Racism redux, from the National Book Award–nominated author of Do Unto Others (2000), etc.
Born in the 1950s, Dr. Bethesda Barnes hasn’t been held back by discrimination, though it has cast a shadow over her life, however slight. When she first started teaching at the state college, she wouldn’t ask a white woman where the bathroom was, for fear of looking ignorant. But those days are over and, seven years later, she’s a popular instructor, happy to share the riches of African-American literature and music with all her students, black and white. Then four sorority sisters ask her to be their faculty advisor after they become the target of campus racists, and Beth finds that supporting them is a tough assignment. Harriet is a wild-eyed, rhetoric-spouting radical; Rhonda a walking advertisement for upscale designers. Cynthia Forrest is a rich, spoiled brat who had the nerve to ask Beth for a letter of recommendation before she even took her class. But Dana Marshall was actually injured, and Beth is outraged. Still, why were the girls hanging out so late at night, dancing and singing, instead of studying? Apparently they woke up the boys, who then taunted them with racial slurs, threw a urine-filled balloon and a Coke bottle that left an ugly gash in Dana’s leg. Nonetheless, the college has a zero-tolerance policy on incidents of this sort, and it must be investigated. Looks like skinheads, neo-Nazis, even the Klan have student followers, and trouble is brewing. Some in the administration make boys-will-be-boys excuses, claiming that “water buffalo” is a commonplace insult and not a racial epithet, while editorials tag the affair as a freedom-of-speech issue. Then an African student is attacked and beaten, the girls are threatened with academic expulsion—and Beth turns angrily to her mother, demanding to know why she wasn’t told that life was like this.
Lattany’s desultory, somewhat trivial fictionalization of a real-life campus hate incident lacks passion—and a point.