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Black History Month: Interracial Teens in Historical Fiction

2014 February 3
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Black White girl-001What’s in a color?

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.

 

Jefferson's Sons by Kimberly Brubaker BradleyJefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

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?”

 

Hazel by Julie HearnHazel: a novel by Julie Hearn

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 MyersRiot 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 PeckThe 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 TaylorThe 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.

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4 Responses leave one →
  1. Jennifer S. permalink
    February 3, 2014

    I’d also add Cast Two Shadows by Ann Rinaldi, in which a mixed-race girl who’s been raised as white by her father’s family must travel with her slave grandmother to help her (half-)brother who has been wounded in the American Revolution. It’s set in South Carolina in 1780.

  2. March 2, 2014

    Thank you for this bibliography! I’m featuring the link on my blog later this week. I’d like to give a shout out that there’s also a large Native-African American population (including citizens of Native Nations) in the U.S. One example of such a character would be Queenie from my novel Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins)–my apologies as I’m not trying to be self-promotional so much as I simply can’t think of more examples. Definitely an underrepresented area. Perhaps Debbie Reese from American Indians in Children’s Literature could suggest one or two more.

    • March 2, 2014

      Oh dear! I was going to recommend RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME.

      The only other book that comes to mind is THE WINDOW, by Michael Dorris, but I don’t have it and don’t recall it well enough to say much at all other than the fact that the protagonist is African American and Native American.

      Oh! Another one I’m remembering, but haven’t read, is Virginia Hamilton’s ARILLA SUN DOWN.

      Of the three, the only one I can definitely recommend is RAIN.

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