Thursday, October 30, 2014
This month's YA Diversity Book Club read was LIES WE TELL OURSELVES by Robin Talley. It was very eye-opening, as you'll see below. But first, a description:
In 1959 Virginia, the lives of two girls on opposite sides of the battle for civil rights will be changed forever.
Sarah Dunbar is one of the first black students to attend the previously all-white Jefferson High School. An honors student at her old school, she is put into remedial classes, spit on and tormented daily.
Linda Hairston is the daughter of one of the town's most vocal opponents of school integration. She has been taught all her life that the races should be kept separate but equal.
Forced to work together on a school project, Sarah and Linda must confront harsh truths about race, power and how they really feel about one another.
The book alternates between Sarah and Linda's point of views, and each chapter heading is a lie that one of the girls is telling herself -- which the chapter itself then contradicts. Using that same format, I'd like to talk about a few lies that LWTO makes readers confront.
#1 - LGBTQ issues are a recent thing.
With marriage equality spreading (rightfully) like wildfire -- 32 states and counting! -- it's easy to assume that the struggle for LGBTQ rights has been fast and furious. But it hasn't. Because there have been queer people since the beginning of human history, and they still aren't treated fairly in most of the world.
In LWTO, Talley juxtaposes the larger struggle for civil rights with the personal struggles of her two heroines coming to terms with their sexuality. In doing so, she reminds readers that all the tough moments in history have been endured by members of the LGBTQ community too. They shared those experiences with everyone else -- but they also had unique perspectives and challenges.
#2 - The civil rights movement eliminated racism in our country.
In LWTO, Sarah Dunbar and her friends are trying to do their part to help secure equal rights for blacks in America. Schools, service, jobs, etc. Everything was segregated back then -- which is kind of hard and crazy to imagine now.
But the thing is, racism isn't gone; it's just more subtle in the 21st century. It's the wrongful deaths of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown. It's Donald Sterling's private remarks. It's people questioning President Obama's birth certifcate. It's everywhere, and the first step in fixing it is to acknowledge the problems, even if we find them in ourselves or in people that we love, no matter how difficult that may be.
#3 - Adults always know best.
When we're young, we look up to our parents, grandparents, teachers, etc. We trust adults to have the answers, to be older and wiser. And usually they are -- but they're still human too. That means they can be wrong and make mistakes. They are products of their own upbringing, with whatever outdated beliefs or practices that might entail. The best adults will try to learn and grow to keep up with the changing times. But again: they're human.
In LWTO, Linda Hairston struggles to admit that the adults in her life are not the best role models. Her father stubbornly clings to ugly ideals in the name of "tradition," and her mother just tries to stay out of his way. Poor Linda has no choice but to break away from their poor judgment, and instead trust what she knows in her heart to be right.
#4 - You can never change your mind.
More than anything, what I took away from LWTO is to have an open heart and an open mind. Both Sarah and Linda feel very strongly about their positions at the start of the story, but if they aren't willing to listen to one another, to consider someone else's perspective, then they can never grow into better versions of themselves -- or find their paths to happiness.
Maybe all of these lies are variations on the same theme. Honesty, compassion, and education. These are the bricks that pave the way forward, for individuals and for society.
And do you know what fosters honesty, compassion, and education? Good stories, whether fictional or true.
(That's why #WeNeedDiverseBooks!)
* * *
For more on LIES WE TELL OURSELVES, be sure to check out all the YA Diversity Club posts:
••• Our group discussion at Teen Lit Rocks. This book had us nervous, impressed, frustrated, sympathetic... everything!
••• Q&A with author Robin Talley at the Reading Date. Talley talks about her family connection to the story, how she researched for the time period, and some of her favorite diverse YA books.
Next month we'll be discussing TELL ME AGAIN HOW A CRUSH SHOULD FEEL by Sara Farizan. Feel free to read along with us!
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