Conversations about representation in literature have been a long time coming, but the day finally arrived. For some people, it arrived too late to save their humanity. Those people view black and brown bodies and black and brown spaces in derogatory terms. Terms that further prove those people are not simply unfit for the office they hold, but unfit period. It’s those unfit people, the perpetrators and the enablers, who solidify why diversity in literature matters and why reading matters. Empathy. It also solidifies that “we have miles to go” and sleep isn’t really an option.
When I was a young reader the question of representation never crossed my mind. The fact that black and brown boys and girls were mostly missing from the stories I read should have bothered me. It should have bothered us all. The books I read delivered a homogenous view of not just the U.S., but the entire world. Perhaps on some unconscious level I was aware that the protagonists and narrators of my favorite books all looked the same. And while they looked like some members of my family they certainly did not look like all the members of my family.
I grew up and realized in many ways literature is a “for members only” space. It is true of the Western Canon that so often comes under fire, but it is also true of the books in our classrooms and on our library shelves. I still adore Trixie and Nancy, Harriet and Claudia, but I’m excited there is now space for Candice and Brandon, the protagonists of Varian Johnson’s The Parker Inheritance.
The Parker Inheritance is a story set in the present day, as well as the past. It illustrates how much things have changed and how much they have stayed the same. It’s still a world where simply being a black or brown body makes you suspicious, makes you a suspect, makes you a target. It’s still a world where being black and brown requires you to be twice as good as everyone else just to get a seat at the table, but that seat doesn’t protect you from second guesses, the well-intentioned, but dangerous colorblind liberalism, the cluelessness of “I have black friends,” or the unapologetically racist.
Many of those realities are explored in The Parker Inheritance and it’s all done quite well. The book goes deeper still by bringing to children’s literature discussion of the “brown bag test,” self-loathing, and other hushed realities of blackness in America.
In the midst of that discussion on race and America there is an homage to Westing Game—a book with it own issues of representation and stereotyping that often goes undiscussed because Raskin’s novel is incredibly clever. It’s Westing Games’ cleverness that Johnson imitates, and it is a doozy of a puzzle for protagonists and readers, while also briefly tackling its issues. Ultimately, I agree with the choice to bring attention to Westing Games' issues while not lingering because there is too much happening in The Parker Inheritance to devote more than a passing mention to the problems of its predecessor.
Dare I say The Parker Inheritance’s too much is almost a bit too much. Racism is joined by friendship, family, sexuality, identity, forgiveness, generational differences, bullying, parents and their children, self-loathing, and about three other topics, which makes this mystery well and truly packed. Like I said, it's almost too much. Almost.
Is it enough to keep me from recommending The Parker Inheritance? Absolutely not. While I found the plot overstuffed, I found Candice, Brandon, and most of the supporting players just right. The characters are realistically drawn—warts and all. The reader is given an opportunity to dive into the complexities and questions of their lives. Johnson never pushes us to like characters who are clearly unlikeable, but he does push his reader to understand what James Baldwin often explored in his stories. The idea that hatred and evil and indifference and bigotry are qualities nurtured into us—a case of not being born that way. Toward the novel's end Candice is saddened to realize that while " the great beacon light of hope" still burns so to do "the flames of withering injustice." What a "shameful condition."
In August, it will be the 55th anniversary of the March on Washington. It was there that Dr. King spoke about the "fierce urgency of now"—the immediate and absolute need for justice and equality. Today we know it is justice and equality for the full spectrum of diversity. In perspective, it's a bit heartbreaking we are still fighting for The Dream. If it's heartbreaking for me, I can only begin to imagine the feelings of those that stood on The National Mall and heard those words, those that watched from televisions, and listened on radios as Dr. King's words rang out over a sea of hopeful people.
I wonder what it must be for those mighty men and women to watch the generations that came after their sacrifices still struggling to reach the right side of history. If you'd told my 18-year old self that we were still on the wrong side of history, I would have been perplexed. If you'd told my 25-year-old self that we probably wouldn't reach the right side of history during my lifetime, I would have dismissed that talk as nonsense. We won't. I know that now. We are still living the "fierce urgency of now." The Parker Inheritance knows this truth and it speaks this truth. The fight rages on . . .
Read The Parker Inheritance for a tragic look at America’s past, an unflinching look at its present, as a study in how far we’ve come, and a treatise on how far we have to go. Read it for the characters. Read it because we have a new Claudia and Jamie, and they are brown.