Green leaves you blue

Green by Sam Graham-Felsen

BOTTOM LINE: It got me thinking but probably not about the things the author intended.

Genre: Literary Fiction
Publication Date: 2 January 2018
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“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.

12 Responses to Green leaves you blue
  1. Amanda
    January 9, 2018 | 7:45 AM

    Interesting. I myself was one of the only white kids in a predominately Hispanic school/neighborhood, and this subject often drives me crazy when authors try to write about it having not lived it. I can’t even imagine trying to appropriate the culture I was around. I was very plainly told – YOU ARE AN OUTSIDER – and any attempts to blend in that way would have made the situation a thousand times worse. Mentally, though, I adapted to a culture that was different, and found myself confronting in adulthood the weird feeling of prejudice against white people and the shame of having white children. I had to learn to process this and eliminate this, but to this day I still have a lot of difficulty in being around certain kinds of white culture. Anyway, my point is that I’ve read this from several authors over the years and it never feel authentic, and it sounds like this one falls into the same trappings.

    • Michelle
      January 9, 2018 | 8:40 AM

      It totally did not feel authentic. Granted, I don’t necessarily know what authentic would be since my contact with black culture was minimal growing up, but from what I know, this was not it. I just didn’t buy the story, and the whole thing left me feeling SO uncomfortable because of it.

      (I do understand feeling prejudice when you have no reason to do so. I used to be thoroughly ashamed and embarrassed to be raised as a Roman Catholic. There were few of them in the area, and every history class I ever took pounded into us the fact that the Roman Catholic church was SO corrupt and dangerous. It is such a stupid thing of which to be ashamed, but there it is.)

  2. Debi
    January 9, 2018 | 10:06 AM

    This was a fabulous review, Michelle. I’m pretty sure I would have felt exactly like you did, only I wouldn’t have been able to put all those feelings into words so well. Think this is one I can definitely skip.

  3. Ti Reed
    January 9, 2018 | 10:23 AM

    Little known fact, when I was young and practically homeless, I hung out with black kids and for the longest time thought I was just like them. They accepted me more so than the other kids. This was interesting because in Hollywood these kids were ALL poor. I mean, maybe a few had money but it seemed to have nothing to do with money at all. I don’t know how some kids are accepted and others aren’t and that goes for any culture. I didn’t think anything of it at the time but I was talking like them, eating what they ate, TRYING to do my hair the same way. It was laughable but they put up with me. Years later one of those kids ran into me at a bank where I was working and she recognized me but then seriously did a double take and was like, wow… you’ve changed a lot from my memory. Ha.

    • Michelle
      January 9, 2018 | 11:28 AM

      The thing about this book is that except for one or two students, no one really accepted him even though he tried so hard to fit in via physical appearance and mannerisms. The majority ended up ignoring him as not worth their time. What made this even odder is that other than his clothing, attitude, and speech patterns, he did nothing else to try to fit in with the rest of the kids from the projects. I mean, he loved theater and participated in a local theater company with no regard to what others in the school would think. So there is very much an attitude that even though he may look and sound like them, he remained separate from (and somewhat superior to) them. That is why it bothered me so much. I would have felt better had he adjusted everything about himself to try to fit in with his classmates.

  4. Anita
    January 10, 2018 | 9:26 AM

    You write a wonderful review! I don’t think this is a book I’d enjoy so much, but the concept is interesting.

    • Michelle
      January 10, 2018 | 10:55 AM

      The concept is why I wanted to read it, as I thought it would be interesting. Instead, it just left me feeling really uncomfortable but not in the way the author intended. So disappointing.

  5. Amanda
    January 11, 2018 | 2:56 PM

    This is a really great review Michelle. You left me thinking as well as the book might have it feels like.

  6. susan
    January 12, 2018 | 6:24 PM

    Cultural appropriation is an interesting topic. I’m all for authors picking whatever gender/racial narrator they want — making up stuff & researching characters is what fiction is about — but whether they are able to pull it off is another story. Sometimes male authors can pull off female narratives other times not so well, but I’m not against it. Or race either, but it can be tricky. You raise a good issue & obviously this one didn’t seem to work for you.

    • Michelle
      January 14, 2018 | 6:24 PM

      I am hoping others read this so I can see how others feel about it. Normally, I am not bothered when authors cross genders or other things. However, this was a white man writing about a white boy adopting black cultural attributes in an area and time when it just would not have been accepted. That is where I struggled with this one.

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