Randolph Bourne, Immigrationist

posted in: Immigration | 0
“They say we be looking for illegal immigrants can we check your car / I say you know it’s funny I think we were on the same boat back in 1694.” – “Shame on You,” Indigo Girls, 1997
“The early colonists…did not come to be assimilated into an American melting-pot. They did not come to adopt the culture of the American Indian.” – Randolph Bourne, 1916 [249]
“Yes, we become stronger when men and women, young and old, gay and straight, native-born and immigrant fight together to create the kind of country we all know we can become.” – Senator Bernie Sanders, ca 2016
“Whatever American nationalism turns out to be, we see already that it will have a color richer and more exciting than our ideal has hitherto encompassed.” – Randolph Bourne, 1916


Cato Institute

On perhaps on no other issue does Randolph Bourne speak as loudly today as he does on subject of immigration, and this on the strength of a single essay, “Trans-national America.” What is a truism today–“We are all foreign-born or the descendants of foreign-born”–was assuredly not in 1916 when Bourne reminded his Brahmin Atlantic Monthly readers that their English ancestors were once newcomers, strangers in a strange land.

Bourne was addressing himself to an America not yet committed to war, but already embroiled in heated debate over whether she should be. The proliferation of “hyphenated Americans” in recent years had lain a backdrop of suspicion and xenophobia on of which this debate took place. Wielding his pen like a surgeon’s knife, Bourne cut through the illogic of the anti-immigrant stance and exposed its disingenuousness. He asked the nativists to consider “that no more tenacious cultural allegiance to the mother country has been shown by any alien nation than by the ruling-class of Anglo-Saxon descendants in these American States.” [251]

Perhaps more epée than scalpel: touché.

The bulk of the essay, however, is spent on the affirmative side of the debate, acclaiming the benefits of immigrants and immigration on the country. Bourne’s arguments were among the earliest and most cogent expressions of the pro-immigrant position that has only been strengthened over the ensuing decades. He was writing at a time of great change and social upheaval, like our own, but also when the nation was still adolescent and struggling with what it meant to be “American.” In attempting to answer the question, Bourne looked as much to the future as to the past and present. For, “whatever American nationalism turns out to be,” he wrote, “we see already that it will have a color richer and more exciting than our ideal has hitherto encompassed.” [258] Was his choice of the word “color” more than metaphorical? Today’s readers would tend think so. In any case, he was using language strikingly modern. (Think: rainbow pride; Many Hues, One Humanity: diversity as an inherent good.)

Tenement Museum

Above all, Bourne rejected the melting pot metaphor popularized by Israel Zangwill’s 1908 play of the same name. His conception of the American populace was closer to a tapestry, though he never used that word. Immigrants were not “masses of aliens, waiting to be ‘assimilated,’ waiting to be melted down into the indistinguishable dough of Anglo-Saxonism.” Rather, he wrote, “They [we]re…threads of living and potent cultures, blindly striving to weave themselves into a novel international nation, the first the world has seen.” [261] Nationalism of the kind fomented in wartime was worryingly counter-productive, in Bourne’s view. It squandered the “trans-nationalism” which he believed was America’s defining feature and greatest benefit. “America is coming to be not a nationality but a trans-nationality, a weaving back and forth, with other  lands, of many threads of all sizes and colors.” [262]

Migration Policy Institute

We have been swept up in a second great wave of immigration for the past three decades. The particulars have changed since the first one (and the other lesser-yet-still-significant waves), but the themes have remained broadly the same. How does a nation of immigrants accommodate new arrivals in ever larger numbers? How does it turn them into Americans when that identity iis constantly changing? A significant segment of our population is backward-looking, fearful of change, and zealously guarding America as it (supposedly) was. These modern nativists don’t look back far enough. Like the Anglo-Saxon stock that Bourne railed against, they have forgotten their own immigrant heritage. Their ancestors, likely came in that first great wave. In their hyphenated Americanism, they were likely suspected of divided loyalties impugned for for impairing the “native” stock.

