Seen is the debut novel by Julie Delegal, a well-known writer and social justice advocate who lives in Jacksonville, Florida.
The book tells the story of Jason Royals, a 15-year-old black, male teenager who runs across an intersection to beat the light and traffic, but is then mistaken as a neophyte gang member who, having committed his first murder, is running from the scene.
We follow Jason into his enmeshment within the criminal justice system, in which police decide he’s guilty because they have no one else, confinement in adult prison because that’s the way we do it in DUUUVAAALLLLL, and his extraordinary luck in having a family that has the resources to fight back.
Jason reminds Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT) of the many black boys that he has taught in the last decade and a half. Some are cagey, careful around other people with code-switching and other behaviors meant to be cooperative, some are caught in their lives and circumstances and dealing with it as best they can, and many are innocent, still young children in their teens who might have an intellectual understanding of how society looks at black males but haven’t yet had the gut punch that makes it real.
One thing, though, that GOT has learned across his career is that beneath the surface, they are all boys. Like all of us, they have the same hopes and dreams for their lives: a good job that provides an income sufficient to attract those to whom they are attracted. Yes, a good life with money and love, something universal to all of us.
Jason got that gut punch. Although she did not explore it explicitly in her book, the author took care that the story implicitly included the systemic racism that marks the America we live in. The key detail is in the black lead homicide detective. Some would say that would disprove there was anything racist about the detective taking advantage of a naive, hungry, hypoglycemic boy in a medical crisis and getting him to sign a false confession. GOT avers the opposite. That is the proof of systemic racism; the race of the system’s agent does not matter. The system and the people who work for it, be it the police, the justice system, or even the schools, will regard a black male more skeptically than anyone else.
Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Systemic racism in America lives because we will not examine it. We prefer to quote half-century old speeches from Martin Luther King about color-blindness even as we ignore everything he had to say to white America.
But in 2021, we are no longer allowed to talk about that in schools. New laws and state rules forbid the teaching of anything about race that might make a white person uncomfortable.
GOT has news for you: NOT talking about it makes him, an old, white male, uncomfortable. Not examining the full history of the last 400 years, it was not merely slavery that oppressed black people, makes him uncomfortable. Ignoring the brutal suppression of civil rights in the late 19th century, the epidemic of vigilante lynching, the redlining that denied black families the opportunity to build generational wealth that white families had, and the destruction of black wealth because of the resentment of white people … all these things now forbidden to be mentioned in a classroom … that ban on academic freedom and the acknowledgment of past wrongs … that makes GOT very uncomfortable.
Poor Jason. All he was doing was going to see a girl that he liked to ask her how to get a job in the store where she worked. Then, his world fell apart.
It was hard to read Part One of the book. GOT hurt. He knows too many boys that this might happen to.
Part Two was better. At one point, GOT was thinking he had picked up an Erle Stanley Gardner novel featuring another Perry Mason case. But he was also still thinking about his students. However the case went, the outcome would not be the end of the story. As a teacher, GOT knows how a traumatic experience lives on for many years.
Trauma changes people. Whether Jason is acquitted or convicted, his experiences will remain with him. They have changed him. GOT wondered about the effect on Jason even as he kept flipping the pages to see how much more story there would be. The Perry Mason part was reading like it would end 100 pages short of the novel’s end.
And that is where Julie Delegal came through in telling this story. She is not done. There is a Part Three, perhaps the most important part of the book, where she explores the aftermath and how Jason was not done with his anguish.
Read this book. It might change you. GOT would recommend that his school system incorporate it into the classroom, but oh yeah, it might make white people uncomfortable.
Maybe they need to be.