The Black Girl Next Door

A Memoir

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About The Book


A powerful, beautifully written memoir about coming of age as a black girl in an exclusive white suburb in "integrated," post-Civil Rights California in the 1970s and 1980s.

At six years of age, after winning a foot race against a white classmate, Jennifer Baszile was humiliated to hear her classmate explain that black people "have something in their feet to make them run faster than white people." When she asked her teacher about it, it was confirmed as true. The next morning, Jennifer's father accompanied her to school, careful to "assert himself as an informed and concerned parent and not simply a big, black, dangerous man in a first-grade classroom."

This was the first of many skirmishes in Jennifer's childhood-long struggle to define herself as "the black girl next door" while living out her parents' dreams. Success for her was being the smartest and achieving the most, with the consequence that much of her girlhood did not seem like her own but more like the "family project." But integration took a toll on everyone in the family when strain in her parents' marriage emerged in her teenage years, and the struggle to be the perfect black family became an unbearable burden.

A deeply personal view of a significant period of American social history, The Black Girl Next Door deftly balances childhood experiences with adult observations, creating an illuminating and poignant look at a unique time in our country's history.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Black Girl Next Door includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jennifer Baszile. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Discussion Questions 
  1. Why would Jennifer’s classmate’s father make the claim that “black people have something in their feet to make them run faster than white people”?  Is this perpetuation of a myth rooted in racial ignorance, jealousy, or malice?
  2. When young Jennifer senses falsehood in this claim, she feels compelled to expose the classmate’s father and her teacher.  What is the significance of a child challenging an adult?  Is it easier or harder to fool a child?
  3. Baszile writes that in her family “integration was a form of competition.”  What do you make of the Basziles’ strong drive to surpass and exceed expectations?  What triumphs come out of this motivation?  What tensions does it create?
  4. How did you respond to Jennifer’s imitation of her grandmother?  What purpose does parody serve, and when does it go too far? 
  5. What does Grandmother Rose mean when she tells Jennifer’s mother that her children are “just like perfect little white girls”?  Is this a compliment, and if so, to whom?  Is the goal for Jennifer’s parents to preserve or escape their black identity? 
  6. Discuss the theme of alienation in the memoir.  Why does Jennifer think of herself as “The Other One,” and how does this shape her personality and the choices she makes?
  7. Jennifer’s Aunt Frenchie keeps a scrapbook for every member of the family, paying tribute to their accomplishments.  Jennifer suspects that there’s more to the story, though, and asks, “How much were her albums and photos a mirage?”  Do you believe Frenchie’s process of selective documenting serves the family well?  Is it representative of their story through the ages?  Does suffering and failure deserve to be remembered alongside success?
  8. Jennifer loves the photographs of her ancestors her mom displays in the house, particularly the one of her great, great grandmother Mary Dean Ballard.  She says the pictures, “made me feel less isolated.  I was a daughter and a sister, but I had also become a great granddaughter.  For the first time, we had ancestors to watch over us, which made it seem as though I could feel the roots of our family tree.”  How strongly do you feel rooted in your family’s lineage?
  9. Why is Rosa Parks a more acceptable hero for the school parade than Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass in the eyes of Jennifer’s teacher and mother?
  10. Jennifer undergoes a few major transformations in the story – one at the department store cosmetics counter, and another when she gets her hair straightened for the first time.  Why is the lure of a “new and improved” self so strong?  Who creates the ideal for Jennifer?  For young women today?

Enhance Your Book Club

Ancestry and family history plays a large role in this story.  Ask your book club members to bring in some of their treasured family photos to share.

Complement your discussion by reading other memoirs that grapple with racial identity like The Color of Water by James McBride, Life on the Color Line by Gregory Howard Williams, Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals, and Black Ice by Lorene Cary.

Food plays a major role in the book.  Invite book members to bring in their favorite childhood food or snack.  


A Conversation with Jennifer Baszile


How long has this book been germinating in your mind?  What compelled you to finally tell this story?

