Young Adult Novel ‘Save the Pearls’ Features Teen Protagonist in Blackface
Save the Pearls takes place on Earth after dangerous solar radiation has driven humans into an oppressive Hunger Games-like dystopian government. As in other great dystopian novels like Brave New World, the citizens use opiates to dull the pain of existence. And that’s about where Save the Pearls loses its similarity to other dystopian (or even young adult dystopian) novels and drives straight into some racist terrain.
In Save the Pearls, society is divided by skin color. The most desired people are “the Coals”—those with the darkest skin are most able to resist solar radiation. Below them are “Tiger-Eyes” or Latinos, “Ambers” or Asians, and all the way at the bottom are the “Pearls” or Caucasians—apparently there are no Native peoples in this futuristic society?
The book’s protagonist is a teenage girl named Eden Newman. In this world, if women have not been “mated” by the age of 18, she will be dumped outside the city limits to die. No one wants to be mated with a Pearl because their white skin leaves them most susceptible to radiation. In order to make herself more attractive as a mate, Eden dons “Midnight Luster” or as we might know it, blackface, in order to make a Coal fall in love with her.
Author Victoria Foyt defends the controversial play with race and says that it is appropriate—and accessible—to young adult readers because they don’t have the same kinds of hang ups about race as older people do:
Or perhaps -- and this is what I hope -- the YA generation sees race in a way that is unique to them, unique in our history. After all, they have arrived on the scene decades past the integration of schools and Jim Crow, even well past the days of The Cosby Show.
Soap-mouth-washing words that were forbidden in my youth now populate rap songs so often I wonder if, happily, they have lost their vile connotations.
So racism is okay when children don’t have the cultural context to understand they’re seeing racism?
The book recently won the prestigious Eric Hoffer award in the Young Adult fiction category—and if enthusiasm over Young Adult literature in the past few years is anything to go by, it won’t be long before we see a Save the Pearls movie spreading privileged ideas about racism to a new generation.
Dahlia Grossman-Heinze is a reporter-blogger for Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @salvadordahlia.