Fortunately, today we have another sizable, if not as outspoken, pro-immigration faction who descend from the legacy of Randolph Bourne. Like Bourne, these modern immigrationists believe the United Sates becomes stronger when “the immigrant [has] a hand in making…what America shall be.” [249] Like him, they repudiate “sentimentalizing and moralizing” our history, celebrating the supposed triumphs “of only one of our transnationalities.” [264] If we are to build “a future America…not weaker, but infinitely strong,” they say, like Bourne, it must be one “on which we can all unite.” These are lofty aims, and might be considered their own brand of “sentimentalizing.” Ultimately, though, Bourne’s position is clear-eyed and hard-nosed. If we insist on closing the door behind us, he has warned us, we will kill the goose–or carpenter or craftsman–who has made it a golden one.

Bourne, Randolph. The Radical Will: Selected Writings, 1911-1918. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992 (1977).

Randolph Bourne: Educational Reformer

posted in: Good Reads: Nonfiction | 0
“There has been no handle by which heterogeneous minds and wills could be taken hold of and directed.” — Randolph Bourne, ca 1915 [198]
“Sometimes, the most brilliant and intelligent minds do not shine in standardized tests because they do not have standardized minds.”
― Diane Ravitch, ca 2015

His youth bona fides well established, Bourne was put on the education beat of the fledgling New Republic. He visited schools, sat in on classrooms, and reported on American education in the second decade of the new century, its transition to “industrial” education, the impact of progressive reforms, the first inroads of standardized testing.

Waverley College

He goes “Into a Schoolroom,” takes a seat in the back of the room, and feels “that queer sense of depression” he had once known as a grade school student. Bourne quickly identifies two main types of student, the “bumptious” and the “diffident,” for which read “good” and “bad” child. (Bourne acknowledges himself as having been among the latter.) No matter where the child might fall on the rule-following/rule-breaking spectrum, Bourne noted little or no opportunity for social interaction and thus cognitive growth. For, Bourne says,

thinking cannot be done without talking. …Thinking is primarily a social faculty; it requires the stimulus of other minds to excite curiosity, to arouse some emotion. Even private thinking is only a conversation with one’s self. Yet in the classroom the child is evidently expected to think without being able to talk. In such a rigid and silent atmosphere, how could any thinking be done, where there is no stimulus, no personal expression?

Reading this passage, I wondered what Bourne would make of today’s classrooms, which are far from “rigid” or “silent.” The emphasis on “cooperative learning” since the 1980s has almost completely obviated Bourne’s concern. On the contrary, some of today’s classrooms may not be silent enough; they are sometimes too loud or chaotic for good, hard thinking. Some learners, some of the time, benefit from a silent classroom. Furthermore, the talking that students engage in often does little to “excite curiosity” or “arouse emotion” about the topic under study.

Bourne was there at the dawn of educational mass production, as the United States scrambled to accommodate and assimilate millions of immigrant and migrant children flooding American cities. (“Hand-educated children have had to go the way of hand-made buttons. Children have had to be massed together  into a factory.” [188]) He was there at the adoption of standardized testing, too, with its lofty goal of applying “scientific” principles to this quintessentially human endeavor, of industrializing this hold-out cottage industry. In more recent decades testing has been exploited in the service of ensuring that all children learn and none are “left behind.” The effort has spawned no shortage of critics, whose objections sound a lot like Bourne’s of a hundred years earlier. Of the initial testing mania, he wrote, “Now nothing could apparently be more deadly and mechanical than this treating of living children as if they were narrowly isolated minds.”

NWI Times

Bourne had the acuity to recognize multiple intelligences decades before Howard Gardner, even if he did not yet put the idea to rigorous study or elaborate exposition. In “The Democratic School,” Bourne makes the relatively obvious point that “when we try to educate all the children of all the people, we are not dealing with a homogeneous mass, but with sliding scales of capacity.” [203] In subsequent sentences he draws attention to the less obvious heterogeneity within the  individual, referring to “mental,” physical, artistic, and mechanical aptitudes. It would take another seventy years for this idea to be more fully fleshed out by the Harvard professor and others.

