The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine (book #11 for fiftyfifty.me!) is a stellar Young Adult novel that was recommended to me by a friend. But recommendations can really be hit or miss. After its never-ending series of critical kudos, I was relieved to be assured I was in for a good read. What I did not realize was that it would also stir something very personal in me.
The story takes place in 1958 Arkansas, after the Little Rock Nine, and during a time when local schools inexplicably continued to struggle with whether to stay open if they had to be integrated. More specifically, it is the tale of two young girls, Marlee and Liz. Marlee, who has been shy her whole life, finds reason to open up to Liz, the new kid. But no sooner have they forged this important friendship than Liz disappears from her school. We learn immediately that she was "passing" as a white, and has been found out. These plots points set the backdrop for a fascinating, educational story of a time where you were white or black, period, and where the category you fell in very strictly delineated your opportunities and social circles.
This novel also gives readers - or hey, me - an opportunity to consider what it might feel like to be forced into a category. Worse yet: what it might be like to be notified that you don't fall into the "appreciated" categories; to know deep down that you are an outsider and yet not want to call attention to that fact.
As the new magnum opus stupidus Shahs of Sunset prepares to air on Bravo TV and humiliate me, desecrating all that's holy about my centuries-old culture (thank you, Ryan Seacrest), I am forced to think about whether we've really come all that far from the days of segregation. Supposedly, the show will showcase a different side of Persians. The pitch amounts to: Iranians aren't all bearded anti-American freaks! No! They party and sell real estate -- they're just like us!
Yet the recent addition of this show to America's cultural lineup proves a fact I often comment upon: Middle Easterners are the last minority you can be openly racist about. Under the guise of railing against the sliver of the population that behaves violently, people post hatred and spit vitriol left and right. To add a little insult to injury, they do so generally. I have yet to meet more than 5 Americans who realize Iranians aren't Arab. They don't bother having to know because it doesn't matter to them. But we all know Chinese people aren't Japanese. You don't need to know much about the nuances of Middle Eastern culture or country boundaries here, because they're all clumped together as evil.
Recently, while reading the comments section of a news article about the tensions between Iran and other nations, my jaw dropped as I read what people had written. It's not ok to do this with blacks, Latinos, or Asians - if someone wrote about blasting another race off the earth, my guess is the news outlet would have moderated the comment (read: edited it out). But it's open season (since the 1970s) on anyone of Middle Eastern heritage. Born and raised here, I have actually professionally vowed to uphold American law, which is more than I can say for a lot of other citizens, and yet I'm the outsider? Because my hair is black or my grandparents lived on a different continent?
To be clear, I do not mean to say that the level of segregation, racism, or torment even remotely approaches that of African Americans in the 1950s (or before. or after), but simply to say that perhaps we shouldn't pat ourselves on the back just yet. That maybe American still has some lessons to learn about equality and acceptance and entitlement -- and kindness.
Turning the pages of Kristin Levine's novel, I was reminded of my time at law school; the Towers had just fallen and, out of concern for the heightened tension in the corridors and violent commentary, a group of Near Eastern students requested a meeting with the then-Dean. At a time when people who even looked Middle Eastern were being attacked nationwide and when his own students who wore hejab (a scarf to cover a woman's hair, which some believe is required by the religion) required escorts for safety, it took him over a week to take the meeting.
When we finally sat down, we began telling him our tales- vicious and worrying comments made in the student lounge, or in one case, aimed at a prominent Middle Eastern professor. Our concerns were met by his dismissal- he quickly reminded us that he considered himself a First Amendment scholar and felt that people had a blanket right to freedom of speech (any scholar will tell you freedom of speech isn't that cut and dry, but I don't pretend this gentleman was a scholar of that sort.)
IN ANY CASE, he sat back and said:
"I had no idea there were so many of you here."
He spoke as if, unbeknownst to him, we had "passed"; we had been admitted and walked the halls -- as if we didn't deserve to be there. There were one million things he could have said, or should have said, and yet this was what he used his breath to utter. A case of one person absentmindedly speaking his mind, but he's certainly not the only one who thinks that way. I daresay he wouldn't have taken this same liberty with La Raza in the room or any other ethnic student group. But Middle Easterners aren't so popular these days, so looser lips abound.
I read The Lions of Little Rock as I filled out an application that required me to fill in the bubble for race. It is something I always struggle with - to me, the options seem limited. We can identify as White, Latino, African-American, Asian, Native American, or Unwilling to Disclose. And so this becomes my cultural identity: Unwilling to Disclose. No one in this country treats me as if they think I'm white (as if white is still the prize or necessity to contribute to and participate in the community), and I hesitate to fill it in every time, so I don't.
The Lions of Little Rock is a powerful book for so many reasons. On the surface it is a sweet, thoughtful tale, and one might mistakenly file it away as historical fiction and believe that the lessons end there. But the point is that the story is important to us today, and will be every day until we properly square away our racial issues. One can only hope that a unique book like this contributes to a gentler younger generation, one that approaches each and every member of their classroom with more interest and understanding. Not just the black children- all children who look a little bit different than them, or act a little bit different. It is a tale of acceptance that I guess I wish more adults would read and learn from.
As much as I loved this story and its message of hope, the author couldn't understand me more than when she writes her final words and reminds us: we still have a long way to go.