Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Thursday, October 15, 2020

Thursday, October 15, 2020: YA Maximum Shelf: The Black Friend

Candlewick Press: The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person by Frederick Joseph

Candlewick Press: The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person by Frederick Joseph

Candlewick Press: The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person by Frederick Joseph

Candlewick Press: The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person by Frederick Joseph

The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person

by Frederick Joseph

The Black Friend is a handbook for teen readers ready to commit to becoming antiracists. It's also an incredibly rich, moving and entertaining read.

In an exceptionally approachable style--he does want to be his readers' Black Friend, after all--award-winning marketing professional, activist and philanthropist Frederick Joseph addresses the systemic racism and white supremacy that have devastated the lives of people of color for hundreds of years. He does this hoping that white people will take the racial justice baton from people of color and thus take on the work of dismantling these systems. As he writes, "the oppression that white people have inflicted on people of color since, well, damn, the very inception of this country can only be undone by the oppressors (white people)."

Speaking directly to his intended readers--particularly white people "who want to do better, who want to be better"--Joseph asks for accountability for the "historic and current inequities and disparities plaguing Black people and people of color as a whole." He also aims to provide validation for people of color, reminding them that they are not alone in their experiences in the world. Ranging in tone from warm to passionate, Joseph asks white readers to accept him as their Black friend: someone who, in the spirit of friendship and positive change, will speak the truth and call them out for hurtful or inappropriate words and behaviors.

Joseph shares anecdotes, introduces important Black cultural and historic figures, describes racist systems and offers suggestions for becoming a better white person. He makes frequent (and often humorous) use of shaded sidebars with explanations and elaborations on his topics. For example, in the chapter called "This Isn't a Fad; This Is My Culture," he inserts a sidebar explaining the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation, with questions to ask oneself. "Is the thing I want to wear used in specific ceremonies or rituals? If so, say no." Page by page, Joseph works to break down cultural stereotypes and missteps. He believes that the white assumption that people of color aren't "dynamic or layered"--that they wouldn't be able to enjoy Star Wars or Ed Sheeran, for example--comes from the fact that many white people have not had to step out of their own "cultural comfort zone": the mainstream. Since, as he writes, so much of mainstream culture is rooted in whiteness, people of color "grow up learning, knowing, and even loving many things that aren't rooted in [their] culture."

Joseph incorporates frequent, fun and relevant cultural references to television, YouTube, sports teams, music and video games. Also included are interviews with contemporary artists, musicians, writers and activists such as The Hate U Give author Angie Thomas; actor and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue); activist and social impact consultant Jamira Burley; storyteller, author, rapper, spoken-word artist and TED Talk speaker Joel Leon; and racial justice activist and entrepreneur Saira Rao. These contributors offer visionary perspectives and opinions on racism in various industries.

Throughout the book, Joseph includes stories about his own experiences of racism. His high school had many more white people than his middle school. His white friends and their families regularly reflected casual racist stereotypes about him, asking what "hood" he lived in, joking about his mother making fried chicken and assuming he could dunk a basketball and aspired to the NBA. Strangers who were amazed at his "articulate" way of speaking suggested that he consider college, even though he was already an honors student fully intending to attend college. Painful examples like these fill the pages, but Joseph does not spare himself and his own part in these encounters, acknowledging the ways he played into the faulty assumptions people made. He describes how, in trying so hard to fit in, he would laugh and go along with the offensive comments, squashing his frustration and discomfort by allowing himself to be the token Black friend (as opposed to an actual Black friend, as he clarifies in the introduction). This way of acting may have made him popular in high school, but it was not sustainable, nor was he being true to himself. As he grew older, he began to seek new ways of navigating the inherent racism in his communities.

Packed with hefty ideas and information from start to finish, The Black Friend concludes with what Joseph drily calls "your very own Encyclopedia of Racism," as well as short bios of "People and Things to Know" and a fabulously rich and diverse playlist (he comments throughout the book about how surprised white people are to find that he likes a wide range of music, including soft rock).

