Illuminating, but doesn’t quite come together as more than the sum of its parts.




Following his release from a maximum-security prison, a black convicted murderer, Kevin Davis, adjusts to life in the mostly white New York suburbs.

In 1993, as former schoolteacher Donaldson was finishing his debut (The Ville), a critically praised, unsentimental look at Brownsville, Brooklyn—then the most dangerous neighborhood in America—he crossed paths with Davis, whose image was unwittingly featured on the book’s jacket. When detectives saw the cover, they recognized Davis as a suspect in a fatal shooting and subsequently tracked and arrested him. After carrying The Ville around for his six-year sentence, Davis, upon his release, called Donaldson and the two met in midtown Manhattan, so that Davis could share his history, hoping to collaborate on a book about himself. Of the 630,000 prisoners released each year in this country, half are black, and Donaldson felt Davis “might provide an unusual opportunity to write a story about that reentry into society.” Seeking a fresh start in Elmira, N.Y., Davis tried unsuccessfully for years to find employment, enduring regular brushes with the local police. He eventually settled down with a college-educated, white, single mother in her mid-20s, Karen. As a couple, Kevin and Karen shared an affectionate, sometimes violent relationship resulting in the birth of a daughter. After Karen agreed to Kevin’s suggestion that she hold drugs for someone in exchange for cash, she was arrested and sent to jail for two years. Under mounting stress, including Kevin’s continued unemployment and fathering a child with another woman, their union blew up, and Kevin was found guilty of assaulting her. In the spirit of Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family (2003) a superb chronicle of life in the Bronx, Zebratown offers a deeply personal, unflinching portrayal of the struggle to reform and make good as a father, partner, worker and member of society. The book stands as a testament to this never-ending struggle, and it’s a grim, poignant, occasionally disconnected study of character and the hope of redemption.

Illuminating, but doesn’t quite come together as more than the sum of its parts.

Pub Date: Aug. 24, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-4391-5378-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: June 3, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2010

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Not an easy read but an essential one.

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Title notwithstanding, this latest from the National Book Award–winning author is no guidebook to getting woke.

In fact, the word “woke” appears nowhere within its pages. Rather, it is a combination memoir and extension of Atlantic columnist Kendi’s towering Stamped From the Beginning (2016) that leads readers through a taxonomy of racist thought to anti-racist action. Never wavering from the thesis introduced in his previous book, that “racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas,” the author posits a seemingly simple binary: “Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.” The author, founding director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, chronicles how he grew from a childhood steeped in black liberation Christianity to his doctoral studies, identifying and dispelling the layers of racist thought under which he had operated. “Internalized racism,” he writes, “is the real Black on Black Crime.” Kendi methodically examines racism through numerous lenses: power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, and so forth, all the way to the intersectional constructs of gender racism and queer racism (the only section of the book that feels rushed). Each chapter examines one facet of racism, the authorial camera alternately zooming in on an episode from Kendi’s life that exemplifies it—e.g., as a teen, he wore light-colored contact lenses, wanting “to be Black but…not…to look Black”—and then panning to the history that informs it (the antebellum hierarchy that valued light skin over dark). The author then reframes those received ideas with inexorable logic: “Either racist policy or Black inferiority explains why White people are wealthier, healthier, and more powerful than Black people today.” If Kendi is justifiably hard on America, he’s just as hard on himself. When he began college, “anti-Black racist ideas covered my freshman eyes like my orange contacts.” This unsparing honesty helps readers, both white and people of color, navigate this difficult intellectual territory.

Not an easy read but an essential one.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-50928-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

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A clear and candid contribution to an essential conversation.


Straight talk to blacks and whites about the realities of racism.

In her feisty debut book, Oluo, essayist, blogger, and editor at large at the Establishment magazine, writes from the perspective of a black, queer, middle-class, college-educated woman living in a “white supremacist country.” The daughter of a white single mother, brought up in largely white Seattle, she sees race as “one of the most defining forces” in her life. Throughout the book, Oluo responds to questions that she has often been asked, and others that she wishes were asked, about racism “in our workplace, our government, our homes, and ourselves.” “Is it really about race?” she is asked by whites who insist that class is a greater source of oppression. “Is police brutality really about race?” “What is cultural appropriation?” and “What is the model minority myth?” Her sharp, no-nonsense answers include talking points for both blacks and whites. She explains, for example, “when somebody asks you to ‘check your privilege’ they are asking you to pause and consider how the advantages you’ve had in life are contributing to your opinions and actions, and how the lack of disadvantages in certain areas is keeping you from fully understanding the struggles others are facing.” She unpacks the complicated term “intersectionality”: the idea that social justice must consider “a myriad of identities—our gender, class, race, sexuality, and so much more—that inform our experiences in life.” She asks whites to realize that when people of color talk about systemic racism, “they are opening up all of that pain and fear and anger to you” and are asking that they be heard. After devoting most of the book to talking, Oluo finishes with a chapter on action and its urgency. Action includes pressing for reform in schools, unions, and local governments; boycotting businesses that exploit people of color; contributing money to social justice organizations; and, most of all, voting for candidates who make “diversity, inclusion and racial justice a priority.”

A clear and candid contribution to an essential conversation.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-58005-677-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Seal Press

Review Posted Online: Oct. 9, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2017

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