The earliest incarnation of this book began in 2002 when I recalled a picture of myself at age four or five and began to cry.  I couldn’t get the picture out of my mind.  I was at a turning point in my career because my work as a college professor had become unfulfilling.  I couldn’t figure out why I’d lost my passion.  Then I realized that I was a professional historian running from my past.  I went looking for a book that told my story, but I couldn’t find one.  So, I began to write. 

Your memories of your childhood are so vivid.  Did you keep journals when you where young, or did you use another way to recall the events and conversations of the past?

Like many girls in the 1970s, I kept a diary.  Mine was cream-colored vinyl and had a brass key that I hid in my underwear drawer.  The events and conversations I recount were defining moments in my girlhood.  But they were often so painful and upsetting that I remembered them vividly. 

 
You write that you were “part of a family running and fighting for more than just [yourselves].”  To what extent did you feel like everything you did would be held up as representative of your race?  Do you feel any traces of that still?

I didn’t “feel” that I was a racial representative, my daily experience showed me that fact.  Whenever I spent time with my relatives, their pride and encouragement made me realize how many people hoped that I’d do well.  It’s impossible to have grown up the way that I did and not carry traces of that experience into adulthood. I don’t regret my girlhood because it gave me a tremendous sense of empathy.  Now, I represent myself first.  I also realize that I can inform, but can’t control other people’s perceptions.

It seems like your parents couldn’t quite reconcile their wanting you to assimilate and capture the American Dream with their expectations for you to have black friends and not integrate too much socially.   Do you still feel caught by this dichotomy? 

That dichotomy was the defining tension in post-Civil Rights America.  One of the reasons I decided to write this book was to describe the bind between the hope of integration and the reality of prejudice.  I don’t feel “caught” by the dichotomy but remain aware of it.

 
Your portrayals of your mother and father are very honest, sometimes painfully so.  Have either of them read the story, and if so, how did they react?

From the day I began writing the book, my father has said the same thing. “Tell your story.”  My parents read the early chapters of the book, but it was a very painful experience for them. As a mother myself, I know that no parent likes to see their child suffer, even on the pages of a book.  They have been very supportive of the project.

Do you have any children of your own?  How has your childhood experience influenced the approach you want to take with your children?

I have one child and my experiences of motherhood have infused me with an even greater sense of respect for my parents’ struggles.  Every set of choices has trade-offs, but I try to help my child trust his instincts and ask me questions even when they are difficult.  I also have chosen to raise him in a more economically and culturally diverse context than the community in which I was raised.

You seem to be fascinated with photos and the story behind the story – the one that gets obscured and possibly goes untold.  What images in our culture today do you think serve as a façade?

Photos and untold stories have fascinated me for as long as I can remember.

These interests motivated me to study history in college and eventually become a professional historian.  

One of the biggest differences between the current moment and my girlhood is the emergence of global hip hop culture.  When I was a girl, relatively few images of black people circulated in the culture.  Many of them were negative, but the number remained fairly small.  Now, images of black people saturate the popular media.

 
If you could go back in time and give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?

Draw strength from the challenges that you face and be true to yourself.  

 
Who do you hope will read this book and what do you hope they will learn from your experiences?

I hope that the men and women of my generation will read this book and appreciate the important work we did to move this country forward.   I hope that our parents will read this book and recognize the radical changes that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s.  I also hope young men and women who feel like outsiders will read this book and see how much change is possible.  

You end the story at your high school graduation.  Do you have more stories that you plan to tell?

I spent my thirties grappling with one transition after another. Those experiences will be the sequel to this book.

I have another nonfiction project in the works, and might even try my hand at fiction.   

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Jennifer Baszile received her B.A. from Columbia and her Ph.D. in American history from Princeton. She was the first black female professor to join Yale University's history department and has been named one of the "Thirty Leaders of the Future" by Ebony magazine. She lives in Connecticut.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (January 13, 2009)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416594499

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"The Black Girl Next Door stands out...forthright and courage[ous]." -- Los Angeles Times

"...provocative and gripping..." -- New York Times

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