In ALL YOU HAVE TO DO, two Black young men attend prestigious schools nearly thirty years apart, and yet both navigate similar forms of insidious racism.
In April 1968, in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, Kevin joins a protest that shuts down his Ivy League campus...
In September 1995, amidst controversy over the Million Man March, Gibran challenges the “See No Color” hypocrisy of his prestigious New England prep school...
As the two students, whose lives overlap in powerful ways, risk losing the opportunities their parents worked hard to provide, they move closer to discovering who they want to be instead of accepting as fact who society and family tell them they are.
Release date: August 29, 2023
Print pages: 432
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All You Have To Do
Massachusetts | September 1995
The bass is thumping. I can feel it in my bones. It’s begging me to bob my head, laugh, and shout. In another place, I would get up, my boys in step with me, rush the stage, dance. But in Thatcher Hall, at Lakeside Academy, I freeze.
Three white boys—two seniors and a junior—bounce onto the stage, smirking. The bass becomes a warped noise as my eyes take in every inch of their costumes.
Six pairs of sneakers, all mixed up on three pairs of feet. Yellow and red. Red and black. Black and green.
They’re high-top sneakers—good ones. Expensive ones. And they’re brand-new. No doubt bought on their parents’ credit cards, just for this one stunt.
They march back and forth, pretending to warm up to the music, acting like they’re going to rhyme. I watch those sneakers, obsessed with the fact that they’ll never wear them again.
They wear baggy jeans so new, they’re creased and saturated with dye.
Crisp white T-shirts, extra extra large.
The jeans, the shirts—they won’t wear those again either.
They got the brands right mostly, but their ignorance shows in the details.
Their Red Sox caps betray them. Faded all over and frayed at the edges. If they knew anything about us, they’d know you can’t perform in that. The contrast is almost funny.
But those mismatched shoes. And the walk. An exaggerated pimp walk. Dip, hop, dip, hop. Arms swinging, greedy grins on their faces, swaying to a rhythm that doesn’t match the beat still rattling my bones. Mics held to their thin lips, their mouths move, but I can’t hear the words they’re lip-synching. I can barely hear the muffled laughter of the other white students who watch.
I tear my eyes away from the stage and scan the audience. The boys’ friends crack up and cheer them on. Other white students cover their smiles with one hand, wide-eyed, not sure if they should find this funny.
The boys onstage are laughing. Their blue, green, hazel eyes gleam with something that feels sinister. They wear a confidence that was never taken from them. I want to steal it now.
What can I do? Stop the show? Bash the speakers? Slap the microphones out of their hands? I savor the fantasy, but there are too many witnesses. To be the aggressor in front of the whole school—that would guarantee my expulsion. I wouldn’t mind; it could be worth it. If only it weren’t for my mother’s tears. My family’s pleas. You’re almost there, Gibran. Just graduate. Finish your last year.
Like it’s easy. No. The longer I’m here, the harder it gets.
On my right, James’s dark eyes are narrowed, following the boys across the stage, trying to figure out if this is for real.
On my left, David glares at the wall behind them, expressionless, holding himself together.
The three of us make eye contact and exchange thoughts silently.
Here we go.
Are they serious right
I check for the other Black students. The new ones are surprised and confused. The student-of-color orientation ended today—that blissful week of brown and Black faces making this place our own. Now, this “talent show,” the first all-school event of the year, reveals what Lakeside is really like.
The rest of the Black students stare—at the stage, at the floor, some at the wall—determined not to be provoked. Not to put their emotions on display. They wear their discomfort, disbelief, and disgust as lightly as possible, trying not to offend. They wait. Wait for it to be over.
None of these white people—students or faculty—can see what we see. The boys onstage commit the offense, but we’re the ones being careful.
I can’t do it anymore.
I get up. I’m thinking I’ll go outside, get some air, wait ’til this insult is over, and come back. It’s not much—barely a protest—but it’s something. At least I can liberate myself. I walk toward the auditorium door. But I slow down as something catches my eye.
The speaker is plugged into an extension cord that runs by the door to the hallway. It’s an old building in an old boarding school—several hundred years old. Its prestige comes from age and pedigree. My eyes travel the length of the wire.
