For me, it began with “Society’s Child”:
Come to my door, baby
Face is clean and shining, black as night
My mama went to answer
You know that you looked so fine
Now I could understand the tears and the shame
She called you “Boy” instead of your name
When she wouldn’t let you inside
When she turned and said
“But honey, he’s not our kind”
Of course, to me, this was still kinda theoretical, since at 13 I wasn’t actually dating anyone of any color, and I seldom saw any black girls anyway, South Carolina having thus far failed to expel that stubborn old bird Jim Crow.
Came another year and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and another year and the very quiet desegregation of Charleston’s Catholic schools. And suddenly things weren’t quite as theoretical anymore.
Cut to the early 1990s, the setting of Juliette Akinyi Ochieng’s first novel, Tale of the Tigers (Carmel Coast Publishing, 2010). The dreaded word “miscegenation” seems to have fallen into deserved desuetude, but dating remains anything but post-racial. Nor did all the darts come from the other side:
Felice couldn’t count the times she had been called black and ugly as a child. Nor could she count the times that, as a young woman, she had been told that she was pretty, to be so dark.
This sort of thing didn’t concern Kevin, but then, he was a football star, and people were loath to mess with him — except, of course, for the little matter that he was a white kid, and some people had a problem with the very idea of Kevin and Felice as a couple.
It’s a simple tale being told here, but the complexities of race, how we deal with it and how we fail to deal with it, make what could have been a cut-and-dried polemic into an engrossing story, and Ochieng manages a tricky balancing act: she calls out racist behavior, calls it what it is, without feeling compelled to demonize those who behave that way. When attitudes give way to action — well, that comes later in the story.
People who never once in their lives looked longingly at someone of another color may claim not to understand this book. But here’s the catch: human relationships are often fraught with peril, and you can substitute a lot of words for “color” — “religion,” “social caste,” “educational level” — without affecting the truth of the matter. And that’s the strength of Tale of the Tigers: it never takes its eye off the truth.
(Review copy purchased by me directly from the author. A slightly-different version of this review appeared on Amazon.com.)