A Biting Send-Up of Race Relations — and a Tender, Funny Middle Grade Novel
By Jerry Craft
It’s the first day of eighth grade and Drew Ellis is already stressed. Curious hands keep reaching for his hair, newly styled in a kinky hi-top. A white student who has a crush on him has burdened him with a giant sweet potato pie.
Such is life as a Black student at the private Riverdale Academy Day School, or RAD, the setting of Jerry Craft’s new graphic novel, “Class Act.” You can imagine a lot of New York parents throwing elbows for a spot at RAD. Class sizes are small, and students sit Socratic-style at round tables. The library is top-notch, and athletic and arts programs are well funded. Plus, RAD has the kind of curated diversity in which a just-right sprinkle of children of color enriches the educational experiences of a white majority.
It’s the perfect setup for a moving and often very funny story about the convergence of an awkward age (13 to 14) with an awkward age (America’s racial reckoning). “Class Act” is the sequel to Craft’s introspective, Newbery Medal-winning book, “New Kid,” in which a 12-year-old named Jordan Banks arrives at RAD as a wide-eyed transplant from Washington Heights. In this follow-up, Drew, one of Jordan’s closest pals, struggles with both the privileged realm of RAD and his life in the Co-op City section of the Bronx, where his childhood buddies call him a “bougie” snob who “ain’t really like us no more.”
Drew feels lost. His teacher Mr. Roche, a walking microaggression in a skinny tie, recruits him and another Black student to make a visiting group of South Bronx eighth graders feel at home. “Shoot, I don’t even feel at home here,” he says.
The tour is just one of several well-intentioned but fumbled efforts by RAD to “build a bridge” and emphasize commonality among cultures that most students and teachers know painfully little about. Mr. Roche starts an “affinity group” called Students of Color Konnect, or SOCK, bringing doughnuts to the first meeting to show how they are “all different but all delicious.” It doesn’t go well.
For Drew, these failed exercises are proof that students like him don’t belong. Craft shapes an antagonist in Andy Peterson, a white student who resents that Drew has replaced him as quarterback and doesn’t see what good all this diversity and inclusion business does anybody. “If you don’t feel comfortable,” he says, “that’s not my fault!” His MAGA-red ball cap is no coincidence (and perhaps a bit heavy-handed).
Craft’s rendering of Uptown Manhattan and the Bronx is immediately recognizable, from the ubiquitous “Injured?” billboards to the beloved Word Up bookstore in Washington Heights. He balances his biting sendup of American race relations with poignant family portraits, and the art is most striking in quiet moments when Drew, Jordan and their friend Liam are at home, wrestling with their emotions.
Jordan, playing a supporting role in this book, serves as a middleman between Drew and Liam, a white student whose family is extravagantly wealthy but also cold and dysfunctional. Drew becomes more distant from Liam as his frustration with RAD entitlement grows, until the friends visit each other at home and see how the other lives. Their reconciliation is convincing and powerful.
Maybe RAD and other institutions are missing the point with their doughnut summits: The very difficult work of antiracism isn’t about asserting sameness; it begins with understanding and appreciating difference. You can’t build a bridge, after all, without knowing what’s on the other side.
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