People accuse me of acting without thinking. The thing is, though, I’m always thinking. I just calculate differently. I think one thing: Right or wrong?
Is it right for me to let everyone else sit here, subjected to this nonsense, while I go get some air? No.
Is it right for me to stop this show if I can do it without damaging any property or injuring any bodies? Hell yeah.
So I continue out the door. And as I go, I bend down and yank the cord out of the wall. The music stops. The roaring in my ears stops. My back feels lighter, and my chest opens up. I can breathe.
There is a sweet moment of silence.
Then the reactions begin.
Gasps. Murmurs. A boy calls from the low stage, “Hey, what the—”
A voice from the Black students: “Ohhh snap!”
I let the door swing behind me.
I cut swiftly through the hallway, where the old stuffy white guys on the walls stare down at me. I resist the urge to give them the finger: How ya like me now? I act casual, just in case. I could maybe pretend it was an accident.
I reach the door to outside and shove the brass bar to open it. It creaks and falls closed behind me with a clang. The night is warm, and the stone steps glow silver gray. I take a deep breath and smile.
I’m slurping instant oatmeal and bobbing my head to Mobb Deep when Mom rushes into the kitchen. Her soft suede jacket and boots meet at her knees, layered over jeans and a blouse. She caresses my head as she passes me. She opens the fridge, scans its contents, checks her watch, and closes the fridge. She never eats breakfast. I don’t know why she pretends to consider it every morning.
I finish scraping the bottom of my bowl and then find Mom looking at me. I reach to pull off my headphones, but she beats me to it. She shakes them at me, her silver bracelets jingling, and then drops them in my lap.
“These things are the death of the family unit.”
“Sorry,” I say, suppressing a smirk. I only wear headphones at home when I’m playing music with “explicit lyrics.” Which is most of my music. But that’s not why she calls them “the death of the family.” She thinks I don’t listen to her. But it’s not the headphones. “What’s up?” I ask.
“I said, are you going to make your bus?”
“Oh yeah. I got plenty of time.”
“Famous last words.”
I stand up. “I’m heading out right now. Don’t worry.”
She exhales. “Okay.” She squares her hips and points her finger. This is her lecturing stance.
“Be careful,” I recite for her. “Follow the rules.” I turn and rinse my bowl in the sink.
She pulls me around to face her with surprising strength for her petite frame. The concern in her eyes makes me shift my gaze to her freckled nose, her soft curls, her beaded earrings.
“Listen,” she says. “You are there for one reason and one reason only.”
“I said listen. It doesn’t matter what anyone else does or says. Don’t let it bother you. You have to work—”
“Twice as hard to get half as far,” I chime in.
She raises her face to the ceiling. “I tried, God.”
I wonder if she thinks she failed. But then she gazes at my face, puts her arms around my middle, and squeezes. “I hate being at separate schools,” she says into my chest.
Until high school, I went to White Oak School, where she teaches. In my earliest memories, the four of us rode to school together after a mad rush to get everyone out the door, backpacks in one hand and egg sandwiches in the other. Now the house is quiet. Ava at college and Ashanta married. We usually have someone who’s down on their luck staying in one of our extra rooms for however long they need, but right now it’s just me and Mom.
At first I was excited to go to a bigger school with more Black kids, but it didn’t take long to realize Lakeside is just another prep school full of rich white kids. The few students of color are supposed to try to blend in. Without Mom as a buffer between me and the faculty, it’s even harder to stay out of trouble. I don’t miss her chasing me down the hallways. I do miss knowing she was in the building—that someone who believed in me had my back.
Mom finally releases me. “My baby,” she says. Her eyes crease with worry. “Almost a man. I can’t believe you’re about to be eighteen.” Another sigh, then she pokes my chest with each command. “Be good. Be careful. Take those off your head the moment you step onto campus."
“Yes, ma’am,” I joke.
When I started at Lakeside, Mom dropped me off and picked me up every day. I decided getting myself there and back could give her one less thing to stress about, so now I take two buses. She was relieved in a way, but now that she doesn’t have the car ride to lecture me, she has to check me before we’re out the door.