White readers who want to do and be better may find that The Black Friend provides the tools they need for crossing over from being someone who empathizes with the struggles of Black people to someone who is an active, vocal and effective antiracist. And, in the best of all worlds, a good white friend. --Emilie Coulter

Candlewick Press, $17.99, hardcover, 272p., ages 12-up, 9781536217018, December 1, 2020

Candlewick Press: The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person by Frederick Joseph

Frederick Joseph: Author, Antiracist, Accomplice to Positive Change

Frederick Joseph is a man on a mission. Through various channels--his nonprofit creative marketing company, social media and now a nonfiction YA book--he is trying to "make things better" in the world. Specifically, he would like to make a dent in racism and white supremacy by educating his readers about systemic racism and advocating for more inclusion of traditionally underrepresented populations in media. In The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person (Candlewick Press, December 1, 2020), Joseph offers his friendship to white readers, asking them to open their hearts and minds to the realities of Black life.

As you say in The Black Friend, the book is meant to be "a guide for white people to understand and be better." But it's not the "duty" of Black people to educate white people about racism, privilege and white supremacy. Why not leave the work to the people responsible for centuries of oppression?

I suppose I made that decision for two reasons. One, you can't expect a person to catch a fish if no one ever taught them how. While white people are responsible, the issues are so ingrained in our society that most can't even see them to unlearn them. Two, conditioning in white supremacy is so deep that in this moment both white people and some Black people are unpacking and unlearning, so one shouldn't assume that every Black person is equipped to be educating people about racism. Though, this does [sometimes] happen, and a great deal of problematic information and ideals are shared. I decided to attempt to be a voice who doesn't know everything, but may be a bit better equipped due to years of learning and growing myself.

So much of The Black Friend is about the power and nuance of language. You talk about being an accomplice versus an ally; an antiracist versus an empathizer. The words and phrases you use capture a need for action versus passive disapproval: making change versus wanting change, yes? 

Exactly! In my opinion, language is the most powerful thing we have. Our words can capture the imagination and influence a generation. I'm very particular about how I describe what we should do and who we should be at a time like this... and going forward.

You weave in stories from your own life, facing your younger self with courage, honesty and clear eyes. Why was it important to you to be so open, even about your most cringeworthy moments?

I'm asking people, and young people in particular, to look deep within themselves and change. That's a very vulnerable thing, so my stories are somewhat of an olive branch. You give me your ear and your heart, I'll give you some of me. Maybe then we can trust one another.

In your experience, is storytelling an effective channel for change?

I think storytelling has been the most effective channel for change. When Mamie Till displayed Emmett in his casket publicly, when people were being hosed fighting for civil rights, when Katrina hit New Orleans, each moment helped tell a story. Those stories helped create change and brought necessary support to the need.

What were you looking for in choosing the amazing activists and artists to include in The Black Friend?

I wanted to feature people who I not only respect, but who would say things that stand the test of time. I also had to have a certain level of chemistry and trust in them.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. considered "the white moderate" to be one of Black people's greatest obstacles to civil rights. In his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," he wrote, "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will." Is this "shallow understanding" what you mean when you talk about people saying they "don't see color"?

Those are exactly the people I'm talking about. At some point I'm going to work on an entire think piece about the white and Black moderates and how they inherently thwart aspects of progress. 

Through your #RentRelief GoFundMe campaign, you raised more than $1 million to help 5,000 families with expenses during Covid-19. With your #BlackPantherChallenge, you raised another $1 million to send 73,000 kids worldwide to see Black Panther for free. How can young people today--especially those who are not traditionally powerful--use their power for good?

Honestly, I don't want to be cliche, but the answer is just do something. Anything. I didn't always have a following or access. In fact, when I did the #BlackPantherChallenge I only had about 200 followers, but I put myself out there. In high school, I used to walk around from classroom to classroom during can drives asking people to give me a dollar each and then I would go to the grocery store and buy cans, instead of asking people to donate cans. I knew that would be more effective and didn't mind putting myself out there for a good cause. Just do something, big or small. 

Your writing is full of so much energy and humor... but sadness, anger and fatigue seep through, too. Given where the world is today, with a global pandemic as well as major political and social unrest, do you feel more exhausted or exhilarated now that it's finished? 

I feel a bit of both. There's so much happening, as you said, it's hard to be exhilarated, but I am hopeful. But there is always more work to be done. My personality is beautifully and painfully obsessive, so I'm already working on a book where I'm attempting to tackle helping tear down the patriarchy. 

Is there anything you didn't say in The Black Friend that you now wish you had?

I wrote The Black Friend before the racial uprising of 2020 and I guess if I was going to say something else, I would probably give a few more plugs for building a more equitable world beyond racial liberation. Medicare for all, free college, all that good stuff. --Emilie Coulter

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