Bourne endorsed progressive educational reforms he witnessed especially in the Gary, Indiana, schools. He correctly predicted that the “practical approach to knowledge through objects and projects and concrete facts” would soon enough become the predominant mode of learning in elementary schools. Academic drudgery and rote memorization would be replaced inexorably by what we now call hands-on learning.

Bourne condemned a one-size-fits-all approach to education which continues to bedevils us today. We have made attempts to differentiate instruction that work more or less well, but too often they are “tracking” by any other name. For too many young people, we have made school a kind of prison that serves mainly to reinforce their failure. More than a hundred years ago, Bourne questioned schools’ focus on making “intellectuals of all its children.” [203] (Others would make a similar critique.) Today, I often wonder why we put so much focus on literary analysis, for example, as if the skill of writing book reviews is among the most universally necessary. Aided by an explosion of quality middle grade and young adult literature, both fiction and non-, teachers are making an effort engage their students with high-interest books. And yet: standardized testing and state standards have their effects. Teachers still feel a need to force-feed material they otherwise might not. (There is a positive side to the focus on testing and standards, but that is not the concern here.)

We are still, and may always be, within the shadow of what Bourne calls “the tyranny of the best.” In his essay of virtually the same name, visual art is his focus, yet the concern applies to all art forms. Bourne argues that students be taught to develop their own tastes rather than to parrot back the reasons for the gatekeepers’ tastes. “The emphasis must be always on what you do like, not on what you ought to like.” [194] And, in fact, the argument extends beyond art to the humanities and all learning. For today, we say we want to develop critical thinkers, students who think for themselves (which is easier said than done).  Yet, there is an inherent tension in the educational enterprise. Unless we are to jettison the likes of Shakespeare and Melville for John Green and Angie Thomas, it is our job to help students appreciate the value of long dead writers. No easy task, but Bourne is right that we will always fail if we try to teach students what they are supposed to think about them.

What is most appealing to me about Bourne generally and his approach to education specifically is his realism. Yes, he was a progressive who was critical of old methods that concealed “uselessness” behind a façade of great “effort” to attain it. He advocated instead that school should create an experience that can “stimulate, guide, organize [and] interests.” [210] A  certain type of reader today might accuse him of squishy child-centeredness. But Bourne believed in rigor when it was judiciously applied and productive of genuine learning. He did not expect schools would make every child “marvelously to blossom into ideally alert and skilled intelligence.” [205] He did believe fervently that schools should provide students with the “opportunity for the development of the most varied aptitudes in the free play of a child community life.”

Bourne, Randolph. The Radical Will: Selected Writings, 1911-1918. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992 (1977).

Randolph Bourne: Tribune of Youth

Who2 Biographies
“That the inertia of the older people is wisdom, and not impotence, is a theory that you will never induce youth to believe for an instant. The stupidity and cruelties of their management of the world fill youth with an intolerant rage.” – Randolph Bourne, 1912
“Young people are key actors in raising awareness and creating innovative solutions. Nowadays, young people are aware of the climate crisis and they are willing to implement their innovative ideas.” – Tahsin, Bangladesh, 2019
“There can be no meaningful social change without the participation and drive of youth. Profound change requires fearlessness and energy, a willingness to challenge the status quo, and perhaps most of all the creativity to reimagine our societies—who we are and how we relate to each other. This creativity, this energy, this courage are especially prevalent among youth, and honestly I think this terrifies the older generations that typically hold power.” – Tendayi Achiume, 2021

Randolph Bourne announced his presence on the scene of American letters as the tribune of American youth. This was entirely new. Today we are used to adults extolling the idealism and activism of youth, but before Bourne was the first commentator to do more than find fault with the next generation.  Instead, he found in them a potential source of society’s salvation: “Youth does not simply repeat the errors and delusions of the past…; it is ever laying the foundations for the future.” [99] For him, the “fire of youth” with its “conflicts and idealisms, questions and ambitions”  was the primer driver of change and social progress. [215] (Bourne wrote these words in the height of the progressive era.)

