Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes

The Blurb On The Back:

Disliked. Bullied. Framed. But I’m not going to let that stop me …

Most of the students at Middlesfield Prep don’t look like Donte. And they don’t like him either. When Donte is suspended from school and arrested, framed for something he didn’t do, he knows it would have never happened to high lighter-skinned brother, Trey.

Terrified, and searching for a place where he belongs, Donte discovered the sport of fencing. And he’s good at it. Very good.

But when he must fence the very boy who framed him, there is far more at stake than just a trophy. Donte must fight not only his bullies, but an entire system that has never treated him fairly because of the colour of his skin.

Powerful and emotionally gripping, this is a story about one boy’s path to finding his own voice in the fight against racism.

BLACK BROTHER, BLACK BROTHER was released in the United Kingdom on 13th May 2021. Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

You can order BLACK BROTHER, BLACK BROTHER by Jewell Parker Rhodes from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK. I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Donte Ellison spent most of his childhood in New York with his older brother Trey, his mum (a civil rights lawyer at the Legal Aid Society) and dad (a computer architect). When his mum got a job in Boston, the whole family moved to a suburb outside the city and Donte and Trey started school at Middlefield Prep. That’s where Donte’s problems started. Although his brother, Trey, is hugely popular and plays on the school basketball team, Donte doesn’t have any friends, isn’t good at sports (preferring computer games and reading his dad’s old SF novels) and from day one was bullied by Alan Davies, the captain of the school’s champion fencing team.

Alan is not subtle about why he’s targeting Donte: Donte is one of the few black students in what is a school populated by white, wealthy and very privileged students and so stands out. More than that though, is the fact that while Donte is dark skinned, Trey passes for white. Alan likes to shout “Black brother, black brother” at Donte as a way of drawing attention to his race and how different he is to Trey. Worse, the school turns a blind eye to the bullying, choosing to blame Donte for the cruel tricks played on him and around him and resulting in the teachers regarding him as a troublemaker.

Everything comes to a head when Donte is mistakenly blamed after Alan throws a pencil at a student. Sent once again to the Principal’s office this time, under the weight of the unfair accusations and micro aggressions (including comparisons to the light skinned Trey), Donte snaps and throws his back back into a chair. The next thing he knows, the Principal has phoned the police and Donte is being put in a police car on a charge of delinquency – all to Alan’s delight.

As Donte’s mother decides to file a civil law suit against the school, Donte tries to work out how to get back at Alan, how to make him see him as a human and not just as someone who is black. When Trey finds an article about Arden Jones, a black man who fenced for the USA in the 1976 Olympics, he realises that he can literally take on Alan at his own game. Jones now works as a manager for a boys and girls club in Boston and so Donte tracks him down, to try and persuade him to teach him how to fence but doing so starts him on a journey that teaches him so much more than how to fight and get revenge; it teaches him how to rise above and tackle a world that only sees his colour …

Jewell Parker Rhodes’s contemporary novel about racism for children aged 9+ is a blazing indictment of the unfairness of racism and the role that privilege and wealth play in producing unequal outcomes for black children compared with white children. The plot has shades of THE KARATE KID, the scene cuts are a little jumpy and Trey and Donte’s relationship needed more tension but this is a strong and sadly necessary read that is worth your time.

I picked this up having been impressed by Rhodes’s previous children’s novel GHOST BOYS, which also looked at racism in terms of police violence against black youths and the murder of Emmett Till. Here Rhodes’s focus is on the schools-to-prison pipeline and how educational establishments (aided by the police) disproportionately target black students as being disruptive or delinquents. Certainly as a Brit, it is horrifying to learn that a moment of bad behaviour in a school can lead a child to being arrested and taken away in handcuffs and labelled a delinquent with a juvenile criminal record. Rhodes then goes further to cleverly set out how Donte’s own privilege – as the child of wealthy parents who have brought him up to speak properly and respectfully and dress smartly – is of some assistance to him, especially the fact that he has a white father, with whom the police and judiciary react more favourably than his black mother. It’s a damning indictment of modern American society, made more effective by the way that Rhodes successfully conveys Donte’s emotional reaction to it – the confusion and upset and fear and anger.

Also good is how Rhodes shows the relationship between Donte and Trey and how while Donte loves his brother, he also resents how Trey’s lighter skin also makes it easier for him to assimilate and be accepted by the other students. The scenes where he initially bristles at Trey’s decision to try out for fencing because that’s Donte’s thing rang true and I have to say that I would have liked a bit more of that grit in their relationship purely because at times it’s a little too idealised in terms of their support for each other. For example, Trey’s initial assumption that Donte must have done something wrong to be arrested could have been teased out more than it is and I would have been interested in a scene between Donte’s mum and dad about the fact that the police are more deferential to a 6’4” white man than they are to a black woman who’s actually a lawyer. (That said, I should stress that I completely respect the choice not to focus on this because it is good to read a book about a supportive bi-racial family and it does mean the book focuses on Donte and his reactions to what’s happening).

The fencing element to the story reminded me a lot of THE KARATE KID, although I should say that Rhodes makes the story her own. I enjoyed the relationship between Donte and Arden Jones and how in learning how to fence Donte learns about himself and how to deal with the awful system he lives in. I think it’s a particularly clever decision of Rhodes to pick fencing as the central sport here because it does have an image as a white, European and privileged sport so to make clear how many people of colour have fenced for the USA in its Olympic team is a smart point to make and also because Rhodes shows how it can be democratised by bringing it to a poorer neighbourhood where black kids can be given the opportunity to learn.

Rhodes is an incredibly impressive writer when it comes to writing about racism and while I hate that books like this have to be written, she does a really good job at showing the emotional impact of it on Donte and how it makes him feel about himself. The clever decision she makes here to show how the wealth of Donte’s family can buy him a better outcome than poorer black children placed in the same position (and also how Donte is smart enough to realise this) brings home the intersectionality between privilege and race but also critically points out that just because a black child has a wealthy family doesn’t mean he’s going to be treated as fairly as a white child in the same situation.

Ultimately (and despite my criticisms) this is a powerful book that is well worth your time and is definitely worth a read.

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