Lies We Tell Ourselves

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

I’m not big on issues books.  So when I picked a book about integration with a interracial lesbian romance, believe me, I had concerns.  This can’t end well, right?  And getting to the end is going to be pretty painful too?  But I had heard so many good things and I also know that it’s important to go outside your comfort zone sometimes, so I went for it.

First off, it’s important to acknowledge that I am white.  And because of that, my knowledge of integration is pretty basic and I’ve had the privilege and luxury of not having to think beyond the n-word and the photos of menacing crowds, threatening well-dressed black children as they enter their new schools.  Spending time with Lies We Tell Ourselves refuses to let you walk away after day one.  You don’t just see the bravery required on the first day of school. Every single day you spend with Sarah and Ruth and Ennis and Chuck at school is one where every moment is fraught with tension.  Of course, there are a group of instigators responsible for the bulk of the trauma, another group that joins in with taunts and cheers, complicit, but the overwhelming, deafening silence and lack of action on the part of bystanders is mind boggling.  It is the same silence that has stretched across decades to the present day, allowing those who are violent and fueled by hate to run the narrative.

But even though this is a story of integration, it’s also story about two girls, their families, their struggles, their perceptions of themselves.  Although their interactions begin the way you might expect between a black teenager and the white daughter of a hate-spewing newspaper man, they learn that there is more to each of them than what they seem to others.  Their connection is one that is not simple.  Each girl must struggle with her own feelings regarding her sexuality, especially weighty considering the time period.  Sarah in particular is quite religious and does a lot of soul searching about why she hasn’t been punished for her feelings.  Beyond that, there is the question of race.

In the end, this was a book that I could not put down, except for short breaks to get a breather from the tension that Talley builds.  Although it was really hard to read about how difficult integration was for the students, it was also really compelling and impressive to realize their strength.  And the constant push-pull of the relationship will also keep you racing through, waiting to see what happens next.  I won’t spoil the end at all, but I will tell you that things do not end terribly for our heroines.  Lies We Tell Ourselves hardly shirks from violence or hatred, but some secrets are kept, some are spared.

WARNING: Since writing this, I have read many black people’s comments that this book is harmful and hurtful. I defer to their experience completely. If you are black and reviewed this book, I would be happy to link to your review here as your experience far outweighs that of a casual white reviewer.

Age Recommendation: I think this is suitable for Grades 8 and up, probably even a bit younger if you have readers who can handle the violence and tension.

Sex, Nudity, Dating – White parents fear their daughters might “get in trouble” with black teens. A teen has kissed and held hands, but not French-kissed. A teen looks at pictures of girls in swimsuits in a magazine. A high school girl has a 22 year old fiancee. A girl will reportedly “go all the way” with anyone who will give her his football pin.  A girl has never done more than kiss her fiance because he believes a girl who will be his wife deserves more respect. People discuss their dates to a dance.  A teen wouldn’t play seven minutes in heaven. Teens have sexual and romantic feelings towards each other. Two girls kiss.  Girls are told to keep their skirt down and their panties up.  Boys and girls kiss.
Profanity – “n—r” the whole word, no letters omitted is used repeatedly, other racist slurs include “mau maus, tar baies, coons”, “hell”, “God”, adult male blacks are called “boy”, “Dang it”, “shit”, “shut up”, “damn”, “goddamn”, “bullshit”, “bitch”,
Death, Violence and Gore – People are threatened.  Someone throws something at a teen.  People are spit upon.  A teen wishes she could use a knife to slice someone’s tongue in two.  People are pushed, shoved, physically bullied. A teen is injured on her neck.  People are tripped. People are poked with pencils, nearly to the point of bleeding.  They are threatened with violence. There’s mention of a black boy down in Mississippi who was killed for being with a white girl.  A teen has milk poured all over her.  A teen is tripped and then surrounded.  People are kicked.  There are threats of setting people on fire.  There are legitimate fears of lynching.  Rocks, sticks and pencils are thrown at the black students. Students have gum spit at them. Students receive death threats. A white male grabs the breasts of a black teen.  A father draws back his hand to hit his child, but does not strike. A teen is hit in the back of the neck with a baseball.  Most witnesses laugh.  White throw bottle caps, trying to slice the skin of their targets. The violent murder of Emmett Till is described, that he was beaten, shot, his eye gouged out and that he was thrown in a river. He was 14.  This recounting is a true story.  A cross is set on fire in a black teens yard. Teens have a legitimate fear of being lynched, hung.  An adult tells of a time a black man was accused of theft and was beaten so badly he never walked again.  A teen raises his arm to defend himself after being hit and is beaten by at least 15 others. They use a bucket to break his ribs and continue the beating with a mop handle.  His nose is broken, his face bloody.  His whole body is bloody.  He has broken bones and took a blow to the head.  When he is taken to the hospital they are unsure if he will ever regain consciousness.  A teen is given a note showing a lynching as a threat. A man hits his child.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – An adult has a glass of sherry. Adults have a drink.  A teen smokes cigarettes. An adult smokes cigarettes.  A teen has been drinking. Men smoke pipes.
Frightening or Intense Things – A school is about to be integrated and the black students are rightfully concerned about the harassment and violence they are likely to face.  Some white girls scream when black teens walk past.  There is a lot of talk about white superiority, what black brains can and can’t handle, how they will bring down social standards.  It’s a lot of explicit racism, the kind white people might like to think doesn’t happen but is foundation of a society than continually represses minorities.  There is also discussion of racial purity and the need to keep the races from intermarrying and having children.  White students urinate on a black teens seat.

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