If you don’t know the name Christina Hammonds Reed, you will soon. Reed has just released her debut novel The Black Kids, establishing herself as an author you won’t want to miss. The Black Kids is set in Los Angeles in 1992 and follows Ashley Bennett and her friends as they anticipate the end of high school and the start of summer and college. But the bliss of the upcoming summer is soon shattered after four LAPD police officers are acquitted that April after nearly beating Rodney King to death. As riots and protests surrounding the verdict overtake LA, Ashley tries to continue living her life. However, she soon realizes it won’t be the same again.
One of the first aspects that struck me about this book is the vivid imagery Reed includes that enhances the overall tone of the book. The summertime vibe and general feeling of Los Angeles is so visceral the city practically leaps off the page, creating a poetic ode to LA. Reed expertly sets the scene and will keep you in the story. She also mentions events specific to the time period (e.g. the Challenger explosion) that help reconstruct her world. She provides strong attention to detail that makes all the difference.
More striking still is Reed’s exploration of Ashley’s struggle to fully identify as Black. Unlike most of the Black kids she knows, Ashley grew up wealthy and privileged. Besides the color of her skin, she has almost nothing in common with the Black kids, leading her to question her own Blackness at times. However, her privilege doesn’t protect her from racism, which she begins to realize more and more as the book progresses. Ashley grappling with her identity is something I found to be particularly relatable, as it’s something I’ve also experienced, and other Black readers may have as well. Reed perfectly encapsulates the feeling of being on the receiving end of microaggressions and outright racism. She writes about the confusion and hurt that comes with it, using Ashley’s questioning after each incident to further emphasize the often detrimental impact that follows, even if it isn’t fully realized at first.
Reed continues to use her characters to keep Ashley’s internal struggle at the forefront along with other issues. Ashley’s main group of white friends highlight the way microaggressions go unacknowledged by those using them, accompanied by playing them off as a joke (my blood was boiling reading some of the things her friends said). The other Black kids at their school present the divide between them and Ashley caused by class statuses and other circumstances Ashley isn’t as privy to because she was raised differently. Even within her own family there are major differences that Ashley notices, especially through the difference in personalities between Ashley and her sister. Reed offers a character study that pushes readers to think about the importance of each of them and coming up with the answers with Ashley.
Finally, the story Reed tells holds a frightening relevance to today and pointing out how Ashley notices history before her also repeats itself in certain ways. One great way Reed does this is through the before/during/after structure of the book: before the acquittal of the cops, during the ensuing riots, and after the riots slow down and LA is no longer on fire. This structure guides readers through the way it’s always been, made more timely by the continuing protests happening now for Black Lives Matter.
The Black Kids is a solid, heart-wrenching, and powerful debut from Reed. She draws attention to the sustained relevance and pervasiveness of racism and its different forms. She takes a deep dive through Ashley in a way that’s blatant but also provides a deeply nuanced examination of the topic, ensuring readers – especially the main age demographic – remain aware. She also provides insightful examination about privilege as it relates to class. Her words hit full force, providing a small taste of the heartache, anger, and frustration of Ashley’s experience. If you read one book this month, make it The Black Kids.
You can purchase The Black Kids at your local bookstore and online here.