The Black Girl Next Door
A powerful, beautifully written memoir about coming of age as a black girl in an exclusive white suburb in "integrated," post-Civil Rights California in the 1970s and 1980s.
At six years of age, after winning a foot race against a white classmate, Jennifer Baszile was humiliated to hear her classmate explain that black people "have something in their feet to make them run faster than white people." When she asked her teacher about it, it was confirmed as true. The next morning, Jennifer's father accompanied her to school, careful to "assert himself as an informed and concerned parent and not simply a big, black, dangerous man in a first-grade classroom."
This was the first of many skirmishes in Jennifer's childhood-long struggle to define herself as "the black girl next door" while living out her parents' dreams. Success for her was being the smartest and achieving the most, with the consequence that much of her girlhood did not seem like her own but more like the "family project." But integration took a toll on everyone in the family when strain in her parents' marriage emerged in her teenage years, and the struggle to be the perfect black family became an unbearable burden.
A deeply personal view of a significant period of American social history, The Black Girl Next Door deftly balances childhood experiences with adult observations, creating an illuminating and poignant look at a unique time in our country's history.
What is Jennifer Baszile's Favorite Movie?
Read an Excerpt
RUNNING THE RACE
ON AN EARLY AUTUMN morning in 1975, as fog rolled off the Pacific Ocean and covered the Vista Grande School playground, my first-grade girlfriends and I decided to squeeze in a quick foot race before school began. A row of backpacks marked the starting line and, two at a time, we dashed to the chain-link finish. On this morning I ran against one of my closest friends, Tammy, a freckled white girl with auburn hair. I bunched my large hands into fists and pumped my arms and legs in a full sprint to reach the fence well before she did. I could hardly hide my smile, so I knelt down to pull up the... see more
Reading Group Guide
- Why would Jennifer’s classmate’s father make the claim that “black people have something in their feet to make them run faster than white people”? Is this perpetuation of a myth rooted in racial ignorance, jealousy, or malice?
- When young Jennifer senses falsehood in this claim, she feels compelled to expose the classmate’s father and her teacher. What is the significance of a child challenging an adult? Is it easier or harder to fool a child?
- Baszile writes that in her family “integration was a form of competition.” What do you make of the Basziles’ strong drive to surpass and exceed expectations? What triumphs come out of this motivation? What tensions does it create?
- How did you respond to Jennifer’s imitation of her grandmother? What purpose does parody serve, and when does it go too far?
- What does Grandmother Rose mean when she tells Jennifer’s mother that her children are “just like perfect little white gir