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10 May 2022 UNEQUAL: A STORY OF AMERICA by Michael Eric Dyson & Marc Favreau, Little Brown, May 2022, 368p., ISBN: 978-0-7595-5701-7


“The dark brown shades of my skin

Only add color to my tears

Oh, oh

That splash against my hollow bones

That rocks my soul

Looking back over my false dreams that I once knew

Wondering why my dreams never came true

Is it because I’m Black (uh huh)

Somebody tell me what can I do?”

– Syl Johnson, “Is It Because I’m Black (1969)


“If America isn’t for everybody, it isn’t America.”

– James Meredith (Chapter 10)


Two decades ago, when my eldest was in college, he spoke passionately about the writings of Dr. Michael Eric Dyson. Remembering my son’s enthusiasm, I was excited to learn that Professor Dyson had co-written a book for tweens and teens with Marc Favreau, the noted history author and editor.


UNEQUAL is a heartbreaking and hopeful examination of systemic racism in America, from the end of the Civil War right up into the current pandemic. Cover to cover, there is great research, great writing, and great storytelling. This is American history writing at its finest. 


UNEQUAL follows this history chronologically over twenty chapters, each featuring the story of a Black American. Some of these activists, heroes, and victims are known by all and have already been the subjects of excellent books for young people; those include Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer and, of course, the Reverend Dr. King. Some of the featured figures are in the trenches today, fighting for change. 


A few are lesser known. I loved reading about Pauli Murray who, in the early 1940s, was the only female student in her Howard University law school class. One day, ignoring the mockery of her fellow students amidst a heated discussion, Ms. Murray proposed that the NAACP had been pushing too hard on the “equal” side of the “separate but equal” doctrine:


"Fighting to get better facilities for Black people missed the point. she said. It was trying to fix the effects of segregation without going after the cause. And the cause, she pointed out, was separation itself--the act of segregating African Americans and treating them differently in the first place. Until they fixed this problem, civil rights activists would never achieve true equality for Black people.

'One would have thought I had proposed that we attempt to tear down the Washington Monument or the Statue of Liberty,' Pauli recalled. 'First astonishment, then hoots of derisive laughter, greeted what seemed to me to be an obvious solution.'

Pauli had gotten used to her classmates' reactions by that point, and she dug in. 'Opposition to an idea I cared deeply about always aroused my latent mule-headedness,' she said.

Separate was never equal, Pauli insisted. Separate, on its face, discriminated against Black people because separate meant that Black people were somehow different. Racism fed off this very idea. In her heart, in her gut, Pauli knew that calling some people 'different' was at the root of America's thorniest problems.

Plessy had to go. Black people needed nothing short of full equality, the equality promised to all citizens in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

Pauli made a ten-dollar bet that day with her professor, a young legal scholar named Spottswood Robinson. Plessy v. Ferguson, she told him, couldn't survive another twenty-five years."


A decade later, her professor, who had accepted what he thought was an easy wager, ended up on the Thurgood Marshall team preparing arguments in Brown v. Board of Education. He dug out Pauli Murray's paper from his file cabinet, brought her ideas to the table, and that's how Pauli Murray provided the key to the historic Brown decision. 


Chapter after chapter, UNEQUAL features stunning accounts about discriminatory laws, discriminatory enforcement of laws, and barbaric, sub-human treatment by doctors, police, and state legislatures. Throughout the years, America has turned a blind eye as Black moms, dads, kids, and entire communities have been mowed down by racist mobs and racist cops. The situation improved somewhat when the spread of mobile phones enabled witnesses to share proof of what they had seen, although most of the time, perpetrators were still not indicted and held accountable. Rodney King. George Floyd. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Their stories and many others are recounted here.


UNEQUAL concludes with chapters on the Black Lives Matter movement and Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize after creating The 1619 Project for TheNew York Times.


Yes, UNEQUAL will be banned in states where lawmakers want young people to believe that slavery wasn’t so bad, and that racism just involves a few bad apples. They don’t want students to understand that systemic racism is very real, continues today, and must be addressed. 


UNEQUAL is a hugely important book that will enlighten tweens and teens who are fortunate enough to read it. The American Library Association’s Newbery, Printz, Coretta Scott King, Sibert, and YALSA Nonfiction committees should all consider this essential work for recognition. I truly believe that it can save lives and change lives. In a better America, this book would be taught everywhere.


If America is to become a place for everyone, young people must understand that housing discrimination, job discrimination, educational discrimination, involuntary sterilizations, and racist policing are historic facts. Until every child can feel fortunate to be born an American, things have got to change. And that change cannot come without a reckoning with the truth of America’s past and present.


UNEQUAL is the real deal. I urge you to read it, share it, teach it, and preach it.


Richie Partington, MLIS

Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.pbworks.com






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