She inspects me from my hairline to my shoes.
“Yeah, you know I’m lookin fly.” I grin and flip up the collar of my sports shirt.
She’s finally smiling. “Okay. I’m late.” As she backs out of the kitchen, she calls out, “One more year. Nine months.”
“Yup.” I send my voice out behind her. “I got this.”
What I don’t say
Every year on the first day of classes, I remember our very first day in private school: you as new faculty, us as new students. The memory isn’t real, but it’s real to me. Like something alive, it changes and grows. Instead of fading with time, it brightens. A black-and-white photograph developing slowly, then touched up in color. It’s a created memory. An origin story, a myth, a legend of you, my mother.
You were baby-faced, and your summer glow was fading. Petite and slender, you wore your typical uniform: tall leather boots, soft suede jacket, and dangling earrings made of beads. You held my hand and Ava’s in your strong artist’s hands. Ashanta ambled alongside, lost in her own thoughts, her backpack stuffed for third grade. You walked us from the faculty parking lot through the sprawling, impeccably landscaped grounds. We felt free in the expanse, and we longed to run, but your firm grip kept us close.
A blond woman with aggressively tanned skin came out of the building and started to hold the door for us, but you slowed down and stopped far from the entrance. The woman let it close and walked past us with a cheerful, “Good morning!” You shaped your face into a performative smile, trembling with the effort.
Other children skipped past us. Parents shrieked at each other, “OhmyGod, hiiiii, look at you!” They hugged and chatted about their summers and their families before returning to their shiny cars with a wave.
You knelt in front of us and fiddled with us for the thousandth time that morning. You smoothed Ava’s bangs, creased my collar, folded Ava’s lace socks, and tugged on my plain ones. You straightened the straps of Ashanta’s backpack. You looked at the building with its sparkling glass doors.
“Listen,” you said, your voice low, almost conspiratorial. “You are not here to make friends.” You glanced at the families going in and out, laughing together. “I mean . . . they don’t have to like you. They may not like you. But it doesn’t matter. You’re only here to learn. Don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. Okay? Do you understand?” You looked at each of our faces.
We said nothing. We did not understand. It would take years for us to understand. For a long time, we would think there was something wrong with you.
You pulled us close
for a hug and breathed us in: our hair grease and our new off-brand clothes. I squeezed you back, hoping somehow to restore the mom I knew from home. The mom who taught us to draw and paint. The magical mom who took us to Brigham’s for ice cream and had all of our friends over at the same time and treated every child like her own and gave until there was nothing left.
Before you let us go, you whispered something so softly that I’m not sure you really said it.
“Don’t trust them.”
A warning to us, a reminder for yourself, or both? It echoed in my ears, knocking at the back of my mind until the days became years and the years dragged on and the long, long years finally taught me what it meant.
First day of classes, senior year. Mr. Wheatley, my advisor, looks pained to see me. The feeling is mutual, but I might be better at hiding it than he is. In his office, sunlight streams in through the old wooden window, highlighting his sparse hair, peeling sunburn, and the dust on his elbow-patched tweed jacket. He closes a folder and rests it on his lap, crosses his legs, and adjusts his brown-framed glasses.
“Welcome back,” he says without a hint of warmth in his voice. “I hope you had a nice summer.”
I don’t have a chance to respond before he continues.
“We’ve got a few important notes to discuss. You are aware that your disruption at the talent show last week goes into your permanent disciplinary record?”
I let that sink in. “Now I am.”
“Now you are. So you are also aware that one more appearance before the discipline committee will earn you not suspension but expulsion from school?”
My mouth goes dry. “Okay.”
“Two more small strikes like the talent show or one big strike such as inappropriate conduct with another student, and your final year will be cut short. Is that understood?”
I attempt to smile. “Got it.”
“Good.” He folds his hands together like he’s about to say grace. “Gibran, I would hate to see you waste this wonderful opportunity—”
Blah, blah, blah. I tune him out. I can recite this speech from memory. I’ve heard it so many times from so many people with different intentions. As if he personally knows my family and what sacrifices were made to get me here. Please.
