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Page history last edited by RichiesPicks 10 years, 7 months ago

04 January 2004  BEGGING FOR CHANGE by Sharon G. Flake, Hyperion/Jump at the Sun, June 2003, ISBN 0-7868-0601-X


"Zora says none of this woulda happened if Momma and me had gotten that Section Eight house in Pecan Landings. Momma tried. But the neighbors went to court to keep us out. They think people living in Section Eight housing are poor, dirty, and bad for the neighborhood. We got a lawyer fighting for us to be able to move in there. But I ain't so sure that place will ever be ours."


In 1969 the Coretta Scott King awards were established to recognize authors and illustrators of African descent whose distinguished books promote an understanding and appreciation of the "American Dream."


"Don't be tellin' me this isn't about black or white. It's always about black or white, and if you don't think so, it's because you're white."

--Tondayala Charise DuPré, from James Howe's THE MISFITS


When I was a little white kid living in a lily-white town with the lily-white name of Plainview, it was the American Dream of my Depression-Baby parents to have a successful family business and to keep moving us eastward--further and further away from New York City--to a series of homes on bigger and bigger lots. Forty years ago this month, we took the first of those steps eastward, moving from Plainview to a newly-built house on a former potato field in Commack.


During my early years I'd been watching the Civil Rights movement on television. Viewing that struggle as a youngster, and as a young student of American history, it taught me viscerally about the inequities of America. Undoubtedly watching George Wallace, Bull Connor, and the horrors of water cannons and police dogs turned loose on American dreamers in the South primed me for becoming a lifelong skeptic and activist.


I guess, at the time, I was having a somewhat different reaction to the work of Martin Luther King and his followers than were some other members of my new community. Within a year of my move to Commack a house two blocks away was burned nearly to the ground as its construction was almost completed. When I walked down there to see the destruction, I discovered that racial slurs and "Go Home!" were spray painted across a piece of plywood used to board up the remains.


(When I returned to Commack last fall for my 30th high school reunion, I got to hang out with Ricky "Moon" Mullins, my charming old friend and former high school basketball star whose family did eventually get to move into their rebuilt house. Ricky and his older brother Gary still live nearby and now own a prosperous business in the community.)


Memories of my parents' determination and hard work--both with the family business and with the family they raised up together--make it so easy for me to feel an affinity and a deep admiration for Raspberry Hill's Momma, Miz Virginia Hill, whom we met in the Coretta Scott King Honor book, MONEY HUNGRY, and who now returns in the stand-alone sequel, BEGGING FOR CHANGE.


Miz Hill's determination is just this side of heroic, considering that Raspberry's father is an amoral crackhead living on the streets and considering that her dreams extend far beyond merely making things safer for herself and her daughter. Raspberry discovers a series of half-written and re-written letters in which her mother is equally expressing both her rage and her motherly concern toward the neighborhood teenager who has been sent to Juvenile Hall after clocking Miz Hill with a length of pipe; this assault being in response to Miz Hill's repeated complaints about the dangerous disturbances the teen and her friends were creating.


Dear Shiketa:

I don’t like you. I don’t like your friend Miracle. I try to live a decent life and all you do is make things dirty and loud. I’m tired of both of you.


Dear Shiketa:

Your friends scared us tonight--but we're still here. Nobody can make us leave before we're ready. You are smart--I know, we used to talk a lot. But you need different friends if you want a different kind of life once you get out. Remember--you deserve better.


We admire Miz Hill, who shows no signs of inner conflict when she simultaneously works to improve the neighborhood she's living in and works to move to a better place. Miz Hill and her dreams are supported--indeed, kept afloat--by the two men, Odd Job and Dr. Mitchell, who were both close comrades of Miz Hill's during the childhood they had all shared in the Projects.


"...You gotta look outside your eyes

You got to think outside your brain

You got to walk outside your life

To where the neighborhood changes..."

--Ani Difranco, Willing to Fight


BEGGING FOR CHANGE is also the tale of Raspberry Hill, a teenage girl with a self-centered, single-minded (mis)perception that money is the ticket to her personal American Dreamland. Raspberry must glean these lessons of community that her mother is living.


In stealing money from her best friend Zora (whose dad, is Dr. Mitchell, now a prosperous physician who dates Miz Hill), Raspberry initiates the main conflict of the story and forces us to consider what is right and what is wrong when your whole world seems so damned unfair.


"I lie across the backseat. Put Dr. Mitchell's hospital jacket over my face and pretend I'm asleep, so nobody will try to talk to me.

" 'You all right, Raspberry?' he asks.

"I keep my mouth closed."

" 'Raspberry?' he says again. 'You all right back there?'

"The words fly out my mouth. 'Would you be all right,' I say, with his jacket still covering my head, 'if your mother got hit in the head with a pipe and your father was high as a kite?' "


In an adult nonfiction book just released, THE CHEATING CULTURE: WHY MORE AMERICANS ARE DOING WRONG TO GET AHEAD, author David Callahan lists "Trickle Down Corruption" as one of the four key reasons why cheating is so pervasive in American culture today. His introduction to this phenomenon is, "What happens when you're...struggling to make ends meet, and you think the system is stacked against people like yourself? What happens when you stop believing that the rules of life are fair? You might make up your own moral code." This description perfectly describes where Raspberry Hill is at. In fact, at the same time she's stealing the money from Zora, her teachers have taken up a collection and informed the media of Miz Hill's assault which results in a healthy community outpouring. But Raspberry is so clueless that without a thought she merely pockets both the share of the donations that her mom gives her (Raspberry doesn't believe in spending, only in saving.) as well as her best friend's money.


How Rasperry gets from that point to where she decides that "Nothing good comes of bad money," involves her becoming part of that community in which her mother so believes.


BEGGING FOR CHANGE provides a look at a part of America which will be as foreign to many young readers as is the surface of Mars. The vivid portrayal of Raspberry's father will bring understanding of the incomprehensible idea of addiction and of an urban culture somewhat more sobering than is typically glorified in rap videos. And the questions Sharon Flake poses in regard to getting ahead in America will provide teachers a wealth of opportunities for discussing this story of the American dream in classrooms across the country.


Richie Partington




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