Jennifer Baszile's mother and father didn't grow up having everything, but, like most parents do, they worked to make sure their children would. As soon as they could, they moved their family to the California suburb of Palos Verdes, even if it meant they had to make longer commutes to work. Jennifer and her sister Natalie attended the best schools in the area, and their parents expected them to work hard and eventually go to college.
That's nothing out of the ordinary, except that to the Basziles' mainly white neighbors, the family was strange, an aberration, and they did not belong in the neighborhood. Soon after moving, someone scrawled a racist note on their sidewalk. Another night, a vandal snuck into the family's courtyard and painted their fountain black. Mr. and Mrs. Baszile, no strangers to racism, refused to get emotional; they simply cleaned the sidewalk and made a stance not to leave the neighborhood.
The decades after the civil rights movement weren't easy. Baszile recalls a day in elementary school when she beat her white friend in a race before class. The friend was a good sport about it, though --- she simply told everyone that "black people have something in their feet to make them run faster." When the children asked their teacher if that was true, she said it was.
Baszile's memoir continues to tell both the story of an everygirl growing up in 1980s California and the story of an incredible struggle that still exists today to define oneself as an individual both like and unlike the dominant society. She vividly describes her first hair relaxer treatment, so that even as a reader, you can feel her pain and her pride. All of her stories, from first dates to fights with her parents to her rivalry with her sister, resonate as familiar scenes of adolescence no matter your background.
Though I grew up later than Baszile, I found familiarity in her stories, which made me both comfortable and sad that race relations in the United States have not changed all that much since the ’60s. Her stories about dating and making friends are especially bittersweet. They are brutally honest and reflect the confusion that comes when you wonder if people like you because of your race, in spite of your race, or they do not see race at all. One of her most interesting memories regards a cruise trip in which Baszile and her sister had the time of their lives, hanging out on their own and making new friends, until their parents became angry and required them to befriend every single black child on the ship.
It would be easy to say that this memoir is important because of the recent election. That's certainly the case, but to say so means that race is only pertinent when an important political event occurs. THE BLACK GIRL NEXT DOOR is a relevant read for anyone living in the United States, an honest portrayal of a life and a person many don't fully understand. Race is a complicated issue, and this country is a race-based society. Baszile's memoir is one of those works that allows people to both find common ground and break down walls.
Reviewed by Sarah Hannah Gómez on December 29, 2009