Let me begin the second entry of my Lenten reading series by claiming my own privileges and biases: I am a white female coming to terms with my own complicity in an unjust system which values people like me above black Americans. As such, I am writing these reflections for people who want to become more aware of the injustices in our nation, who want to be good allies, and are doing what they can to nudge those in power and privilege into solidarity and action with the oppressed and marginalized.
It’s often said fiction is the best way to understand difficult issues. I especially agree with this sentiment in regards to Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson, a young adult novel about Jade, a young woman who “believes she must get out of her poor neighborhood if she’s ever going to succeed.” As such, her mother pushes her to take up every single “opportunity” possible: attending a mostly white private school far from her friends, tutoring students in Spanish after school, and the Woman to Woman mentor program.
This last one is quite unwelcome, and a major theme of the book is the relationship she develops with her mentor Maxine, who is black and went to the same private school Jade attends, but seems to have trouble understanding Jade’s own reality. Jade also navigates a friendship with her white classmate Sam, while also managing her relationships with her hard-working mother, her loving father, her best friend Lee Lee, and others. She is also a budding collage artist, and she is most expressive in the act of taking ordinary items and piecing them into something beautiful and whole.
The book touches on a lot of important themes: police brutality, sexism, body image, subtle racism and classism, and family and friend relationships, but it struck me most in the honesty with which it addressed mentor programs catered to “at-risk youth.”
I coordinated a mentoring program, Sister2Sister, for 2 years after I graduated from college, which worked with girls from predominantly Latino and African American communities. I have also been a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters since 2008, and my Little is Latina. My experience has given me the privilege to be in relationship with girls from different ethnic, racial, and social backgrounds from my own, and in the midst of joy and connection, many accidental faux-pas occurred due to my own white privilege and bias. I received a lot of grace from other mentors, leaders, professors, and the girls themselves in acknowledging and properly dealing with my privilege and biases, but I still have a lot to learn, as I did then.
Jade’s interactions with her mentor Maxine, and her white friend Sam, taught me a lot about the flaws in my own good intentions and how those aren’t always enough. I also learned forgiveness and repentance are possible when allies and mentors alike are willing to acknowledge their own complicity, accidental or otherwise, in a white supremacist system.
Most of all, I heard a young woman’s passion, one which broke through despite the world attempting to break and silence her, through overt and hidden racism, through savior complexes, through flat-out ignorance, and through her own conditions.
Through Jade’s story, Renee Watson reminded me of the power of truly hearing someone’s story as told by them.
So if you’re looking to understand a piece of the contemporary black narrative, please read this story of a strong, intelligent, articulate, creative black young woman coming to terms with the world around her and how she will live into it.
It changed me. I’m sure it will change you, too.