Bourne was not an unthinking booster for youth, however. He understood that the rising generation, in its apprenticeship to the world, seeks mastery of it, and, eventually, becomes “a part of that very flaming rampart against which” it had previously hurled its slings and arrows. [170] For Bourne, youth was metaphor as well as actuality. It was a state of mind, an approach to the world. While adults have the advantage of experience, Bourne wrote, too often “that experience gets stereotyped; …becomes so conventional as to be practically unconscious.” Instead, he believed, “it is the young people who have all the really valuable experience” because they are the ones “who constantly have to face new situations.” [97] The implied task for his adult readers was to recapture that freshness: to eschew the rational and the orderly, to embrace the struggle and adventure inherent in what he called the experimental life. [149-158]

Every time, today, some expert here or influencer there praises young people for their engagement on the pressing issues of our time–gun control, race relations, climate change–they are tapping into the legacy of Randolph Bourne. It is a legacy that says young people have a special ability to see the world fresh, to imagine something new. They are the best hope to overcome the prejudices that limit the advance of society.  They offer grown-ups crucial insight, on problems big and small, if only older people will listen. Implicit is the conclusion that we adults must attend to our own inner youth.

Unfortunately, by the time Bourne turned the near-middle-age of thirty Western civilization (read: Europe) was tearing itself apart in total war and American progressives, among whom he had felt himself a fellow traveler, were providing intellectual support for “preparedness.” After American entry in 1917, Bourne was struck by disillusionment that haunted him for the rest of his influenza-shortened life.

Six short years earlier, Bourne had explained, somewhat unconvincingly,

What [the younger generation] thinks so wildly now will be orthodox gospel thirty years hence. …That is why it behooves youth not to be less radical, but even more radical, than it naturally would be. It must be…a generation ahead of the times, so that when it comes into control of the world, it will be precisely right and coincident with the times. [99]

By 1918, in an unpublished manuscript appropriately titled, “The Disillusionment,” hope in the meliorations of the younger generation is almost completely absent. He makes a nod to his old formulation, but with a darker tone: “The keynote of social ‘progress’ is not evolution but the overlapping of the generations, with their stains and traces of the past: it is the struggle of the old to conserve, of the new to adapt.” Gone is the faith in youthful radicalism to create a “coincidence” of thought, custom, and needs. Instead, he is forced to concede “the stern truth…that there is no such thing as automatic progress.” [404]

Bourne’s “disillusionment” surely matches our own following the post-Cold War triumphalism of the nineties. The ill-conceived war on terror, the cementing of political polarization, the hardening of legislative gridlock, and the rise of the new authoritarians. Yet his faith in the potential saving power of youth is still with us, pervasive and powerful, if still mainly among the left. Indeed, I suspect that this aspect of Bourne’s legacy will always be with us.

Bourne, Randolph. The Radical Will: Selected Writings, 1911-1918. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992 (1977).

On the Come Up

posted in: Good Reads: Fiction, Race | 0

Of all the great opening lines of literature–“Call me Ismael,” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”–Angie Thomas’s in On the Come Up may well be the greatest: “I might have to kill somebody tonight.” [3] She got my attention. Sheltered white guy that I am, I was shocked, and more than a little concerned.

Then puzzled, as I learn the first-person protagonist, Bri, is taking a practice AP English exam as she ponders her potentially violent evening. Thomas strung me along for the rest of the chapter, revealing the true object of Bri’s anxiety only obliquely, in dribs and drabs. Bri is waiting for a call inviting her to rap in the Ring. The answer to the question raised in the book’s first line comes only in the chapter’s last line when Hype, the Ring master, asks, “Are you ready to kill it?” [18]

Thomas’s follow-up to The Hate U Give is no less “engrossing,” “vital,” “fresh,” and “important” [back cover] than her acclaimed debut novel. Like it, On the Come Up is written as much for white readers as for black. For me, a sheltered, middle-aged white guy, it provided an accessible education into inner-city black youth culture in the 21st century. Accessible, because Thomas authentically straddles both worlds, the black inner-city and the middle class suburbs. Thomas humanizes “ghetto” (her word) denizens for suburbanite readers who, when they think of them at all, often do so with a horrified pity. At the same time, inner-city readers who may have internalized society’s deprecations will be empowered by following characters who suffer and overcome problems much like their own. Vital, indeed.

