Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Rite of Passage for All?

Rite of Passage
In searching for books that were a) literary b) would contribute to Black History Month and c) were simple enough for my students to complete independently, I stumbled upon this lesser known Wright novel. It was perfect for my purposes, but it was also a frightening and severe book that will shed light on a life my students weren't fully aware existed.

Johnny is a good student. He works hard in school, his teachers always give him a proud smile, and his parents and siblings love him. Johnny has a good life in Harlem. But one fateful day, when he returned home from school, everything came crashing down around him. His stuff was all packed and waiting in the hallway to be taken when he got into his building. When he asked his mother why they were leaving, Johnny heard the worst words in his life: they weren't leaving; he was. 

Johnny's family wasn't really his biological family. They were his foster parents who had raised him since he was six months old, but now the system wants to move him. His parents fought to keep him, but the foster system has rules to follow. Johnny's new family is coming to pick him up, but he can't process everything since it is happening so fast. When his new family arrives, he does the only thing he can do: he runs. Now Johnny, a kid who has had a comfortable life full of love and family, finds himself on the streets of Harlem without a penny in his pocket. How is such a boy to take care of himself? He becomes the Jackal. 

This was such a sad book. It was so well written: clear, concise, and didn't beat around the bush. It is about 115 pages, so it is a fast read that packs quite a punch. The life of Johnny is all too realistic. When he left his parents, he joined other boys who were escaping the foster care system, although for different reasons. A system that was supposed to save them instead forced them to fend for themselves by mugging and beating people on the streets when they should have been focusing on school and sitting for the dinner their mothers prepared for them. It was heartbreaking. The system failed them. And what happens next is painful to watch. 

This is a stark reality not only of the foster system, but of the few and limited options a boy like Johnny has. When he couldn't stay with the family who loved him (which is absurd and accurate for the system), he had no other option than to band together with other boys and fight for their lives on the streets. His options were so few and far between, and no child should have to make those decisions. This is a powerful little novella that will be perfect for the project I am doing in my literature class. I am interested to see how my student reacts to it when he has finished the story of Johnny. Will he change as much as Johnny did?

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