When the Black Girl Sings – Bil Wright // YA Book Review

Hi Friends,

It’s time for another book review. This week I got to read a Young-Adult book focused on adoption. Hooray! It’s rare that I find books centered around adoption in YA literature, but in the coming years I’d like to see more. Growing up, it would have been very meaningful to have found a book centered around adoption from a teenager’s perspective. The book, When The Black Girl Sings, by author Bil Wright focuses on transracial adoption and discusses the importance of having a community of color to support a transracial adoptee. The book also deals with issues around divorce, religion, and self-confidence.

The story begins by introducing readers to the main character, Lahni Schuler. She’s a black 8th grader at a predominately white middle school. Wright uses this juxtaposition to showcase how different Lahni feels from everyone around her. Her friends, family, and school community are all white and as a transracial adoptee she stands out by having two white parents. As the book opens, Lahni is being harassed by a white student at her school for her physical appearance. The student remarks that Lahni looks like one of the “little black African babies you see on TV specials,” a horrible and racist remark that does not go unnoticed by Lahni. After coming home from school and informing her mother of the incident Lahni is shocked when her adoptive mother remarks that the girl in question might be trying to “complement,” her looks with her remarks. Wright masterfully starts off the book by touching on racial microaggressions in relation to transracial adoptees. Often times, transracial adoptees often have to deal with racism and microaggressions on a daily basis. He also shows the lack of acknowledgment to Lahni’s feelings that her mother displays. With the first chapter of the book, Wright gently reminds adoptive parents about the complexities of raising adoptees. Though it’s clear that Lahni’s mother cares about her wellbeing and is worried about the incident, she does not handle the situation in a way that support’s her daughter’s account of the story or, offers suggestions on how to combat very acute racism.

As Lahni’s story continues readers find out that her adoptive parents, who are both white, are fighting a lot. Lahni hears them arguing most nights and her father tries to stay out of the house by going on long business trips and staying elsewhere when he’s not traveling. As Lahni explains more about her family to readers, she notes how different she looks in relation to her parents. It’s something she’s uncomfortable with. She tells readers that she use to “lie” about her father’s skin color when she was younger. Though Lahni would admit that she was adopted when asked, she also told other students in her school that her adoptive father was black since it “seemed easier than telling a group of white girls that two white people had adopted me and having to answer a lot of questions I’d already asked my parents and still didn’t have the answer too.” Like many adoptees, Lahni is still very unsure of her identity, and when living in a very white space it’s hard for her to adjust. Not being able to see other people of color who look like her hasn’t empowered her to feel comfortable about her blackness and as a younger adoptee she’s felt more comfortable by trying to hide that she’s a transracial adoptee.

Lahni’s story continues when her friend, Katie, nominates her for a music scholarship. Along with two other students, Lahni is scheduled to compete in a singing contest in order to win the scholarship. Though Lahni is initially reluctant, the marital turmoil between her parents is beginning to be too much for her to handle. As Lahni agrees to sing in the competition, she does so as to focus her attention on something else instead of her parent’s fighting.

As her parents’ marriage falls apart, Lahni’s father moves out of the house. Heartbroken, Lahni and her mother seek solace in attending church services. It is there that Lahni sees and gets to interact with people of color for the first time. The church’s piano player is a black man named Marcus Delacroix. He captivates Lahni with his piano playing. Lahni is also astounded to hear the church’s head soloist, a woman of color named, Cairetta Chislom sing. As Lahni and her mother feel the therapeutic effects of attending church, Lahni realizes that she wants to be a part of the church’s community and learn to sing like Carietta.

