Friday, January 26, 2018

Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson

Piecing Me Together is a novel about life as a young African-American in modern-day America. Set in Portland, Oregon, the main character is Jade Butler who attends St. Francis High School on the other side of town, away from her friends and family in predominantly poor, black Northside. St. Francis is considered the best private school in Portland, and is predominantly white. Jade hasn't made many close friends at the school which is concerning to her mother.

Jade's family consists of her mother who works as a house keeper for a rich old lady named Louise after she was fired from her job at Emanuel Hospital for theft. Uncle E.J. lives with them and sometimes deejays. Her dad also lives in Portland with his white girlfriend who has a college degree and a good paying job.

The first day of school, Jade meets with Mrs. Parker her guidance counselor who Jade hopes will have information about the volunteer abroad program. Mrs. Parker has provided Jade with several opportunities; an essay writing class in her freshman year and a SAT prep class last year. Now Jade is hopeful because the volunteer abroad program is "not a program offering something I need, but it's about what I can give." Instead Jade learns that she's been selected to participate in a program, Woman to Woman: A Mentorship Program for African American Girls. Each of the twelve girls will be paired with a mentor and will experience trips to various sites across the city. When Jade questions Mrs. Parker, she is told that she was selected based on gender, grade and need through teacher nominations. Although she's upset that Mrs. Parker hasn't given her information on the study abroad program Jade reluctantly agrees to participate when she learns that staying in the two year program and maintaining her grade point average will earn her a scholarship to any Oregon college.

At her first Woman to Woman meeting, Jade's mentor, Maxine, fails to show leaving Jade feeling disappointed. Maxine shows up at Jade's home later in the evening, apologetic and bearing a gift bag of art supplies. Although Maxine is friendly and shows interest in Jade's art, their time together is interrupted by calls from Maxine's boyfriend.  Maxine cancels their next meeting and then offers to take Jade for brunch on her birthday. However, Jade's mother becomes furious at this and refuses to allow Maxine to follow through on her plans. Instead she's invited in and spends some time talking with Jade about her collage art.

Jade makes a new friend - a white girl named Sam whom she rescues from an awkward situation on the public transit to school and who is new to St. Francis. Sam invites Jade to her home where she lives with her grandparents after her mother abandoned her. Th visit is awkward because Sam's grandmother is racist, but her grandfather is welcoming to Jade.

Meanwhile, through the Woman to Woman program, Jade and Maxine attend a "girls night" at mentor Sabrina's home for a night of advice on dating.  They also visit the Portland Art Museum but instead of accompanying Jade through the museum, Maxine spends time talking with her boyfriend in the lobby. This leads Jade to confront her over dinner afterwards, with Maxine promising not to do this again.

But as Jade continues through the mentoring program, she begins to realize that if she wants to achieve her dreams and make something of herself, she needs to find the courage to make her voice heard. Only in this way will she come to be seen not as someone who needs help but as someone who can offer help.


Discussion

Piecing Me Together tackles a wide range of themes that include race, class, privilege and friendship. Watson specifically considers how race and class impact opportunity and who gets what.

The main character is a black teenager, Jade Butler who is determined to make something of her life. She lives in a predominantly black, poor neighborhood in Portland, Oregon and she starts the novel believing that in order for her to succeed, "in order for me to make something of this life, I'd have to leave home, my neighborhood, my friends." To that end her mother has enrolled her in a mostly white high school, St. Francis that offers students many opportunities that are not available at the school in Jade's neighborhood. One of those opportunities is a study abroad program and to improve her chances of being chosen, Jade has been learning Spanish. However, to her dismay, Jade learns she has not been chosen and instead has been selected for a mentoring program which her guidance teacher Mrs. Parker tells her is for "young people with your set of circumstances are, well, at risk for certain things, and we'd like to help you navigate through those circumstances."

As she spends more time in the Woman to Woman program, Jade feels that the purpose of the mentoring program is to "fix" her, something she resents. Jade feels that although Maxine is black, she doesn't really understand her. Jade tells her best friend Lee Lee, "I don't want to be taken all over the city of Portland just so I can see how everyone else lives in bigger and better houses and neighborhoods. I wanted to be in Woman to Woman because I thought I'd actually learn something about being a woman. About how to be a successful woman." Eventually Jade confronts Maxine about her dissatisfaction, "I do like going on all those trips, but sometimes you make me fell like you've come to fix me; only, I don't feel broken. Not until I'm around you...It feels like Woman to Woman takes us to all these places outside of our neighborhood, as if the places in our neighborhood aren't' good enough."

When Jade's new friend Sam, who is white is offered a placement in the study abroad program in Costa Rica, she is devastated and left wondering "...how choices are made about who gets what and how much they get. Wondering who owns the river and the line, and the hook, and the worm." She also tells her friend Sam that people are offered different opportunities because of their skin color or race. "I just want to be normal. I just want a teacher to look at me and think I'm worth a trip to Costa Rica. Not just that I need help but that I can help someone else."