All manner of black inner-city culture gets air time in Thomas’s book, including fast food (Popeye’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Church’s: “Popkenchurch” [17]), parenting styles (“Dear black parents everywhere, [‘Because I said so,’]’s not a good enough answer…” [158]), and stereotyping within the community (“As bougie as Grandma wants to act, according to Grandaddy she’s just ‘one foot out the backwoods and one toe from ignorant'” [121]).

We get the dysfunctional side, too, of course. Gang rivalry and gang violence, which haunt Bri most directly (though still at a distance) through her Aunt Pooh. The lure of drug money and the effects of incarceration on families: Bri’s friend Curtis’s mother, Bri’s Aunt Pooh again. The ills of drug abuse, which almost cost Bri her mother in events that precede the action in the book and which makes her chances for employment during the book elusive. Unemployment leads to poverty leads to food stamps and trips to the food pantry. Thomas takes us inside her characters to feel the hit in self-respect such an event can inflict. Seeing the pity in the eyes of the charity worker “makes [Bri] want to scream.” [162]

But black culture, inner-city or not, is part of a wider American culture, and aspects of what might be thought white culture is given prominence, too: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Marvel Comics, including, of course, The Black Panther (“Wakanda forever!”). The street-toughened but highly sympathetic Aunt Pooh calls this “nerd shit,” but nerdy  is cool for Bri and her pals, Sonny and Malik. References to Jeopardy, Forrest Gump, and Mario Kart also pepper their dialogue. Growing up in the Hood–more precisely, the Garden–doesn’t mean a young person is either ignorant of or indifferent to these broader cultural icons.

The power of social media in 21st century youth culture also gets its due. On the verge of uploading her first recorded rap, Bri is paralyzed with doubt: “To me, it’s like putting nudes online. Okay, maybe that’s a stretch, but it’s like putting part of me out there that I can’t hide again.” [114] I imagine plenty of her readers have felt the same angst. For those who haven’t, Thomas may well be cautioning them to give these moments more judicious thought. Later, a riled up Bri unthinkingly vents her spleen online. She wakes up the next morning with what she calls an Instagram hangover: “Oh, shit. Did I say that?” [268]

Of course, Thomas is not writing to translate youth culture to teachers and parents. She is writing for the teens themselves, especially when teenage friendships take center stage. Thomas establishes Bri’s special relationship with Sonny and Malik, only to show it buckling under the stresses that are the book’s plot drivers. Bri suffers estrangement but is then freed to explore a romantic relationship with Curtis. (“Is this flirting? I think this is flirting.” [228]) All the interpersonal maneuvering must be catnip for Thomas’s teen readers. Her feel-good ending (not a critique!) includes the reuniting of “the Unholy Trinity.” But Thomas has her character voice a realism that her teen readers can benefit from. She has Bri say, “I’d like to say that ten, twenty, thirty years from now, me, Sonny, and Malik will be as tight as we’ve always been, but that could be a lie. We’re changing in different ways, and we’ll keep changing.” [404]

* * *

For a middle-aged white guy like me, On the Come Up provided an illuminating window into the foreign culture of inner-city youth. It also gave me an appreciation for the art of hip-hop that I had not had before. In addition to depicting the ring battles of freestyle rappers, the deal-making with agents and producers, the hero-worship on the street, Thomas shows how rap is done, shows the mental calisthenics of a talented rapper, Bri, as she prepares to respond to her opponent in the Ring:

…Perfection. I can use that. Perfection, protections, election. Election–presidents. Presidents are leaders. Leader. Either. Ether, like where that song where Nas went in on Jay-Z.
I need to get something in there about his name, too. Milez. Miles per hour. Speed. Light speed. Then I need to end with something about myself….

When I read the finished product, the improvised rap, saw how those preliminary sketches were pieced together into a unified rap, I was impressed. So that’s how they do it! And my appreciation for the rapper’s skill jumped.

