From the Desk of Chancellor Watson: Training School for Negro Girls by Camille Acker

book cover of Training School for Negro Girls by Camille Acker

Training School for Negro Girls by Camille Acker

One in a series of reviews contributed by Chancellor Dwight C. Watson

Those of you who have been following this blog know that I love reading.  I have profound respect for librarians and I am a purest pertaining to print media of all forms.  I see librarians and print media as the foundation of literacy development, and learning to read is an act of emancipation for disenfranchised learners. 

Since I am such a prolific reader, I read a wide variety of periodicals, and yes, I do subscribe, and yes, they still arrive in the postal mail to my house.  My monthly magazines include: Sports Illustrated, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the Advocate, Time, GQ, Entertainment Weekly, People, Southern Living, and my monthly favorite, Essence.  The reason I love Essence magazine is because it captures the current trends as well as history of Black women culture through fashion, cosmetology, travel, human interests, and, of course, literature.  I first read the review of Training School for Negro Girls in the Essence magazine.  When I saw the cover and read the word “Girls,” I thought immediately that it was a book for adolescent Black girls who would be taught the truisms of life, like how to be “Black girl proud” and exemplify one’s “Black girl magic.”  I immediately ordered the book and could not wait to read it.

I read the first chapter that was entitled “Who Are We,” and it was about a group of Black teenagers on the bus terrorizing White and senior patrons.  It was the worst nightmare of any White person and the most stereotypical behavior exhibited by Black teenagers.  I was upset with the chapter because it focused on all of the fears I ever had about how White folks would perceive young Black folk.  It was outright shameful.  And then I realized maybe that was exactly what the author wanted to provoke, so I was eager to read the next chapter to see how this story would develop. 

The next chapter was entitled “Cicada,” and as started to read, I realized this provocatively tilted book was not a novel, but a collection of short stories, and whatever training Negro girls or any reader was going to get from this book would come from the woven collective and not the continuous narrative.  Needless to say, I was truly captivated as the stories continued to flow from Black women through the “irony and tragi-comedy of respectability onto a wide-ranging cast of characters, all of whom call Washington, DC, home.” The stories unfold as “A “woke” millennial tries to fight gentrification, only to learn she’s part of the problem; a grade school teacher dreams of a better DC, only to take out her frustrations on her students; and a young piano player wins a competition, only to learn the prize is worthless. Ultimately, they are confronted with the fact that respectability does not equal freedom. Instead, they must learn to trust their own conflicted judgment and fight to create their own sense of space and self” (Six Bridges Book Festival).

Beneath larger themes of gentrification and race, these stories pulse with vitality as ordinary people look for a future in a world that doesn’t expect them to have one. Frustration takes varied forms—in a college applicant who is desperate to escape her peers; in a TSA agent whose mistake inspires others to worsen the moment with a lie. When a joyous outcome does happen, such as winning a piano competition, it’s tainted by another girl’s behavior. Despair doesn’t take over. Instead, calibrated defeats build toward endings that linger. Amid darkening scenarios, love still seeps through: in an aging mother’s advice, in a father who drives through the city while lecturing his daughter, in a younger sister who watches her brother breaking (Karen Rigby, Forward Reviews).

At the end of the book, I finally understood that this composite of stories was training school for the world and not just Black girls.  We learn best through the lived experiences of others and this book solidifies our common humanity.

Useful Sources This website includes many short quotes from reviewers that may encourage potential readers to join the journey captured in these stories.

About Ellen Latorraca

Reference & Instruction Librarian Liaison for the College of Education & Professional Studies
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