The Griots of Oakland has been out in bookstores for almost six months now, but as far as I can tell, today’s review will represent its first appearance in a library review journal. Which is a coup for us, but a shame for the other journals, and also strangely fitting the subject matter: the invisibility of young African American men in American culture (unless they’ve committed a crime).
The book chronicles a project which should be the envy of libraries everywhere: an oral history/videography project conducted by members of the very culture the authors were looking to learn about. The results are in this gorgeous and thought-provoking book. Here’s hoping it gets some more attention in the next six months.
Over the course of two years, several young African American men in Oakland, California, were trained in the arts of active listening, oral history, and videography. They conducted research, crafted questions, and conducted more than 100 oral-history interviews with African American boys ages 6-24. The result is a gorgeous book, specific to a time and place yet universal in interest and information. With striking, full-color photographs and graphics, this is a book that young people will pour over, whether they are from Oakland or not. But more important than the book’s physical beauty is its challenge to readers’ views of African American men. There are some surprising statistics, like the fact that 100% of the youth said that they planned to attend college. Other statistics are difficult, yet essential, to hear: 83% of those over 13 years old describe their life as “hard,”with only 17% saying “good.” But for those under 13 years, the statistic is almost completely flipped: 79% described their life as “good” and 21% as “hard.” As Zusman writes in the introduction, “On a deeper level [this book] is about perception itself. The media is saturated with imagery of African American men, but we wanted to learn what is true for these young men, to uncover and create a showcase for their wisdom, sincerity, hope, joy, and diversity. Sure enough, these young men blew us away. They spoke with generosity and fearlessness. They were polite, articulate, and curious. While aware of the stereotypes and perceptions of themselves, they were able to transcend them.”–Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA