In 'Green,' A Pre-Teen Wisens Up To His Privilege

Dec 31, 2017

It's 1992. Your hair is gelled up, you're sporting high-tops and maybe still listening to Run DMC on cassette.

That's the setting for Sam Graham-Felsen's Green, a new coming-of-age novel that's also a look at race in America. It follows a friendship between two adolescent boys in Boston — one black and one white.

"The narrator is a 12-year-old boy named Dave Greenfeld," Graham-Felsen says. "... He's one of only three white kids in his entire middle school, and the last thing he wants is to also stand out for being Jewish. So he sort of gives himself a nickname, Green."


Interview Highlights

On the thing Green describes as "the force"

So the first time Dave sort of comes up with this concept, he's watching the news on the day of — or one of the days — of the LA riots, and there's a particular moment during the LA riots where a guy named Reginald Denny, who was a trucker, was stopped at an intersection where there was a lot of rioting going on. He was pulled out of his truck and beaten, and he was a white guy and presumably targeted because of that. And Dave sees this on TV and he finds himself — even though he grew up in a very progressive household — he finds himself sort of rooting for this white trucker. And he feels kind of ashamed and embarrassed of it. And he says that what comes over him is something called "the force."

The force is kind of this amorphous thing that intrudes on various aspects of life, and Dave is slowly starting to wake up and realize that the origins of the force are some pretty serious things, like institutional racism.

On being the chief blogger for Obama's 2008 campaign and how it informed the book

I was helping to further the message of hope and change, and I really felt hopeful that an Obama victory would signal a sea change in America and would bring about real racial progress. I never thought we would turn into a post-racial country overnight, but when I saw the, sort of, enormity and swiftness of the backlash against Obama from the Tea Party, it really gave me pause.

I had the kind of idea [for the book] in my head as I was working on the Obama campaign, and then after the campaign I sort of felt more of a sense of urgency. I wanted to explore, you know, why is racism such an intractable problem in this country? And I realized, hey, you know, I have this fairly unique experience as a white kid who went to mostly black schools growing up, and maybe if I dive as deep as possible into my own past, I can kind of understand what happened to me better, and maybe a little bit better about what happened to my city, and even my country.

On political similarities between the 1990s and today

This book is set in 1992, and I felt like the early '90s in some ways feel so similar to our current moment. There was the explosive incident of the LA riots, which followed the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King brutally on videotape. And you know, we're seeing echoes of incidents like that all the time right now. There was a presidential election that was very racialized, where Bill Clinton famously threw rappers, including Sister Souljah, under the bus in order to appeal to the white working class. And obviously we had a highly racialized presidential election this time around as well. So I mean in some ways it was disheartening to deep dive into the '90s and to see kind of how much things have stayed the same, but there's also a lot of sort of cultural fusion going on, you know, through hip-hop, through the comedy scene. And that kind of cultural mixing gives me hope that the country just very, very slowly is trying to figure out how we can actually not just live together, but thrive together.

Sophia Schmidt and Ed McNulty produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Sydnee Monday and Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LAUREN FRAYER, HOST:

It's 1992. Your hair is gelled up, you're sporting high-tops, maybe still listening to Run-DMC on cassette, and that's the setting for a new coming-of-age novel that's also a look at race in America. The book, titled "Green," follows a friendship between two adolescent boys in Boston, one black and one white. The author is Sam Graham-Felsen, and he joins us now from our bureau in New York.

Hi, Sam.

SAM GRAHAM-FELSEN: Hi, Lauren. Thanks so much for having me.

FRAYER: Thanks for coming. So who tells this story? Who's your narrator in "Green"?

GRAHAM-FELSEN: The narrator is a 12-year-old boy named Dave Greenfeld. He is half-Jewish, and his last name is Jewish, and he's pretty embarrassed of his last name. He's one of only three white kids in his entire middle school, and the last thing he wants is to also stand out for being Jewish. So he sort of gives himself a nickname, Green, which he thinks sounds kind of like a cool MC-rapper name.

FRAYER: Green is 12. He's just starting to wrap his head around some big concepts, trying to put them into words. And there's this thing in the book that he calls the force. What does he understand the force to mean?

GRAHAM-FELSEN: So the first time Dave sort of comes up with this concept is - he's watching the news on the day of - or one of the days of the LA riots. And there's a particular moment during the LA riots where a guy named Reginald Denny, who was a trucker, was stopped at an intersection where there was a lot of rioting going on. He was pulled out of his truck and beaten, and he was a white guy and presumably targeted because of that. And Dave sees this on TV, and he finds himself, even though he grew up in a very progressive household - you know, raised by very sort of anti-racist activist parents - he finds himself sort of rooting for this white trucker, and he feels kind of ashamed and embarrassed of it. And he says that what comes over him is something called the force.

FRAYER: And that force also comes between him and his best friend, Marlon.

GRAHAM-FELSEN: Yes. The force is kind of how Dave sees race interfering in all aspects of life. You know, he and Marlon - Marlon is his best friend, his black classmate. They have a really amazing, you know, easy friendship when they are in Dave's house together. They dress up in costumes. They make funny homemade videos. And then when they leave the house, all of a sudden, the simple world that they live in is kind of disrupted by these big, adult forces, including racism.

You know, they - one minute, they're jumping off trampolines, and the next minute, they're out shoveling snow and trying to make money, and no one is coming to the door when they ring the doorbell. Marlon then says, Dave, let me try something. I'll wait around the corner, and you ring the doorbell with your little brother Benno, and if two white kids are ringing the doorbell, I bet they'll answer. And it turns out that Marlon's right. And, you know, it's lots of little microexperiences like this that slowly waken Dave up to the fact that his friend is treated very differently by society than he is.

FRAYER: Marlon is dealing with some family issues, and yet we never hear his inner thoughts, his perspective. We have the inner life of the white character, but not the black character. Why was that?

GRAHAM-FELSEN: Well, the book is told from Dave's perspective. And, you know, part of the sort of tension in the book is, Dave is in his head. He's - you know, he's a 12-year-old going through adolescence. His body is changing. He's getting his first crushes. You know, frankly, he's a little bit self-absorbed, and he's not fully able to fully empathize with what his friend Marlon might be going through.

FRAYER: This is your first novel, but you've had some experience writing. You were the chief blogger for Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. How did that experience inform your ideas of race and inform the book?

GRAHAM-FELSEN: So as Obama's chief blogger, I was helping to further the message of hope and change. And I mean, I really felt hopeful that an Obama victory would signal a sea change in America and would bring about, like, real racial progress. I never thought we would turn into a post-racial country overnight, but when I saw the sort of enormity and swiftness of the backlash against Obama from the Tea Party, it really gave me pause.

FRAYER: Is that when you started writing the book or had the idea?

GRAHAM-FELSEN: I started - I had the kind of idea in my head as I was working on the Obama campaign. And then after the campaign, I sort of felt more of a sense of urgency. I wanted to explore, you know, why is racism such an intractable problem in this country? And I realized, hey, you know, I have this fairly unique experience as a white kid who went to mostly black schools growing up, and maybe if I dive as deep as possible into my own past, I can kind of understand what happened to me better and maybe a little bit better about what happened to my city and even my country.

FRAYER: Sam Graham-Felsen is the author of the new novel "Green." Thank you so much, and Happy New Year to you.

GRAHAM-FELSEN: Thank you. Happy New Year to you too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.