Black History Month: Interracial Teens in Historical Fiction
For many Americans, it’s an identity. It speaks of ancestors from nations unknown, of a history both terrible and proud. The irony is that skin color can hide a past as easily as reveal. Over the long course of American history, countless children have been born to parents of different races, sometimes different skin colors. What race, then, are those children? The deciding factor is often the color of their skin.
To think that Black History is pertinent only to the present generation of African Americans is to miss this long intermingling of black and white Americans. These mixed race children have had to work out their place in society for hundreds of years. The books listed below focus on the choices available to teens of mixed white and black heritage.
It was known, even in 1790, that Thomas Jefferson had fathered children with his mixed race slave, Sally Hemings. But this truth was disputed for over two hundred years, until DNA testing provided a credible link in the Jefferson-Hemings lineage. In this novel, Bradley explores the feelings of Jefferson’s fair-skinned slave children who were denied a relationship with their father. How did it feel, to be the son of one of the greatest men of the time, and yet have no one to call, “Papa?”
In 1913, Hazel gets herself involved in the women’s suffrage movement and it leads her to big trouble. As a consequences, she is sent to her grandfather’s sugar plantation in the Caribbean. Hazel is surprised at the different attitudes she discovers in plantation life, where the rise of “darkies” threaten the established order. But she is truly horrified when she discovers the secrets kept by her own family members, secrets that have ruined the lives of their closest relations.
Riot by Walter Dean Myers (Myers is the 1994 Margaret A. Edwards Award winner)
During the Civil War, a draft law was passed that recruited heavily from freshly naturalized immigrants. In New York City, this meant that the Irish immigrants, already poor and competing with free blacks for the lowest paying jobs, were disproportionately selected to fight. Richer white men could pay others to fight in their place; black men were not yet citizens. In a thrilling, screenplay format, Myers recounts the days when angry draftees attacked black residents. In the middle of the violence is Claire, half-black and half-Irish, who must now define her loyalties.
The River Between Us by Richard Peck (Peck is the 1990 Margaret A. Edwards Award winner)
It’s 1861, and Tilly is worried that her brother may enlist in the Army. Then a steamboat stops at their tiny settlement on the Mississippi River, bearing the most exotic women Tilly has ever seen. The mysterious ladies, who hail from New Orleans, move in as boarders. Tilly is both fascinated and wary, because it is clear to her that these women are keeping a big secret.
The Land by Mildred Taylor (2002 Best Books for Young Adults top ten)
In this prequel to Taylor’s outstanding Logan family novels, readers are introduced to Paul-Edward Logan, child of a white landowner and a former slave. As a teen, he realizes that there is really no acceptable place for him in society. Whites look down on him because of his black mother, whiles black distrust his relationship to a powerful white man. Paul-Edward decides that he must make his own unique way in the world to fulfill his ambition of owning land.
-Diane Colson, currently reading The Killing Woods by Lucy Christopher.