In her lengthy acknowledgments, Thomas begins by thanking “my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” and ends by acknowledging her debt to hip-hop itself. With an explanation: “The world criticizes you often, sometimes rightfully so. Hell, sometimes, I’m one of your biggest critics. But I do it from a place of love.” [452] On the Come Up is avowedly the author’s paean to hip-hop–but one that does not shy away from critique. More precisely, it explores the tension and ambivalence embedded in the quotation above.

Do rappers glorify violence, or does it merely use the material of the inner-city reality, as ugly as it might be for those on the outside? Composing what will become her first hit rap, Bri draws on the anger she feels after being roughly handled by school security guards. Lines like, “This Glock, yeah, I cock it and aim it,” and “Strapped like backpacks, I pull triggers” [110-112] are more provocative than she anticipates, and the reactions they stir become the main driving force of the book’s plot. Her mom is predictably incensed, but even her rap mentor Aunt Pooh is put off. She tells Bri to take the gun-toting “shit” out of her rap: “You not ’bout that life!” [183] Bri protests that the words are not to be taken literally: “The whole point is about playing into stereotype.”  But the tension remains unresolved until the penultimate chapter when Bri is able to rap,

But they blame hip-hop. Yet we just speak on what we see.
But I’m gon’ speak on what I see and never claim it to be me. [441]

Is rap a crude money-making machine, forcing rappers to sell their artistic souls while white businessmen exploit them for big money? Or, is it a powerful expression of the otherwise marginalized and a proven means to escape intergenerational urban poverty? Thomas elicits the questions while leaving the answers for the reader to decide. Bri, in her fervor to make her come up, to earn real money to help her family, inadvertently distances herself from her friends. Malik chides her for it: “Lately, you only care about money. Money isn’t everything, Bri.” [403] Maybe so, but for Bri, whose family has fallen into actual poverty, it’s a whole hell of a lot. As she wrestles with the implications of what may or may not be a Faustian bargain. Her oh-so-smooth agent, Supreme, introduces her to another client who spells out the calculus clearly. Says Dee-Nice, “[Supreme] changed my life. I’m able to take care of my whole family now.” [256]

When Supreme brings her to a fancy, downtown office to meet a record executive, her come up appears assured. But when the exec asks her to rap someone else’s work, Bri storms out in protest. Reluctantly, she allows Supreme to talk her back, despite herself and despite his hard-nosed rhetoric. “You’re in the music business now. Key word, business,” he says, and later: “What? You scared you won’t look ‘real’ rapping this shit?” [382] The most important question hanging over Bri the entire book: Can she come up in rap without losing her identity in the process, either to cynical music industry execs or a misinformed public. With the execs in the audience in the climactic scene at the Ring, we see Bri find her voice and break free:

I’m a genius, I’m a star, call me all of the above,
But you’ll never call sellout, and you’ll never call me thug. [440]

* * *

Let me say that I didn’t always like Thomas’s character. I appreciated her voice, but I didn’t always find her actions to be sympathetic. “‘Aggressive’ is used to describe me a lot,” she says early on. [66] While this is not be the first word I would choose, I’m basically in the camp of her white teachers, without, perhaps, being as over-reactive as they apparently were. She’s willful, impulsive, argumentative. In fact, immediately before telling us about the descriptor above she had verbally jumped at her principal, “Bullshit! [The security guards] always harass us!”

Thomas wants us to like her protagonist, obviously, but she also wants us to understand how easily an outspoken (black) girll like her can be misunderstood, especially by adults in authority. To help us get perspective she has her older brother, Trey, not just her mother, talking her back from her most impulsive actions. Trey has an undergraduate degree in psychology (for all the good it does him trying to get a professional job), and plays psychologist to Bri’s patient, diagnosing her, affectionately, with oppositional defiant disorder:

“You tend to be argumentative, defiant, you speak impulsively, you get irritable easily–“
“I do not! You take that shit back!”
“Like I said, ODD.”

