“Boston, 1992. David Greenfeld is one of the few white kids at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Middle School. Everybody clowns him, girls ignore him, and his hippie parents won’t even buy him a pair of Nikes, let alone transfer him to a private school. Unless he tests into the city’s best public high school—which, if practice tests are any indication, isn’t likely—he’ll be friendless for the foreseeable future.
Nobody’s more surprised than Dave when Marlon Wellings sticks up for him in the school cafeteria. Mar’s a loner from the public housing project on the corner of Dave’s own gentrifying block, and he confounds Dave’s assumptions about black culture: He’s nerdy and neurotic, a Celtics obsessive whose favorite player is the gawky, white Larry Bird. Before long, Mar’s coming over to Dave’s house every afternoon to watch vintage basketball tapes and plot their hustle to Harvard. But as Dave welcomes his new best friend into his world, he realizes how little he knows about Mar’s. Cracks gradually form in their relationship, and Dave starts to become aware of the breaks he’s been given—and that Mar has not.
Infectiously funny about the highs and lows of adolescence, and sharply honest in the face of injustice, Sam Graham-Felsen’s debut is a wildly original take on the American dream.”
My Thoughts: One of the best things about reading is the opportunity books provide you to expand your horizons and learn about new cultures, different experiences, and what it is like for others outside your sociological/economic/gender/race sphere of influence. Sometimes, this is a side benefit of reading a certain novel. At other times, it appears to be the purpose of the book. Sam Graham-Felsen’s Green, is more of the latter than the former as it explores growing up as a minority white teenager in a predominantly black neighborhood in 1992 Boston.
When reflecting on Green, I cannot overcome the feeling of discomfort I have after reading it. Some of my discomfort is due to Dave. His adoption of teenage black culture is understandable given how much he does not want to stand out at his new middle school, and yet it makes for some truly uncomfortable scenes. Everything about Dave screams poseur. His choice of vernacular, his choice of dress, and his “preference” for girls of color may help him avoid notice but they do nothing to help make him fit into the school and surrounding neighborhood. In fact, his choices only prove how different he is and make for some truly cringe-worthy scenes.
Dave’s character made me think a lot about cultural appropriation. In theory, since Dave is a minority student at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School as one of two white students, his use of the black vernacular and style of dress should not be cultural appropriation. He is not a member of the dominant culture adopting elements of the minority culture. At least on the surface he is not. Yet, I cannot help but think that is exactly what Mr. Graham-Felsen is having Dave do. After all, the story is about the difference in opportunities and justice that race brings. Dave may be a minority student at King, but as a white male in a very white male world he has more opportunities for advancement than anyone else he knows. His adoption of the black culture as a method of survival strikes me as crass because it only seems to highlight the differences and therefore the difference in opportunities between him and everyone else.
Thankfully, the addition of Marlon to Dave’s life provides some of the desperately-needed sanity the reader craves. It is Marlon who tries to make Dave embrace his identity through their shared love of the Celtics. Similarly, it is Marlon who drives Dave to success in school. The tragedy of the situation is the fact that every push Marlon gives Dave towards the path to Harvard, his own path grows murkier and steeper – a fact of which everyone but Dave is aware. Even though Dave might attend a black school and live in a black neighborhood, he has no idea what life is like for his fellow students and Marlon most of all. The growing awareness he has that Marlon and he are being forced onto separate paths is painful and awkward and unfortunately all too true.
If Dave got me thinking about cultural appropriation, Marlon’s story had me thinking about the appropriateness of a highly educated white man writing a story about a poverty-stricken black teenager living in the Boston projects. Mr. Graham-Felsen is everything Marlon is not in terms of color of skin, opportunities afforded him, and success. His very life ensures he cannot accurately portray Marlon because there is no real way for him to truly understand what it means to not be able to afford private school or summer theater classes and what that might mean for any child’s future. This again leads me back to the idea of cultural appropriation, for now we have to remember that Mr. Graham-Felsen is writing Dave as a white man. Dave is nothing but his estimation of how a black teen from 1992 acted and talked. It is not quite like putting on blackface, but I cannot help but feel Green is a lot closer to that than it is to an enlightening story of race and injustice.
I cannot say that Green helped me learn more about the 1990s black culture. After all, it is Mr. Graham-Felsen’s own (presumably) researched opinion about black culture and therefore it can never be a true picture of it. Nor did I learn anything new about race and injustice and opportunities from the novel. The ending is all but a foregone conclusion, and the realizations Dave (finally) understands are nothing more than confirmations of things most people already know. The story is a tough one, as is any story in which there is clearly a winner and a loser in the life lottery, and it is always good to remember that others have far more difficult paths to success than you might have had. Still, Dave’s utter lack of empathy makes Green a difficult novel to read let alone enjoy. Mr. Graham-Felsen’s novel is a great reminder that life is not fair for many reasons, and that is never an easy idea to stomach.