Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Noughts & Crosses (Noughts & Crosses #1) by Malorie Blackman

Before I begin to review this book, I feel that it's important to disclose that I chose to read it simply because each time a conversation has begun about the negativity of discrimination flips, Noughts & Crosses has been referred to repeatedly.

In the world that Blackman has created, Noughts (read: White people) are institutionally oppressed by Crosses (read: Black people). At one point, Noughts were enslaved by Crosses and now, Blackman's society is at the stage Jim Crow segregation, with Noughts fighting violently for inclusion. This is the world into which Sephy, a Cross and Callum a Nought have been born.  They become friends as children, when Callum's mother is employed by Sephy's family as a nanny/maid. When Callum's mother loses her job, the two are told that they can no longer interact but Callum and Sephy continue to sneak away to spend time together, determined to preserve their friendship.

When Callum is one of the few Noughts chosen to integrate into Sephy's Cross school, she is excited about the chance to spend more time with her best friend and to show him around the campus. Sephy has no idea that this will wipe away the last bit of innocence she possess about her racial privilege and the oppression Callum faces as a Nought man. The two struggle to maintain a relationship, even as the pressures from the outside world seem determined to rip them apart.  Can Sephy and Callum overcome the odds?

This is a typical discrimination flip, in that Blackman has taken real historical events like slavery and Jim Crow and placed White people on the receiving end of oppression.  Because Blackman is a woman of colour, she is able to discuss these issues from a position of expertise and therefore imparts a strong sense of realism to her story.  For instance, the scene in which Callum talks about how Noughts have been erased from history and how this is a purposeful act, to suggest that Noughts have not significantly contributed to society, is something that minority students continue to face today.

One of the shortcomings of Noughts & Crosses, is that it perceives race as a Black/White binary and though this is reflective of how far too many people see race or race based discussions, it limits our understanding of how racial supremacy really works, as well as reducing the category of race to Black. A true conversation has to involve all races and though Blackman may well have avoided other people of colour, choosing instead to preference a narrative that was reflective of her experience as a teaching lesson about the negativity of racial hostility, Noughts & Crosses fails because of this erasure.  Not including the impact of race based oppression on Indigenous people's in particular, essentially erases colonialism and genocide.

Clearly, the purpose of Noughts & Crosses is to teach about racial discrimination, the problem with it, like all discrimination flips, is that we have to imagine a world in which the oppressed become the oppressor.  With the exception of Sephy, there was only one other nice Black character in the entire story.  The Crosses all were physically violent, and the one biracial character, had internalized so much hatred that he made a project of belittling and harassing Callum in class. As much as this book is supposedly about teaching about the horrors of racism, it accomplishes this by once again creating Blackness as a negative. It encourages the reader to see things like institutionalized racism, Jim Crow and slavery as wrong but only because it is now happening to White people.  Another question worth asking is, if Blackness is now so privileged, why is it that a slur for Blackness still exists in Blackman's world? Yes, Noughts are called Blanks as a slur but it is not anymore impactful than Daggers for Blacks.

The power differential does shift when Callum joins a terrorist group and kidnaps Sephy.  He forces her to remove her top and then cuts her hand, so that he can cover the t-shirt in blood, as proof of life.  Callum also stands idly by, as his brother slaps Sephy viciously across the face.  But every time he looks at Sephy, he remembers his love for her and when he professes this, Sephy and Callum end up having sex.  To be clear, we are told that Sephy consents; however, it is important to keep in mind that Sephy is in fear for her life and believes that she will die when this is all over. How can anyone reasonably consent in this situation?  The reader is meant to see this as the culmination of their relationship but what it amounts to is the sexual abuse of a Black women by a White man.  How exactly is this reversing discrimination?  White men have a long history of violence towards Black women and in particular, sexual violence. 

With Noughts & Crosses, there is a tendency to see it as a success because being a woman of colour, Blackman includes real experiences of what it is to be marginalized within a White supremacist state.  The book is successful in that it avoids some of the gross examples and appropriations engaged in by Save the Pearls and Out, but a more nuanced and informed narrative does not mean that Noughts & Crosses escapes the sheer folly of its intent. Racism should be viewed as problematic, not because of the race being targeted, but because it is quite simply a crime against humanity.