Even her best friend Malik is affronted when she accuses him of making a “fuckboy move.” [289] Even her doting grandfather says, “Li’l Bit, you jump to conclusions so fast, you gon’ pull a muscle.” [411]

In fact, Bri suffers no psychological pathology. She is merely a teenager, quick to see injustice outside herself, slow to examine her role in events. “They always harass us!” and “They’re always on my case at that school” [69] are typical teenage complaints, even if hers are provoked bby apparent racism. But there is no racial component when she and her crew (read: Aunt Pooh) are thrown out of the Ring for flashing firearms. Bri’s words are the classic self-centered protestations of a teenager: “But I haven’t done shit! Yet y’all kicking me out because of what my crew did? That’s some bullshit!” [209]

Young readers, feeling Bri’s pain, will no doubt take her side less critically than I. Yet as the rising action steepens its pitch, Thomas helps them to appreciate other sides of the issue. This is especially the case when she reveals Bri’s vulnerable side. In a verbal tangle with her brother, Bri finally breaks down: “I’m tired of not knowing what’s gonna happen next. I’m tired of being scared. I’m tired!” She is finally willing to admit that her “aggressive” style may be to blame after all: “I’ve lost Aunt Pooh. I may be losing my mom. I lost my cool so bad that I’ve lost more than I realize. I’m lost. I’m so lost that I’m exhausted from trying to find my way.” Ever the psychotherapist, Trey boosts her spirits with a well-timed word of kindness–calling her a “gift”–while teaching her that “admitting that you’re weak is one of the strongest things you can do.” [359-362]

Bri’s sense of grievance comes out most curiously in her reaction to the criticism of her rap. “It’s just a song,” she protests when challenged on its provocativeness. [291] “It must be nice to panic over some goddamn words,” she responds to a white mother’s critical Instagram post. “Because that’s all they are. Words.” [265] The irony is stark. Here is a girl committed to an art form built on the power of words, investing all her efforts to make it as a performer of rap songs, saying her work is “only words,” “just a song.” My inclination was to respond critically to the ostensible inconsistency of these utterances. Gradually, I came to see them as all in the artistry of Thomas’s storytelling.

For, not much later, Bri is confronted with the power of her own words in real time, and she is appropriately cowed. Without considering the consequences, she makes an accusation that enrages her Aunt Pooh and provokes her to take violent action against the perpetrator. The six loose and provocative words: “He pointed it [the gun] in my face.” Pooh’s reaction is more than Bri bargained for. She tries to walk the words back, but Pooh will have none of it. Now Bri fears her aunt will get killed or jailed for killing someone else. Why did she use those words? What were her motivations? Self-doubt encroaches. Brashness ebbs. Bri even wonders if Emily, the self-righteous, possibly racist Instagram post-er, might have had a point: “Maybe my words are dangerous.” [302]

Another comeuppance (not come up): little Jojo, street urchin, all of nine years old, recites her words back at her, adding for emphasis, “I told them you be blasting niggas, Bri.” For all her earlier bravado, now Bri’s “stomach churns” at the (negative) power of her words. Yet she makes a start toward redemption in her final rap in the climactic chapter. As the spotlight focuses and the audience quiets, Bri’s thoughts realizees the awesome reponsibility that comes with being a rapper: “I close my eyes. There’s plenty of words waiting inside me. Words I hope Jojo hears and understands.” [440]

Words have power, for good and for ill, and not always within the artist’s control, especially in today’s digital age of virality and context manipulation. As a rapper (with a temper) she learns this lesson the hard way. When the aptly-named DJ, Hype, pushed her buttons on air, Bri made a very public scene. When Supreme later called her a genius for her display, Bri is understanndably nonplussed.  “You played the ratchet hood rat role,” he says by way of explanation. These few words have the power to cause Bri to stagger.

Rachet hood rat.
Thousands of people just heard me act like that. Millions more might see the video. They won’t care that my life is a mess and I had every right to be mad. They’ll just see an angry black girl from the ghetto, acting like they expected me to act. [354-355]

In this work of fiction, Thomas shows how a young girl, battered by violence and poverty and normal teenage angst, steers between the Scylla of selling out and the Charybdis of playing to stereotype to make her come up in  hip-hop and in life. At story’s end, we are confident that, no matter what comes, Bri will be her own person.


Thomas, Angie. On the Come Up. New York: Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2019.