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”.

 

A Gift You Don’t Want – But Sometimes Need

What’s worse than the school to prison pipeline?  The school itself becoming the prison.

36142487Morris “Moss” Jeffries is a high school student in Oakland, CA.  As a young child Moss witnessed his father being killed by police, leaving him subject to severe panic attacks. His close friends and family understand and support him, helping him through episodes. Moss’s school is underfunded: stapled, photocopied pages instead of bound textbooks, classrooms in disrepair, and students having to go without basic materials is the norm. Yet somehow there is enough funding for “student safety,” which begins with a police officer on staff who conducts random, mandatory locker checks. A confrontation between a trans student and the officer turns violent when he finds the student’s medication and, assuming they are a drug dealer, gets physical. The administration blames the student for the altercation and responds by escalating their tactics. Students are now forced to enter the building through metal detectors. Thanks to the incompetence – and enthusiasm – of the officers monitoring the detectors, a disabled student is severely injured. Despite being the very type of situation that triggers  Moss’s panic attacks, he finds himself helping to lead the charge to fight back against the school’s policies. His mother has a background in community activism. After her husband’s murder she’d stepped back, but engages again to help Moss and his friends draw on community support to plan peaceful protests. Those peaceful protests turn deadly, thanks largely to a combat ready police force. The event which finally leads the school to “reevaluate” the prison like practices is deeply cynical and absolutely realistic.

Author Mark Oshiro’s narrative accurately reflects the complexity of teens’ lives, deftly blending relationships, queer first loves, activism, and mental health issues.  The characters are well crafted, relatable and realistically diverse in culture, class, sexuality and gender identity.  An increasingly militarized police force, an overwhelmed, underfunded school system and the everyday issues teens face are woven into a story that at times reads much more like non-fiction. Even the weapons and tactics the police force uses on protesters reflect actual practices. This book broke my heart, made me angry, and inspired me.  I work in a public school and am blessed with a safety officer whose actions have repeatedly proven she cares about our students. Sadly I have observed other schools where the idea of safety was perverted into punitive rather than protective policies.

This story is sometimes painful to read, just as it should be. But the story is so well told and ideas within so important and inspiring, it should be read by young people and anyone who cares about them.

Mark Oshiro, Anger Is A Gift, TOR Teen