We live in a time and place where there are a plethora of different races, and yet all of those races and nationalities are not accepted. Julius Lester’s Let’s Talk About Race (published in 2005 and illustrated by Karen Barbour), tackles the subject of race in America today. I can’t help but think of the Coca-Cola Super Bowl ad that has been criticized because they were singing “America the Beautiful” (which is decidedly not our National Anthem, despite what many have said) in different languages. Click here to see one article that posts some reactions to the campaign. The old notion of a “melting pot” is still prevalent, when in reality we need to take the stance of cultural pluralism. Those who come to our country should be able to maintain their heritage and culture, while at the same time learning the language and culture of the United States. I know that the commercial was touching at something bigger than just race, but it is the same concept; many people have difficulty accepting something and someone who is different from them.
The format of Let’s Talk About Race is very interesting. It is told from a second-person point of view, so the author is continuously addressing the reader. It gives the text an interactive feeling because the reader cannot help but sit and answer questions like “How does your story begin?” The author discusses his own life story of being a black, Jewish man who had a brother who died and loves to do crossword puzzles. He then goes on to state that race is also a part of our story. Lester tells us that in some way, we all think we are better than someone else. He says, “But there are other ways all of us—even me, even you—think we are better than others” and then he lists examples of all the different ways we tend to feel that we are better than others because of where we live, how much money our parents make, and our race. The main premise of his story is that underneath our skin, we all have the same bones. Without our skin, we wouldn’t be able to tell one another apart. His greatest question is, “Which story shall we believe? The one that says ‘My race is better than yours?’ Or the one we just discovered for ourselves: Beneath our skin I look like you and you look like me and she looks like her and him and he looks like him and her and we look like them and they look like us.” It’s a very thought-provoking tale that boils race down to the simple fact that we are all human.
As a reader and as a teacher, what I most enjoyed about this book was the second-person perspective that made the text interactive. Julius Lester introduced himself, and then asked the reader “How does your story begin?” I can just imagine reading this to a class, stopping at that point, and having children turn and talk to their partners about how their story began. Julius Lester did a great model beforehand, so they would all be ready to jump right into the discussion of their lives. Later, Julius Lester asks us to poke the bone underneath our eye, and then maybe do the same to someone else. The children would love this! They basically get to almost-poke somebody in the eye, but they discover something that is very true. We are the same underneath! There are so many places in the book where Julius Lester asks us questions, and each of those could be an opportunity for partner or whole-class discussion. This would be a great lesson on diversity for our students. I could even see a follow-up activity where the children all create the “story” of their lives to share with one another.
Karen Barbour’s illustrations show stylized versions of humans. In many pictures we are given profiles of faces that are very Egyptian-looking in that the eyes are much too large for their faces. There is an array of colors for skin, including white, brown, black, purple, and even green. I appreciate these illustrations because it shows us something very important—it doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside, because we are all the same underneath. The illustrations, especially the one of Julius Lester fishing, have a folk art feel to them. I think that this takes us even further away from reality. There are fish flying in the sky and butterflies as big as his leg. This distance from reality reminds us once again that our conceptions about race are simply ridiculous. We as a society have got to stop seeing just the color of skin.
Much like I appreciated the Coca-Cola commercial that celebrated the diversity of America, I appreciate this book that teaches us a lesson about race. This book is not so much a “Be proud of who you are book” as it is a “Respect everyone” kind of book. The concept of respecting others despite their differences is not a new one, but Julius Lester presents it in a unique, irrefutable way.