The funny part is when people like Mr. Wheatley say I can talk to them about anything. Yeah, right.
What if I tried to explain why I pulled the plug at the talent show? What if I told him I did it for all the Black kids? I can predict how that would go.
Everything isn’t always about race, Gibran.
They didn’t mean to offend anyone.
I don’t want to hear all that.
And they don’t want to hear me either. If they did, they would have asked me why I did it before they went and put it in my record.
When he takes a breath, I interject. “Are we all set here, Mr. Wheatley?”
He sinks in his chair and looks deflated. Maybe he thought I’d have some big moment
of enlightenment. “Well . . . I suppose we are. Unless you have any questions about your schedule or college counseling or—”
“I don’t.” He’s already told me everything I need to know.
He rubs the arm of his chair, annoyed. “All right, then.” He pulls out a sheet of paper and an envelope. “This is your schedule, and this letter goes to your parents. I presume I can trust you to deliver it.”
I fold the envelope and put it in the back pocket of my jeans before throwing my backpack over my shoulder and leaving his office.
The hallway is lined with students holding recommendation forms and other papers in their hands. Their meetings will go differently. Mr. Wheatley will smile when they walk in, genuinely happy to see them. He’ll ask how their summer vacations were—what internships they completed and where they traveled overseas—before discussing their schedules with them, making sure they’re happy with their courses. He’ll encourage them to keep up their strong academics and extracurriculars. He’ll want details about their college visits and application plans.
I don’t know if he knows that I’m already going to Howard. With my test scores, I only had to write a few essays to qualify for early admission with a nice scholarship for their business administration program. I’m not sure I’ll like business, but I figure it could help me be more in control of making my music. I’m not even sure I want to spend four more years in school after this, but it’s what my mom and her parents expect, so it’s the path of least resistance.
My admission and scholarship depend on my successful high school graduation, of course. For anyone else, that should be easy. But for me, with one strike left? It’s like they’re holding the door open, waiting for
me to walk right out.
My schedule is filled with the usual—honors calculus, physics, AP English, Spanish—but I do have one class to look forward to.
Lakeside is proud of its elective seminars, and the teachers love them. They offer topics they’re passionate about, going deep into niche subjects like social persuasion or Hamlet with juniors and seniors. I’ve heard about Mr. Adrian’s African American history seminar since freshman year. Older Black students hyped it up, so most of us take it when we can.
My mom’s generation fought to have Black studies in colleges. She used to tell me the stories of the Black students taking over the administration building at Boston University to get the school’s attention to their demands. She would laugh when she remembered how they answered the main phone line during their occupation: “Black BU!” She stopped telling me those stories when she saw that I had a rebellious streak in me too.
I bet they thought by now Black studies would be included in the required curriculum. Instead, we’re still supposed to feel grateful to have this one elective class about ourselves while “Western civilization” gets twelve years.
By the time I enter the classroom, I’m almost resentful. I can’t help it—whenever I sense
that gratitude is expected and not deserved, I go hard in the opposite direction. But Mr. Adrian’s open smile disarms me. I am the last to arrive, and instead of checking the clock, he looks at me, excited, like I’m the person he’s been waiting for.
He seems sincere. I have to give it to him: He’s the only teacher who doesn’t shrink or avert his eyes when he sees me. He’s a full head shorter than me too. His bright blond hair wisps around his balding head.
The large oval oak table is lined with students sitting in heavy wooden armchairs, crisp notebooks open in front of them. I take a seat next to James, who wears his favorite Champion sweatshirt and baggy jeans. I lift my chin to nod whassup to David, who sits across from us, next to another soccer player. There are more brown faces in here than I’ve seen in any of my classes ever. It’s nice. Comfortable. Though it’d also be nice if more than five white kids cared enough to be here.
Mr. Adrian leans on the tabletop, his fingers spread like a runner’s getting ready to race.
“Welcome, everyone.” His voice sounds like tires on gravel, but in a warm, relaxed way. “Let’s discuss what we expect from a course on African American history. What is the relationship between African American history and American history in general?”
