I read Malorie Blackman‘s Naughts & Crosses because it got a lot of hype on my Twitter timeline and on the blogs I regularly read and also because, again, I am looking for a replacement to the Hunger Games as class project in my freshmen introduction to sociology class.
Of course, the premise intrigued me. It is based on a counterfactual: what if the British society’s racial composition were reversed and Blacks (“Crosses”) were the dominant racial groups and whites (“naughts”) were a minority, subject to individual and institutional discrimination, as well as prejudice and stereotypes? It is nice to have white people decentered and on the receiving end of treatment usually reserved for minorities of various kinds. Since the book is written for young adults, obviously, there is a lesson to be learned here.
In the story, naughts used to be slaves to the Crosses. After slavery ended, a system of segregation was established, very much apartheid-like: separate schools, racial IDs, residential segregation, racial stratification.
The plot itself revolves around two families: one Cross family, the Hadleys (Kamal, the father, also high political official, his alcoholic wife, and their two daughters, Minerva and main character, Persephone), and a naught family, the McGregors (Ryan and Meggie, the parents, Lynette, the traumatized daughter after an attack by a mob of naughts because she was dating a Cross who died in the attack, Jude, the rebellious adolescent, and Callum, the other main character).
The narrative is à deux voix, alternating between Sephy and Callum. The two families are connected as Meggie McGregor used to work for the Hadleys before being fired unfairly, so Sephy and Callum spent part of their childhood together. On top of that, due to outside pressure, Crosses were forced to desegregate their schools and Callum is scheduled to start going to Sephy’s school, along with a handful of other naughts. Things go downhill from there.
There would be all the ingredients for some sociological analysis here, from the entire structuring of society under black supremacy, to the names each group calls the other (“dagger” for the Crosses, “blankers” for the naughts). The book goes through all the day-to-day humiliations naughts have to endure at the hands of the Crosses in every settings.
Here is a sampling:
““But the school explained why. You’re all at least a year behind and …” “And whose fault is that?” Callum said with erupting bitterness. “Until a few years ago we were only allowed to be educated up to the age of fourteen—and in naughts-only schools at that, which don’t have a quarter of the money or resources that your schools have.”” (Loc. 240)
““They don’t sell pink Band-Aids. Only dark brown ones.” (…) I’d never really thought about it before, but she was right. I’d never seen any pink Band-Aids. Band-Aids were the color of us Crosses, not the naughts.” (Loc. 917)
““They smell funny and they eat peculiar foods and everyone knows that none of them are keen to make friends with soap and water.”” (Loc. 1048)
““Blank, white faces with not a hint of color in them. Blank minds that can’t hold a single original thought. Blank, blank, blank.”” (Loc. 1069)
“Why was it that when naughts committed criminal acts, the fact that they were naughts was always pointed out? The banker was a Cross. The newsreader didn’t even mention it.” (Loc. 1135)
“How dare a naught sit in first class? It’s outrageous. Its a scandal. It’s disgusting. Disinfect that seat at once.” (Loc. 1299)
“I didn’t want to hold her responsible for the way security guards and store detectives followed me around every time I entered a department store. And I’d stopped going into bookshops and toy shops and gift shops when I realized that no matter where I went in them, all eyes were upon me. After all, it was one of those well-known Cross-initiated facts that we naughts didn’t pay for anything when there was the chance of stealing it instead.” (Loc. 1322)
“How come in all the early black-and-white films, the naught men were always ignorant drunkards or womanizers or both? And the women were always near-brainless servants? Naughts used to be our slaves, but slavery was abolished a long time ago. Why were naughts never in the news unless it was bad news?” (Loc. 1343)
“It was the same story up and down the country. In the few schools into which us naughts had been allowed, we were dropping like flies. Expelled, or what the authorities euphemistically called “excluded,” for those things that would get Crosses detention or a severe telling off. The odd Cross or two may even have got suspended once in a while. But they certainly weren’t being expelled with anything like the frequency we were.” (Loc. 3151)
The problem, from my utilitarian perspective here, is that the book is written at to low a level to not feel a bit insulting to college students. As for the book itself, it turns too quickly into some sort of Montaigus v. Capulets as Callum and Sephy slowly figure out what has been obvious since page 1 of the book. And, of course, teenagers are annoying and it seems authors cannot write them any other way. Actually, other characters, I thought, were more interesting, Jude McGregor and Kamal Hadley, for instance. Each was involved politically, Hadley as part of the Cross establishment that tries to maintain Cross supremacy in spite of outside pressure, and Jude, joining with the naught equivalent of the black Panthers. But too much of the book is dedicated to heart-throbbing between Callum and Sephy as their families disintegrate.
I would give credit to the author though for not copping out of a harsh but logical ending.
And so, the search continues.