At the end of a month of studying Harlem Renaissance poetry, high school English teacher Mr. Ward assigns an essay to class to break down what they’ve learned. One student, Wesley, hands in poems instead, and Mr. Ward asks him to read aloud one of them. The students’ response to Wesley’s words lead to an open mike poetry reading every week in class, where all students are offered the chance to read their original work. Each student takes advantage of the opportunity to tell the world something personal about themselves and how they see their place in society.
Bronx Masquerade is a novel written in 18 different voices. The story follows a year in the life of a classroom of high school students in the Bronx as they learn to express themselves through poetry and learn to look beyond the facades that their classmates present to the world. Each student has a chapter which ends in their poem, and as the year of poetry progresses the students realize that although on the surface they are all so different – black, white, Latinx, male, female, teen mother, heavy, thin, bold, shy, beautiful, athletic, artistic – they all face similar challenges and experience similar feelings.
The themes of difference and community and future resonate throughout the novel and the poems. Each of these teens experiences individual versions of loneliness and isolation; each has feelings of not fitting in, or of standing out for unwanted reasons (whether it be Janelle’s weight or Devon’s basketball prowess or Judianne’s fashion or Chankara’s black eye or Porscha’s mom dying of an overdose). But as they sit and really listen to each other speak, they all begin to realize that they are part of a community, and have more in common than perhaps they first thought. That said, each poem and poet is unique.
In the beginning, thoughts of the future are hazy for most of the teens. Hope is a foreign concept. Most have lost friends or family members to gun violence, while some have just left. But as the kids come together and see they are not alone, the future becomes something attainable. Dreams are ok. Dreams might come true, with hard work and focus. Hope is ok.
This isn’t a book with a strong plot or story line. With 18 different narrators, it takes a few chapters to get into the flow of the style and keep characters straight, and you aren’t getting a chance to follow one teen through a year of development and change. What you do see, rather, is snapshots of the students’ lives and how they react to the changes and revelations of others.
Coretta Scott King Award winning author Nikki Grimes has written a novel that sends an important message to teens to not judge each other, to get to know people beyond preconceived ideas, and to always hang on to hope. I loved this book, but read a lot of reviews from people (generally adults) who did not. The main criticism seems to be the lack of continuity of a main character. And while I grant that it is a choppy style to read, the book does a fabulous job of showing what lies beneath the surface is not always what the observer expects to find.
Bronx Masquerade was published December 31st, 2001 by Speak.