Racism, Reading and an Act of Courage

Kenny Brechner -- August 8th, 2019

Evan gamely playing Waldo at our recent Waldo party.

Are children who read a lot of books more likely to do the right the thing in a tough spot, and if so do we then have a responsibility to make the real world aftermath more like a book’s narrative for them when they do the right thing? My assistant manager Karin’s son Evan certainly reads a lot of books. Last week he found himself in a tough spot analogous to many he had read about. The upshot made me ask our lead question.

Evan, who is a middle schooler, was at a playground with a group of friends. A black child either visiting or new to the area was there. One of Evan’s friends began making racist comments to the black child. Evan told him to stop. He did not. Evan continued to tell him to stop. Finally Evan said, “It’s okay when you are a jerk to me, it is not okay when you are a jerk to him like this.” The boy then punched Evan in the face, blooding his nose in such a way that his shirt and pants were also bloodied.

So then, did the subsequent events turn out as they would have in a good book? Middle grade books put their protagonists in situations like this all the time, of course, and they provide a context for good and bad decisions. The outcomes of a good middle grade treatment are not linear or idealized but they do include elements of hope, redemption, understanding, and support.

In the real world case no one stood up for Evan in the moment. Afterwards one of the “friends” did help him clean up from the blood, and the boy who was the target of the racist jibes thanked him. I don’t know any more of his personal story yet.

The next day the same group went to the movies together and Evan learned that one of them had filmed the scene and posted it on social media, the upshot of which was that he was teased mercilessly and ran out of the theater. That is the current moment of the real world narrative.

There is no question in my mind that reading influenced Evan’s act of courage. At Winter Institute I had Jerry Craft sign a copy of New Kid for Evan. My conversation with Evan about the book went like this.

Kenny: So how was New Kid?

Evan:  It was pretty great. I liked the art a lot and the story was really good, though It think it played the race thing up a bit too much.

Kenny: Really?

Evan: Yeah we don’t have that problem here. I mean, we have two black kids in my class and there are no problems.

Kenny: Do you think you would see things the same way if you were one of the two instead of one of the 25?

Evan: Yeah maybe.

We have questions of course. Would the other children have displayed more empathy if they had read books like Dear Martin, The Hate U Give, Each Kindness, or New Kid? How did seeing the video of an act of courage lead area children to accentuate and expound on the bullying, racism and violence rather than evoking self-awareness and reflection?

Did reading books like New Kid influence Evan. Absolutely, as did having an enlightened and supportive Mom, and many other unquantifiable factors. The control an author has over a narrative, however complex and at times even tenuous, is nonetheless a haven of order in the far more entropic reality we inhabit.

Is there anything we can do to make Evan’s real world narrative more like it would be in a middle grade book? Not easily, but good narratives are not easy. Books support children when they speak with wisdom in a language that moves their young audience.  If you have anything you’d like to share with Evan, please do so in the comments

10 thoughts on “Racism, Reading and an Act of Courage

  1. VickeyB

    Dear Evan–It is always easier to be silent in the face of intolerance and cruelty than to stand up–and out–against such behavior. Your actions to defend the young man who was being harassed and discriminated against were brave, kind, good, and–most of all–the RIGHT thing to do.

    You showed more courage, wisdom and dignity than most adults show these days.

    Whether your “friends” are willing to acknowledge it or not, you are an outstanding role model. As one of the other people who have written to you has mentioned, I think part of your friends’ unkind response after the event was because they know you did the right thing, and they did not.

    Racism in this country will continue until we ALL have the courage to say “ENOUGH! STOP!” You have already shown your friends, and many people like me that you will never even know, the right way to act. Most of us–of all ages–know the right thing to do when we are faced with cruel, ugly behavior, but lack the guts to do it. I hope we all learn to display the same level of courage and grace you did, and address intolerance when we see it.

    Thank you for what you did to stand up for the other young man. Thank you for setting the example for the rest of us.

  2. Elizabeth Dulemba

    Evan, I hope you grow up to be a writer, because wow, do you now have a story to tell! Yes, you did the right thing and you are a HERO. Doing the right thing is often-times the more difficult path, which means you are BRAVE. YOU, and people like you, who are willing to stand up for the weak and oppressed, are the hope for a better future for all humanity. I hope this event makes you even more determined to stick to your very clear moral code. Society thanks you, as do I.

  3. Kathleen Faber

    Evan – Thank you for standing up and speaking up when it was needed – and while you took the hit for it, take heart that you did the right thing and it will truly have a positive impact on all those involved, even if it doesn’t seem so now. We’re so proud of you – keep speaking up for what you know is right!

  4. Donna Gephart

    A world of love for EVAN! Even if it doesn’t seem like it, other kids saw what you did and it impacted them. Deep inside, they know what they did is wrong. Deep inside, you know you made things better for a fellow human. Thank you. Oh, how the world would be a better place with more Evans in it. Keep being wonderful you, even when you’re surrounded by less enlightened people. Especially then. All the love to your awesome sauce mom, too. You both make the world a happier place.

  5. Debbie Vilardi

    Cyberbullying is not okay any more than the bullying you stopped. I hope you report it to your school (even things that happen outside of school can be addressed within) and any appropriate other authorities. I also hope you are able to find friends who are your true friends because “friends” who treat you this way are not friends. Perhaps your school can assign books as a consequence for their actions. The world is a big place full of people of all types and you are far more ready for it than they are. Thank you for being an upstander instead of a bystander.

  6. Ellen Pyle

    Evan, courage is a lonely hunter and you have a good, courageous heart. The world needs more people like you. Be strong, be resilient, be thankful you have your Mom who teaches truth. More power to you!

  7. Jerry Craft

    Evan, you’re my new hero! Things don’t always work out as we want them to at that moment, but hopefully doing the right thing has its rewards.

    I’ll try to name someone after you in New Kid 2! How’s that?

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