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Training School for Negro Girls, by Camille Acker.

May 9, 2018

Training School for Negro GirlsTraining School for Negro Girls, by Camille Acker.  Feminist Press, City University of New York, 2018.

4 stars

Powerful, thematically-connected short stories about black middle-class girls and women in Washington, D.C., playing by the rules and finding they don’t get the rewards they expected.

Camille Acker was born in Maryland and grew up in Washington, D.C.  She graduated with honors from Howard and earned her M.F.A. at the University of New Mexico.  For more than fifteen years, she has worked in a wide range of positions in publishing, always pushing to bring diversity to more people. She created the website, The Spinsters Union, and worked with other non-profit and educational groups.  Now a freelance writer, she lives in Chicago.

In the title of her book, Acker refers to Nannie Burroughs, the important African American leader founder of the first training school in Washington, D.C. for black girls and women in 1907.  Burroughs was  active in a large, movement of the early twentieth century to train blacks in the rules of society so that they would “be safe and free.”  The women in Acker’s stories find, however, that  knowing and obeying the rules was never enough to insure safety and freedom, much less dreams.  Acker depicts women of different ages and decades from different parts of the city, but in her stories all the women discover the rules shifting beneath their feet.

Acker writes strong, clear narratives that seem simple and unconnected from each other, but she subtly composes a larger story of the limitations and frustrations of the women and girls she describes.  She sympathizes with them at the same time she critiques their decisions.  Rather than depicting them as either victims or figures of success, she captures the contradictions of their lives.  Acker does not blame the women or identify the oppressors. She simply describes what it feels like to devote your life to dreams that fail you.

No one needs to be a black middle-class woman in Washington to feel betrayed by the rules you were taught would bring you fulfillment.  Acker’s stories hit me strongly with a lesson I have faced again and again.  I strongly recommend this book.

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