Does he want my real answer? African American history is what you learn at home, when Moms drops names over dinner or when you go through your parents’ and grandparents’ bookshelves. So-called American history is the white his-story you learn at school for twelve years until, if you’re lucky, you get one “special seminar” to throw some color in there. Black history messes up the hero narrative of white history, so for the most part, Black history is left out.
James is the first to raise his hand. Let’s see how diplomatic he’ll be. “I mean, they’re supposed to be one and the same, right?” he says. “Like, without African Americans, there would be no America. And without America, there would be no African Americans. So they shouldn’t really be divided.”
“Yeah,” Lisa says, pushing her glasses up her nose. Her tight curls are pulled back in a puffy ponytail, and her dimples dig deep into her cheeks as she talks. “They’re totally interdependent. But people treat African American history like it’s . . . supplemental.”
“Okay.” Mr. Adrian turns to the blackboard and writes interdependent. Then he leans on the table again. “Other thoughts?”
A white boy named Eric cocks his head. “I guess I thought of American history as including African American history,” he says. “American history is general. Then when you focus on African American history, it’s more . . . specialized? Or exclusive, I guess?”
“Pfff.” I can’t help myself.
Mr. Adrian and the other students turn my way.
“I’m sorry,” I say to Mr. Adrian.
“Please,” he says, “respond.”
I clear my throat. “I mean, when you say it’s exclusive, that’s kind of funny to me, because really, it’s American history that’s exclusive. Black people and Native Americans are like a footnote or a sidebar in most American history books. The fact that there’s a separate class for African American history kind of proves that the general curriculum focuses on white people. Everything that was skipped over gets squeezed into these special seminars that aren’t even required.”
Some of the Black kids nod. Eric frowns and fiddles with his pen.
“So you’re saying,” Mr. Adrian responds slowly, “that African American history is not separate or exclusive, but separated and excluded. In curricula. In classrooms.”
“Yeah, even in the culture overall. Schools just reflect society and reproduce the same old systems.”
He writes separated and excluded on the blackboard and turns back to the class, one hand in the pocket of his khakis and the other twirling the piece of chalk. White dust covers his fingers.
Kate, a white girl wearing a faded Dartmouth T-shirt, speaks next. “I don’t think of them as separate. Or separated or whatever.” She pulls at the ends of her auburn hair. “We have learned about, like, African Americans before. We read The Bluest Eye in English last year.”
I take a deep breath.
Mr. Adrian blinks. He opens his mouth and then shuts it.
David says, “Yeah, we also read Huckleberry Finn in eighth grade.”
“Exactly!” Kate says as if he’s proving her point.
David, James, and I glance at each other and then back at Kate.
“Did y’all read Uncle Tom’s Cabin too?” I ask, keeping a straight face.
“What?” Kate asks, confused.
The other Black kids stifle laughter. Lisa tries to hide it, but her dimples give her away.
Kate turns red and frowns at me.
“Well,” Mr. Adrian says, scratching his neck. “We can at least agree that there’s more to learn about African American history than what’s been included in the general history curriculum. That’s why we’re here today, right?”
Kate trains her eyes on him.
Mr. Adrian lets a silence stretch for almost a minute. Eric looks like he wants to say something, but he just twists his mouth. Finally, Mr. Adrian continues. “Well, we won’t have time to dive deep into every era this semester. Your research project will give you a chance to go deeper into a topic of interest to you.”
He straightens a stack of papers and hands it to the student on his left, who takes a sheet and passes on the stack.
“I want you to really bring your creativity to this project. You can work alone or in pairs. You can meet with me anytime to talk about your ideas. Your project should pose a big question about African American history: the presence, contributions, and/or struggles of Black people in this country. It’s entirely possible you won’t find an answer or resolution. I’d like you to focus on presenting your questions and your research in a way that is thought-provoking and engaging.”
Mr. Adrian fields questions about the project and about the syllabus. For the last fifteen minutes, he gives a mini lecture about the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the colonies. When class ends, notebooks slap shut and chairs scrape the floor. ...
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