney Morris crafts the game itself beautifully. The language describing Slay’s design and in-game action is exciting and cinematic; you can see everything play out. The game’s elements – battles, hexes and defenses – are based on Black culture. A player can attack with Twist Out, which makes the character’s natural hair grow out and immobilize the opponent. They can defend with Jimi Hendrix, which obscures their opponent’s vision in a purple haze. I’m tempted to list them all, but you should read the book yourself and learn about the power of Shea Butter, Reclaimed Time, Resilience, Innovation – and Mom’s Mac and Cheese.

You can learn more about gaming-while-Black and see some sample Slay cards in this essay by the author.

Slay makes a great gift for readers on your list – or yourself! Find it at your local bookstore.

*Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game

** Respectability politics is the problematic belief that marginalized people should conform to a certain standard of behavior and presentation so they can earn the approval of the group in power. Read a great discussion of this on “The Root”.

 

They Called Us Enemy

42527866Good stories always stand on their own, but some stories resonate even more if they are particularly timely.  Actor and activist George Takei’s graphic memoir of his experience during World War 2 is one of those stories, given the disgraceful events happening in America right now at our Southern border.

They Called Us Enemy tells the story of Takei’s childhood as one of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry who were taken from their homes and forced into concentration camps. He was 5 years old when his family was first relocated. His parents tried to protect him from the reality of what was going on, so in his young mind this started out as an adventure.

Through his experience, we see what life was like in the camps and the different ways it affected people. Among many disturbing things, he reveals how children internalized what was going on around them, no matter how hard adults tried to shield them. They acted out “Japs vs. Americans,” shouted “die Japanese cowards” and fought for a turn to play the Americans. What damage did this do to the young people in these camps?  What does this say about the damage being done today to children being held at our nation’s borders?

Obviously, it was no better for the adults. The harsh living conditions, constant questioning of their loyalties and repeatedly being set against one another made for a bleak existence.

Takei’s story covers that time through current day, reflecting back on the grave injustice done, the generational impact and how some of the same things are occurring again.  Harmony Becker’s black and white, manga influenced art does a masterful job of communicating Takei’s innocence without downplaying the horrors around him. Unlike many families, Takei’s was willing to talk about it when he was older, helping him fully understand the bigger picture of what he and Japanese Americans suffered through. This led to Takei’s vocal social justice activism, which continues to this day.

This difficult, inspiring story is a good reminder that if we aren’t vigilant, the worst of history will repeat itself.

Find They Called Us Enemy at your local bookstore or comic book shop.

Genesis Begins Again

Can changing the outside change the inside?

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Genesis has long been scorned by other African American girls for her very dark skin. Charcoal, Ape and Blackie are just a few of the names she allows herself to be called. She’s heard this disgust at her appearance her entire life from peers and her own family and accepts it as truth. Some girls put together a list of 100 Reasons Why We Hate Genesis – and Genesis has begun to add to the list herself. Her fair-skinned mother loves her, but her grandmother lays out chapter and verse of why light-skinned people are naturally superior to those with dark skin. Grandma indulges in colorism, the practice of stereotyping other African Americans based only on how light or dark they are. Genesis’s dark-skinned father is undependable, struggling with addictions and inability to keep a job, reinforcing the negative lessons her grandmother hands down. Her mother is doing her best to keep the family afloat, but Genesis takes it upon herself to try to solve the adults’ problems. She believes being lighter is the first step to making things better for herself and her parents. She tries rubbing lemons on herself, adding bleach to her bathwater, and scouring her skin, enduring physical pain to help heal her emotional pain.

Genesis gets a chance to start over when her father seems to have straightened up and moves the family into a new home in a nice neighborhood. She makes friends at her new school, including a very dark-skinned boy who loves himself and tries to help Genesis understand how to do the same. Support from a music teacher helps Genesis gain self-confidence, but things don’t change overnight. The damage from a lifetime of self-hate doesn’t magically disappear.

The beauty of this book is its complexity. All of the characters are given dimension, which helps us understand their actions.  The concepts of colorism and internalized racism are accessible to middle school aged readers but are not oversimplified. The narrative makes clear that these concepts harm both dark and light skinned people. Genesis deals with typical middle school issues, such as being attracted to the popular crowd, putting up with insults for the sake of friendship, and balancing fitting in with finding yourself. However, the focus remains on the effects of internalized racism and colorism. This tough story is told well, with an optimistic but realistic ending. I hope it leads all of us to think about the messages we’ve absorbed over time and to be more conscious of the harm we may be doing to ourselves and others.

Find Genesis Begins Again at your local bookstore.

Bitter Root

Sometimes the monsters are right next door.

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Set during the Harlem Renaissance, Bitter Root tells the story of a New York City beset by monsters known as Jinoo, and the African American Sangerye family, the only people with the skills and knowledge to fight them off. It seemed the monsters had been put to rest but recently they have been rising again. This time it’s more difficult for the Sangeryes; the family is divided over methods, as well as who can fight the Jinoo. Even worse, a new creature, more powerful than they’d ever seen, has emerged. The Jinoo themselves used to be human. Their souls were corrupted by racism and violence, turning them into monsters; once turned they infect others. As we get deeper into the story, the battles facing the Sangeryes get more frightening. On the face, this is a good horror story. Looking deeper, the powerful narrative shows how people can allow themselves to be poisoned with hatred to the point where they lose their humanity. The art, in style, tone, and use of a deep, moody color palette, evokes a feeling of ever present danger.

Like the film Get Out, or much of Octavia Butler’s speculative fiction, the events in this reimagined reality provide a different way to examine real world issues. Three issues of this knockout comic series have been released as of this writing. Normally I would wait until the whole series, or possibly the trade version (one volume containing all the issues), had been published, but this comic is so good I couldn’t wait to talk about it.

Head out to your local comic book shop and pick it up! Not sure where your local comic book shop is located? Find it here!

 

Monday’s Not Coming

How can a girl disappear and no one notice?

35068534Claudia and her best friend Monday do everything together. They keep each other’s secrets, and even have their own language. When Claudia comes back from spending the summer with her grandmother in Georgia she can’t wait to catch up with her friend. But Monday’s phone isn’t working, and when Claudia knocks on the door of Monday’s house, her mother screams that she’s not there and Claudia needs to leave. When the first day of school – then week, then month – go by and Monday still hasn’t shown up, Claudia is worried but she seems to be the only one. She can’t get a straight answer from anyone, just excuses and deflections. Even when she sees Monday’s older sister she can’t get any information. After being told so many stories – Monday is being homeschooled, is at her father’s, is with an aunt – Claudia slowly comes to understand what really happened; the painful, horrifying truth about her best friend and about herself.

When you read this book, prepare for a roller coaster ride. The structure works brilliantly to convey the story. The chapters cover Before, Before the Before, The After, Later On and several specific months. The writing is so skillful we live inside Claudia’s confusion and frustration but never lose the thread of the narrative. As we and Claudia come to learn the truth, everything falls into place with heartbreaking clarity. We are forced to confront how race and class affect attention to issues involving young girls of color, and how important it is for communities of color to destigmatize taking care of mental health.

Tiffany D. Jackson, Monday’s Not Coming, Katherine Tegen Books