It’s 1987. A middle school teacher follows the sound of anguished cries to find a young black girl lying in the filth of an abandoned basement. The girl, fourteen-year-old Sybilla, is bound and has racial epithets scrawled on her body. Later Sybilla reveals that she had been left in the basement after being abducted and repeatedly raped by white cops. Although Sybilla clearly wishes to avoid the publicity her charges will bring, her case becomes a crusade for justice in the impoverished African American community. A well-known civil rights champion, Reverend Marcus Mudrick, teams with his lawyer brother to publicize and punish the accused, but there are unintended consequences.
The Sacrifice, an adult book by Joyce Carol Oates, is told from multiple viewpoints. Sybilla’s mother, Ednetta, has learned the skills needed to survive a life of poverty and abuse. She lives with a convicted murderer, Anis, who has lived his own life in the shadow of racial violence. Readers are plunged from the interior life of one character after another, quickly realizing the verity of each viewpoint.
Similarly, in Kekla Magoon’s young adult novel, How It Went Down, the story of sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson’s death is examined from many angles by witnesses and community members. Gunned down on the street by a white man, African American Tariq may have been guilty of brandishing a gun, or he may have been carrying a Snickers bar. The difference is in the eye of the beholder, it seems. Once again, the issue is taken up by a crusading minister, this time it’s Reverend Alabaster Sloan, whose motives are mixed. As in The Sacrifice, one terrible crime is strategically poised as the emblem of racism.
Both authors ably manipulate the reader’s understanding of events, probing at cultural blinders and fears. Both incidents feel “ripped from the headlines.” Indeed, Sybilla’s story is patterned after a true incident that occurred in New York in 1987. Fifteen-year-old Tawana Brawley was found in a trash bag, covered with racial slurs and feces. She accused six white men of raping her. The details of the story closely parallel the actual events, while Magoon’s book conveys the spirit of many recent incidents, if not the details themselves.
It is the spirit, however, that makes these fictitious novels pulse with relevance. Each is unsparing in the examination of racism, that elephant of distrust that sits implacably in the midst of American society. For a nonfiction look at the inequalities of American justice, check out Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America. While focusing on the murder of a police detective’s son in South Los Angeles, Ghettoside takes a hard look on the routine tolerance of black-on-black homicide. Leovy, the author of the Homicide Blog, takes readers into the homes of families that have lost sons, brothers, and fathers to gang-related violence, murders that are never resolved despite the fact that “everyone knows” who did it.
For those who believe that justice is blind, these books are powerful evidence that when it comes to crime in America, race does matter.
— Diane Colson, currently reading an advanced reader’s copy of I’m from Nowhere by Suzanne Myers