By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
With Black boys and girls dying at the hands of law enforcement on what seems like a daily basis, a book on the subject doesn’t seem all that controversial to local bookstore owner Dana Maeshia.
Ms. Maeshia introduced Jewell Parker Rhodes’ book, “Ghost Boys” to her Boys In the Hood Book Club in April. She says she didn’t learn of the controversy surrounding the book until last week.
In the 2018 book, a 12-year-old Black boy, Jerome, is shot and killed in Chicago by a White police officer who mistakes his toy gun for a real one. It’s reminiscent of how 12-year-old Tamir Rice died in Cleveland in 2014. As a ghost, Jerome gets to see how his death impacts his family, the community and the police. He meets the ghost of Emmett Till, a teen who was lynched by White men in 1955 and learns about the existence of countless “ghost boys” who have been killed and their spirits still roam the earth trying to stop these killings from occurring again.
In December 2020, the Kingsburg Elementary Charter School District in Fresno County, removed the book from its curriculum following a parent’s complaint about its “political views.” The Broward County School Board in Florida halted use of the book earlier this month after the local Fraternal Order of Police union complained to the school district that the story was “propaganda.”
Ms. Maeshia said she selected “Ghost Boys” because of its relevance to what the 12 Black boys in her book club are already seeing and experiencing. Some of the boys have already had negative interaction with law enforcement.
“A lot of them have said that they felt that same energy in school, because some schools have police, but then also from the hall monitors, faculty and just from school, they feel like they get some of that same energy, like they are in fact set apart, like they have a different set of rules that apply to them, because they are Black and they are male,” Ms. Maeshia said.
“They realize that they’re not seen as little children, like everyone else. They’re seen as Black boys, therefore, you can also be seen as a monster. Therefore, you can also be seen as a menace to society, potential person who may be imprisoned, or who may rob. They don’t get the same consideration (as children of other races) and they all understand that and they live with that,” she continued.
With parents’ permission, book club leaders regularly delve into real-life issues with the boys.
“We do more than just read books,” Ms. Maeshia said. “We sit down,and we talk about different things. We talk about domestic violence, we talk about sexual abuse, and assault, we talk about the different types of abuse,” she added.
The boys also get help processing what they’re reading from youth liaison, Shahad Watkins. Ms. Maeshia was touched by one session when Watkins told other youth not to be fearful to be Black in America, even with what’s happening in the world tries to show them otherwise.
“He’s 14 year old and he was just saying ‘don’t walk around carrying that fear in your spirit,’” Ms. Maeshia shared.
The Boys In The Hood Book Club is aimed at African American males between the ages of 8 and 12. It meets every Friday at the Sojourner Truth Multicultural Arts Museum. There’s also a separate Around the Way Girls Book Club. The literacy program was started to bridge the gap in language arts, decrease suspension rates and disrupt the school to prison pipeline.
Before they’re done reading “Ghost Boys,” an attorney and member of local law enforcement will come and speak to the boys to give their perspective and share some do’s and don’ts for interacting with law enforcement.
In June 2020, eighth graders in Washington, DC. interviewed Ms. Rhodes about her book on a podcast called “Book Club For Kids.” Ms. Rhodes said she was inspired to pen the book by how Tamir Rice died, how Rodney King was savagely beaten in 1991 by Los Angeles police officers who were later acquitted and even further back, to when Till was lynched for allegedly whistling at a White woman.
“It really bothered me that Emmett Till died when I was two years old and here I’m now an adult grandmother and they’re still young Black kids being murdered,” Ms. Rhodes said. “With that connection I really felt as though I had to write a book to say to the world, ‘we’ve got to do better.’”
Ms. Maeshia remembers the aftermath in the Sacramento community after a local unarmed Black man, Stephon Clark, was killed by two Sacramento police officers on March 18, 2018. Officers mistook Clark’s cellphone for a gun and his death sparked protests throughout the country. “Ghost Boys” was published later that year.
“We were talking and we couldn’t even read that day,” Ms. Maeshia said, recalling a protest near the Florin Square building that houses her bookstore, All Things Literacy and More and where the Boys In The Hood Book Club meets weekly.
“We had to just literally hold space to just process,” she continued.
She’d gone around The Obama Room space letting everyone express how they were feeling about Clark’s death by the police.
“I’ll never forget the look on Rebecca Pearson’s son’s face,” Ms. Maeshia shared. “He was just like, ‘I’m just wondering when is it going to happen to me?’ This is a very real reality that these boys live with. I think that it’s better that they know and live with it, and then kind of process through it. Like how Shahad said, don’t carry it.”