When Lahni finds Carietta after church and requests voice lessons, she is invited to sing in the choir by Marcus. Lanhi begins regularly attending church services, practicing with the choir, and learning more about herself and her musical talent. Lahni begins to feel more comfortable in her personal identity as a black girl. Though Lahni’s adoptive father tries to reach out to her through weekly phone calls and later, a visit to his hotel in New York, his attempts to stay in her life during this time of growth are half-hearted. As Lahni beings to thrive, she realizes more how little her father is doing for her and beings to become more independent from him. During a visit to New York to visit her father, Lahni discovers that he has left her mother for another woman, and they are living in the city together. Lahni is furious, and demands that her father leave her alone. Though she’s sad that her family is falling apart, Lahni is also learning more about self-resilience and respect as she supports her mother emotionally, and begins to grow into an accomplished singer.

Around this time in the book, things get a little confusing as Wright also introduces a subplot about a white teenage boy who is infatuated with Lahni. Though quips from classmates, notes left for her from the boy, and sightings of the boy following her, (I’d call this stalking) Lahni finds out that the boy is attracted to her because she’s black. The boy believes, (even though he’s white) that he is black and tries to fit in at school by creating a pseudonym for himself to sound more racially ambiguous, “Onxy 1.” As Onxy 1’s attempts to contact Lahni amplify, he begins to follow her more and leave more notes. Later, Lahni and her classmates witnesses Onxy 1 being arrested by the police after an altercation with two black teenagers in the middle school parking lot. Though Onxy 1 believes he is black, after being rejected by the two teenagers in his attempts to play basketball with them, he calls them “big black apes,” and pulls a knife on them. Lahni is shocked and scared by his actions, and later when he tries to ask her to date him, she yells at him forcefully to leave her alone, and he does.

Though Wright may have tried to introduce this plot to empower Lahni and show readers that her blackness is something that she should be proud of, I feel like he fails at it through his “Onxy 1 subplot.” I was very uncomfortable reading about an 8th grader being harassed and stalked by a white high school boy who was fetishizing her because of her skin color. Though Lahni later tells her mother about Onyx 1’s stalking and attempts to date her, she ultimately decides that she’s empowered enough to handle the confrontation with him when he tries to approach her. As an adult, reading a YA novel, this raises major red flags for me. I would not encourage anyone to confront their stalker without getting law enforcement or ones parents involved. While I can see why the subplot might have been used to empower Lahni in her self-confidence quest, I felt that Wright disregarded many realistic safety issues that young women and men face in their lives. This subplot cheapened the overall plot of the book. I also felt that the book became even more convoluted with the addition of the Onxy 1 plot. Readers are already tracking plots around Lahni’s parent’s marital issues, her singing and self growth, and the Onxy 1 subplot falls flat.

As the book ends, Lahni and Marcus, accompanying her on the piano have practiced and perfected her song for the 8th grade showcase. Lahni has chosen to sing the song, “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” Though Lahni is nervous about singing, she channels her sorrow over her parents ending marriage, her anger and confusion over Onxy 1, and her joy at finding a new church family into her song. She gets a standing ovation and wins the competition. Wright leaves readers understanding that while Lahni’s father was in the audience to support her competition, he’s leaving the family for good after the performance ends. The book ends on a bittersweet note as Lahni’s win in the competition helps her feel more empowered and supported, but, also shows the reality around marital issues.

While I’m glad I to read a YA novel centered around adoption, this is one of the first books that I wouldn’t recommend. The book was packed full of subplots and didn’t touch on Lahni’s adoption much at all, other than briefly in the first three chapters. I felt that the book focused more on parental divorce rather than adoption, and the book never addressed any of Lahni’s confusion, questions, or misgivings about her adoption. Wright never fully develops Lahni’s father as a character, he’s very one-dimensional. He never voices his views about his adopted child, his involvement in the adoption process, or how he plans to make sure that as an adoptee Lahni feels supported. Instead, her father abandons his family early on and leaves a grieving wife and a confused child.

I felt that this book could have done much much more to support an adoptee narrative and support young adoptees who area reading this book. Instead, it painted a confusing story where self empowerment was mixed in, but didn’t really provide readers with much backstory or character development on a transracial adoptee.

Until next time,


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