I was reminded of this book by some recent discussions about life in Ashland, Oregon, where I live. It's often conspicuously a place of high culture and global consciousness that values and practices all varieties of diversity, yet remains overwhelmingly European-American in ethnic distribution. What's going on here? It's not really a mystery; I'll get to that later, in another post I'm drafting, but first, here's a remarkable book that looks at another small town (in this case, a private school) as it takes on a similar self-examination. (I see there are more Southgate novels to catch up on, and that I wasn't alone in appreciating this one; and there's a new one promised for 2011).
Jerome Washington teaches Latin at the Chelsea School, an elite Eastern boarding school for boys. He describes himself as "the only Negro on the faculty," and his love for classical civilization isolates him, as it seems out of step with the times. But Jerome has found his strength in rising above, or distancing himself from, a difficult starting point in life: immersing himself in classical studies has taught him the discipline to wrest from the world, against all odds, this way of life that suits him so well. He is deeply committed to the institution's "values of order, decorum, rectitude," and disdainful of what he sees as the self-defeating attitude of many young blacks.
Enter Rashid Bryson, a troubled young African-American city boy strongly motivated to make something of his life. Seeing a Chelsea School brochure promising to "change the future" his imagination is captured -- but when he arrives there, the school's overwhelmingly WASP culture, and Jerome's hostility toward him, keep him seriously off-balance.
Jana Hansen, a new teacher, is the third color Southgate highlights in her cultural prism: before coming to the Chelsea School, she had worked for many years in Cleveland's inner-city schools, where she was always the only white woman. This life has given her another point of entry into the realm of race relations that is, for most of the others there, an insignificant part of the life of Chelsea School.
It is a triangle made up of many places of entry into the complicated but interlocking puzzle that we experience as racism and diversity in America today. While from an outsider's view these three characters are united in their African American interests, they are strongly divided in the most intimate ways that define them as individuals. By the time the headmaster asks them all to work together to recruit more "diverse" students for the school, their lives are woven together in a complicated dynamic that reveals each character's deepest strengths and flaws.
This moving story is told from their three perspectives in a simple, elegant, and graceful style. The book is easy to read, yet resonates richly with many insights and issues that most readers should readily recognize and relate to.
(adapted from my SLJ review recommending the book to adults and older high school students)