THE CULTURAL CRITIC Imran Siddiquee, writing for The Atlantic, once commented, “If the United States were to truly transform into a totalitarian state, or suffer an environmental catastrophe, it's safe to say society’s deepest divisions wouldn't magically disappear overnight.” For the US, race would certainly be among those "deepest divisions." And yet YA dystopian fiction, even of the American variety, often appears to exist in a racial vacuum. Characters of colour may appear, as sidekicks usually, but their race in no way influences the plot even though racial tensions may run just beneath the surface of the narrative.
Presumably, readers are expected to understand that in these alternate realities people are united as a human race facing a common threat, whether in the form of invading aliens, robots, their own greed and avarice, or natural disaster. In most dystopian YA fiction, these threats affect all of the characters universally, rather than making an already bad situation worse for some.
Noughts & Crosses by British author Malorie Blackman offers a wonderfully refreshing take on an old approach. Instead of rendering racial differences obsolete, Blackman, who is also of Barbadian descent, makes them the focal point of her novel. It is set in a world where the supercontinent Pangaea is still intact and the colonial relations between Africans and Europeans are reversed, that is to say, where whites (Noughts) become enslaved to blacks (Crosses).
The chronology of this history is not made clear. However, it is understood that the novel takes place a few decades after the abolition of slavery in a society allusive to that of the Jim Crow period (1877 to the mid-1960’s) in the southern US. Schools are segregated, miscegenation is almost unheard of, and the oppressed Noughts live in poverty as second-class citizens.
The novel explores the budding romance between the teenagers Sephy, the daughter of a wealthy and powerful Cross politician, and her best friend, Callum, a poor Nought whose mother is employed as a housekeeper by Sephy’s parents. The premise is oversimplified (there are only two races, Noughts and Crosses; Blackman does not attempt to explain where other races fit into this hierarchy), and the novel lacks sufficient historical context to allow the reader to fully immerse herself into this alternate reality. Even so, what the book lacks in world-building it makes up for in the nuanced construction of its exasperatingly human protagonists.
Sephy is quintessentially fourteen; she feels misunderstood, trapped and beleaguered. She can attribute her hurt feelings to direct causes: her father’s cold indifference toward her, her mother’s alcoholism, her sister’s bitter enmity. But she cannot see how these difficulties differ from those of Callum, who must suffer his own personal tragedies in a world that devalues his humanity and from which there is no escape.
Sephy longs to run away to boarding school to become the person she aspires to be. Callum knows that so long as he is a Nought and the world is run by Crosses, there is no place in which he can be whole.
Sephy’s confrontation with segregationists quickly quiets her naïve excitement at the idea of having Callum attend school with her. She begins to notice small things, like how plasters are always dark brown (a reference to today’s reality, where “nude” or “flesh-toned” products are usually pinky-beige, Caucasian skin being the default “colour”). Despite her enlightenment, Sephy still seems unable or unwilling to accept the unfairness of the world in which only she and her family and people of her complexion live and thrive. Her blindness drives a wedge between her and Callum.
Noughts & Crosses is at its best when Blackman succeeds in making a statement about privilege through the lived reality of her protagonists—through the ever so familiar ways they experience racism and classism. The novel is at its weakest when the author loses this thread, and the plot becomes a web of contrived cliffhanger moments. Callum’s family’s involvement with the shadowy Liberation Army, an armed revolutionary group fighting for the freedom of the Noughts, is poorly handled. It reads as rushed and out of synch with the rest of the book.
The story is its most cohesive in those moments when the characters are not overshadowed by the runaway plot. The evolution of Callum from hopeful student to hardened revolutionary is particularly poignant. Callum, two years older than Sephy and a lifetime wiser, feels torn between his desire to “be somebody” and his loyalty to his working-class family. On one side, he is goaded on by his jealous brother, who burns with revolutionary zeal. His proud father, on the other, compels him to do well at school in order prove the worth of Noughts. As with so many who have found themselves in his position, Callum is left wondering why he should have to shoulder either responsibility. He asks, “Why must I represent all Noughts? Why can’t I just represent myself?”