You're back stage: you've been building toward this moment for months, through the exhausting rehearsals, last-minute changes, corny superstitions, and inside jokes. The lights have flashed; the orchestra is poised; the audience is quiet. In this moment, just before the curtain goes up, everything is within reach, everything is possible. Later, you might look back at the lines you flubbed, or the way your costume gaped in ways you did not prefer. But for now, you feel infinite.
This moment of uncertain anticipation might feel familiar, even for those who have never acted or performed before an audience. It rings true for anyone who can remember those heady days just on the precipice of adulthood, when every day felt shot through with potential. It happens at different times for different kids, of course, but the feeling of walking up to the edge and peering over into who you are becoming is a critical part of growing up. And that feeling is exactly what Christina Hammonds Reed has captured in her stunning YA debut, The Black Kids.
Ashley Bennett is a senior, one of the few Black kids at her private school, and the only Black girl in her circle of friends. She has grown up knowing that her parents' success (and their wealth) has opened doors to her, but she has also grown up with no real pressure to examine those hard questions of race and class. All that changes when her beloved city, her Los Angeles, erupts in violence in the wake of the police brutality against Rodney King and the subsequent acquittal of the officers involved.
Set in the near past of the early nineties, The Black Kids does landscape and setting very well. It is perfectly southern California, and it is infused with music and dance moves and references that will ring familiar in the ears of any kid who grew up in this era. As will the turmoil around this watershed event. For many, the video footage of Rodney King's beating by police was a first understanding, a first glimpse at the horrific reality of police brutality. Since then, these violent encounters have come to feel tragically familiar.
In this way, Hammonds Reed does a masterful job of telling the truth about the past while simultaneously mirroring the present. She does this, too, with Ashley and the emotional upheaval around friends and family that can accompany those last bright moments of high school. Ashley is fully a girl of her moment, growing up in 1990s L.A., but she is also every young person standing on that edge, full of every kind of potential.
Potential is one of those words, like possibility, that holds within it both extremes: a gathering storm has potential to be severe; a rising young performer has the potential to make it big. The potential for risk is as present as the potential for success. Those moments of becoming are full of both kinds of potential, and Ashley walks that knife's edge like most teenagers do -- aware of the risks and full of the hope, all at the same time.
With the unrest in L.A. as a living backdrop, Ashley is forced to grapple with her identity as a young Black woman in a predominantly white world. And she must face the fact that the friends she's had since middle school might not always be there for her. Through LaShawn, one of the other Black kids at her school, her eyes are opened to another side of herself and of her city. And through her sister and her cousin and her Uncle Ronnie, she starts to understand that side has always been there, always a part of the complicated truth of who she is.
Though there are plenty of difficult and painful pieces to this story, it is, like senior year itself, full of hope and anticipation. One of my favorite passages comes in the final pages:
What's next for all of us? It doesn't matter. In this moment, there's ocean in our hair, and we're awash in the glitter of possibility. We're girls in neon bikinis laughing. Soon, the world will crack wide open before us, and we will be women. Here we are.
And to the world of YA literature, that's what Christina Hammonds Reed has shouted with her debut: Here I am! Full of potential!