In her debut young adult novel, “Like a Tree Without Roots” author Teresa Ann Willis explicitly confronts the persistent problem of
internalized self-hatred among African-descended people in the Americas. With language that is colloquial and easily accessible to young readers, Willis employs an almost journal-like style to examine issues of external beauty from a middle school girl’s perspective.
The book reads as if her main character, Jasmine, is telling a best friend about her family, her school, her friends, and her ever-present desire to perm her hair so she can look like the woman on “that little box . . . with her cocoa butter skin, high cheekbones, arched eyebrows, her slender White girl nose and her hair.”
Willis examines the universal teen desire to fit in with the peer group from a distinctly African American perspective. Jasmine lives in Harlem, and the language she uses, terms like “ODing” and “Old School,” will resound clearest in the minds of young readers familiar with New York colloquialisms.
Willis places these terms in context, though, so readers everywhere and of all ages will know exactly what Jasmine’s friends and schoolmates mean when they speak to and about each other.
Harlem also provides Willis the opportunity to examine the ways the displacement and loss of identity associated with the trans-Atlantic slave trade affected people of color in the Caribbean and South America, as well as throughout the United States.
Jasmine’s schoolmates are like most New Yorkers in that they can trace their family history to other countries, and her friends come from places such as Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica. Jasmine’s best friend, Ebonee, is black and Hispanic.
This novel suggests that for black people of all shades of brown, the prevalence of media images that celebrate lighter skin and longer hair complicates the typical mean-girl behavior that takes place in all U.S. middle schools. Insecurities about beauty and appearance might infect girls everywhere in this country, but those adolescent fears that compel young women to deceive one another in a bid to secure best-friend status devolve into racialized language among Willis’ black characters faster than an express train at rush hour.
When Jasmine lies about her and Ebonee’s mutual friend, Ylenny, Ylenny calls Jasmine a “black [expletive].” Despite the same-age onlookers who call the girls’ language “racist,” Jasmine responds by telling Ylenny, “You think you all that ’cause you Puerto Rican.”
When another girl, Jocelyn, remarks that Jasmine is “so hateful sometimes,” Jasmine quickly retorts, “Mind ya business, you African booty scratcher.”
“I’m not African, I’m Haitian, you black cockroach,” Jocelyn responds.
Intra-racial conflict rooted in slavery pits lighter-skinned black girls and darker-skinned black girls against one another — and, the book suggests, against the authentic African inside them all.
Despite their close proximity to institutions such as the world-renown Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Weeksville Heritage Center, the presence of vocal Harlem residents who wear African attire and call the girls out for wearing name brands that ignore their culture, the fact that “Barack Obama might be the first black president!” and even family members, like Jasmine’s aunt, who wear natural hair and look beautiful, the girls in this novel need a lesson in self-love.
And they get it. With one caring teacher, Jasmine’s loving female family members and a community rich in human resources, the adults use clear lessons about slavery, music, rebellion, gardening, wealth and, yes, hair care, to initiate the proud, empowered womanhood readers want for Jasmine when her story begins. Young people will find this novel that reads like a diary engaging and accessible — and they will learn without realizing they’ve been taught.
Eisa Nefertari Ulen is author of the novel “Crystelle Mourning”. She can be reached at www.EisaUlen.com.
256 pp, Ase Publishing, 19.99. (Young adult ages 15 and up)
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