Watson describes several instances of racism throughout the novel. Jade is asked to leave a clothing store, accused of loitering and later because she has a large bag the implication being that she is a shoplifting risk. Yet her friend Sam who is white is allowed to stay as is another woman with a large bag.  A white volunteer hosting a tour for the Oregon Symphony assumes that the black women in Jade's group "were the kind of kids who wouldn't appreciate classical music." At school Jade is ordered to the office, even though a white classmate Hannah was the one who was disrespectful. Sam attempts to tell Jade that Hannah was not sent to the office not because she is white but because her family is wealthy and donates to the school.  Jade and Andrea see a black woman pulled over by a white policeman. Jade also learns of a fictional black girl, Natasha Ramsey who is beaten by police who attended a call at a house party in Vancouver, Washington.

 Despite her initial reservations about the mentor program and the rocky start she and Maxine experience, the program does help Jade find her voice.  Her complaints to Maxine result in a few changes in the program; for example several money management workshops are arranged and the group visits Maxine's sister's art gallery to learn about becoming an entrepeneur. Jade approaches Mr. Flores and tells him how his decision not to recommend her for the study abroad program was unfair and questioning how "is it fair that the girl who tutors half the people chosen for the study abroad trip doesn't get to go?" Near the end of the novel, at the Woman to Woman fundraiser, Jade tells a patron, "...I've learned I don't have to wait to be given an opportunity, but that I can make an opportunity and use my voice to speak up for what I need and want."  This is demonstrated later on by Jade and Lee Lee taking the initiative to host an open mic and art show in honor of Natasha Ramsey who was assaulted by police. 

Although many teens struggle with finding their identity throughout their high school years, Watson highlights how this can be especially difficult for black teens. As a person of color, Jade feels very different from everyone else at St. Francis. "And I realized how different I am from everyone else at St. Francis. Not only because I'm black and almost everyone else is white, but because their mothers are the kind of people who hire housekeepers, and my mother is the kind of person who works as one." Later on in the novel she mentions how she can't really be herself but has to tone down her 'blackness'..."Sometimes I just want to be comfortable in this skin, this body. Want to cock my head back and laugh loud and free, all my teeth showing, and not be told I'm too rowdy, too ghetto. Sometimes I just want to go to school, wearing my hair big like cumulus clouds without getting any special attention, without having to explain why it looks different form the day before...At school I turn on a switch, make sure nothing about me it too black. All day I am on..."

This is in contrast to what she feels within the safety of her family and home where she believes in herself. At home, secure in her family, this seems possible. "...that's when I believe my dark skin isn't a curse, that my lips and hips, hair and nose don't need fixing. That my dream of being an artist and traveling the world isn't foolish." However, outside of her home, Jade feels as though she shatters into pieces. "And this makes me wonder if a black girl's life is only about being stitched together and coming undone, being stitched together and coming undone."

A-E-I-O-U and Sometimes Y by Mickalene Thomas
This theme of being fragmented appears repeatedly throughout the novel, manifesting itself through Jade's collage art and in the lovely collage art by artist Bryan Collier on the novel's cover. At Powell's bookstore, Jade is introduced to the work of two black collagists, Romare Bearden and Mickalene Thomas whose art reflect "the making of me". Throughout the novel Jade continues to make collages that reflect what she is experiencing. The chapter titled renaciamiento or rebirth describes Jade creating a collage using photos of people like Emmett Till, Trayvon Marton, and Michael Bland, all of whom died at the hands of white brutality and showing them "living", "loving" and "being".

Throughout the novel, Jade is fascinated by the story of Lewis and Clark who are famous for their journey through the western United States, through the continental divide to the Pacific Ocean. The two explorers were accompanied (among others) by the famous Shoshone Indian woman,  Sacagawea and her infant and husband, and a black slave named York. In Piecing Me Together, Jade observes  how history has not acknowledged (until recently) the contributions these two non-white members of the expedition made. Their journey seems to mirror Jade's experiences, how she felt invisible to the teachers at St. Francis who didn't consider nominating her for the study abroad, and how her efforts have gone unrecognized.

Piecing Me Together is a brilliantly crafted novel that may help young readers understand better the black experience in America. Watson tackles so many issues in this novel, issues that deal with race, opportunity, class, identity and body image. This is done in a positive and realistic way through the remarkable character of Jade Butler. A well-crafted character, Jade is comfortable with her larger size and the colour of her skin, but she desperately wishes other people felt the same. She is resourceful, empathetic, intelligent and gifted.

Choosing Portland, Oregon as the setting for this novel seemed unusual, but Watson did grow up in the city. Interestingly, according to a recent article in the Atlantic, Portland has a very racist history towards it's African-American citizens.

art photo credit: http://themcbproject.com/mickalene-thomas/


Book Details:

Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson
New York: Bloomsbury Children's Books     2017
264 pp.

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