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The 57 Bus: Dashka Slater’s 2018 BGHB Nonfiction Honor Speech

My heartfelt thanks to the Boston Globe, Simmons University, the Horn Book, and especially to the awards committee.

I want to talk to you about two buses, two cities, two books, and a poem.

The poem was the first I ever published and it appeared in the Cambridge (MA) Chronicle when I was ten years old, after it won second place in a contest in Cricket magazine. It was about racism, although I did not use the word. Specifically, it was about the court-ordered school desegregation program popularly known as busing.

Growing up in Boston in the 1970s meant seeing nightly news footage of white adults hurling vitriol at school buses full of black children. These images of menacing adults and frightened children were deeply disturbing to me, perhaps because, like so many children, I was keenly sensitive to unfairness.

“We look at them / as coldly as the snow / which our skin matches,” I wrote in my poem, “to close them out into the gray shadowed forest / with white glaring gates.” My own tiny alternative school was unaffected by busing, but I ached with the desire to connect with the black children I saw on television. In my poem, I vowed to “leap over the blinding fence / escaping the harsh winter faces,” to clasp hands with the children being kept out. But in truth, I had no idea how to do that.

Then when I was thirteen, my boy-crazy friend Tiffiny loaned me a book she’d found that she said contained photos of a cute guy. The cute guy turned out to be Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, and the book was his autobiography, which told of his childhood in a faraway place — Oakland, California. That book offered me a way to “leap over the blinding fence,” taking me inside experiences I had always wondered about and experiences I had never imagined, answering questions I hadn’t known how to ask. I still have my tattered copy. (Sorry about not returning it, Tiffiny.)

Eight years later, Oakland became my home. I began working as a reporter there, seeking out the stories behind the stories in one of the most diverse cities in the nation.

So it feels somehow fitting that I’ve returned here, to Boston, the place where I grew up, to accept this amazing honor for a book about a high-profile crime involving two teenagers — one white and agender, one black and male — whose paths fatefully crossed aboard a bus on the way home from school.

The incident on the 57 bus happened in my neighborhood in Oakland. Labeled a hate crime, it shook me to my core, the way the racism unleashed by busing did when I was a child.

And so I wrote the kind of book I had craved as a young person, a book that would take me inside experiences I didn’t know how to access, answer the questions I didn’t know how to ask, confront prejudices that too often go unmentioned. A book that would help people of all kinds leap over that fence and clasp hands with a stranger whose struggles might be the same as their own, or vastly different.

It has been immensely gratifying to have a book that feels so personal be received with such warmth. And it’s especially wonderful to have three generations of my family here to see it — my mother and stepfather, my son, my brother and sister-in-law, and one of my sisters. I am so grateful to have my extraordinary editor, Joy Peskin, here as well. A shout-out to my wonderful agent, Erin Murphy, who was prevented from coming by an unfortunate encounter with a throw rug. All of you, in large ways and small, created the cocoon of love and support that made this book possible. Thank you all.

From the January/February 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more on the 2018 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB18.

Dashka Slater About Dashka Slater

Dashka Slater is author of the 2018 Boston Globe–Horn Book Nonfiction Honor Book The 57 Bus.

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