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For author Echo Brown 'The Chosen One' is a memoir infused with elements of magical realism

Echo Brown (Photo by Alexis Keenan)
Echo Brown (Photo by Alexis Keenan)

The new young adult novel “The Chosen One” centers around Echo, a Black woman from Cleveland who becomes the first in her family to attend college when she attends Dartmouth College.

Host Jane Clayson speaks with author Echo Brown, who drew much of the story from her own life.

Book Excerpt: ‘The Chosen One’

By Echo Brown

Someone is watching me. It’s not my mother’s Jesus, who hangs in blissful peace above the desk in my dorm room, or my roommate, Amanda, aka Mandy, aka Manda Panda, which her closest friends have painfully named her. There are many watchers and they are always white. My mother warned me about “lookin’ ass white people” that follow you in stores and stare at you on the sidewalk when you’re in the wrong neighborhood, attempting to control your entire existence with their eyes. I’ve learned from Children of the Corn, The Hills Have Eyes, and Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th movies that white people are always watching, especially when they are about to kill you. I don’t think anyone’s trying to murder me, but I am concerned.

Dartmouth has more white people than I’ve ever seen in my life. Sometimes I just walk around campus marveling at how many there are. Prior to being here, I thought most of the world was Black, like my neighborhood in Cleveland. I was wrong. The real world is white and they are all watching me. Dean Harrison, the dean for first-year students, who also happens to be Black and talks in riddles and quotes, says everything happens for a reason, but she wasn’t in math class with me last week when I caught a group of students blatantly staring at me. The only possible reason for that is intimidation.

I am sitting in class looking down at the blank piece of paper in front of me, pretending to study, but I’m really doodling, which I regularly do in this class since I never know what Professor Cartwright is talking about. Math is a foreign language. Even though I can speak and comprehend a few phrases, I am nowhere near fluent. I feel so stupid in this class. The stupidest. Professor Cartwright is world-renowned, yet he is a terrible teacher. He lectures like he is bored or can’t be bothered with the words coming out of his mouth. His “simplified” explanations are always complicated and confusing. What’s the point of all that brilliance if you can’t transmit anything to others?

Instead of listening, I draw long curvy lines across the length of the page. On this particular day, I am doodling cheerfully when I feel the familiar chill of watching eyes. I glance up at the clock and notice a group of classmates to my right staring. Their hands are folded on the table in front of them. Their eyes, piercing and calm, land decisively on me. They don’t blink. I look around the room to see if anyone else notices, but everyone is focused on Professor Cartwright. I turn back toward them and shrug my head aggressively in frustration, at which point they look away one by one. I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone. I wonder if this is a bullying tactic against students of color? A way to make us feel unwelcome and out of place? I heard about stuff like that happening from juniors and seniors, but I’m not going to stand for it.

Class ends. I stomp over to the culprits and confront them. “Your intimidation won’t work on me,” I say, inflamed.

“What are you talking about? I don’t even know you,” a long-blond-haired girl responds. They each shuffle out of the room confusedly, whispering among themselves. The resoluteness of her response makes me question myself. Maybe they were looking at something else in my direction. Regardless, it’s strange that they would all be staring at the same time

A week later, I’m still bothered. I grab a large bag of Lays potato chips from the secret stash at the bottom of my closet while replaying the incident in my mind. I hope they aren’t all sitting together again today, which makes their group staring more terrifying. I open the chips, inhaling the salty goodness, then, like a character on a soap opera, I emerge from my dorm room, fake smiling for the imaginary camera. I pose dramatically in the doorway before beginning my walk to math class. I take the long route to delay the inevitable.

“The Young, Black, and Restless at Dartmouth College,” I say, giggling. I’ve learned to entertain myself here in the backwoods of New Hampshire. I stop in front of Baker Tower, which is attached to the main library and is prominently featured in all the new student material.

Those brochures made many promises they could not keep. The biggest one being an abundance of rainbow-colored minority students, who are actually very hard to find on campus. We are few and far between, and there definitely was no mention of threatening watchers who intimidate with their eyes. But the white clock tower, stacked on manicured red bricks—a staple of Ivy League architecture—has remained true to its collegiate mythology and is even more stunning in person. I imagined what it would be like to stand before this tower for months, despite my high school guidance counselor Mr. Walsh’s repeated attempts to dissuade me from attending a top ten school. I still remember sitting in his office senior year reading the posters on the wall.

“IF YOU BELIEVE IT, YOU CAN ACHIEVE IT.”

“REACH FOR THE STARS.”

“NO DREAM IS TOO BIG.”

“Why Dartmouth?” he asks.

“It looks nice in the brochure.”

“Well, you know, you really shouldn’t choose colleges based on the pictures in the brochure.”

He reaches into his desk drawer and pulls out several pamphlets: Ohio State, Kenyon College, and Oberlin College.

“All great schools. All local. Perhaps you should consider one of these. I would hate for you to . . .”

He hesitates. I know what the silence between Professor Cartwright’s words mean. “Well, this really isn’t a good way to start the semester,” he continues. He hands me the paper, which has a large red F circled at the top. “I mean, these quizzes won’t be a big percentage of your grade, but . . . I don’t want you to fall further behind. Why don’t you stop by the student center and get a tutor? This kind of math is complex. You really needed to start establishing a solid mathematical foundation in high school, which I bet you didn’t. Real shame so many come here unprepared for the vigor of academic life.” He assumes he knows my story, subtly suggesting I’m not capable given my background. I thought getting into Dartmouth was enough to escape low expectations, but he builds another cage of limitation around me. As if the one Mr. Walsh built wasn’t enough to make me rethink my entire path in life. “Take some time to mull it over,” Mr. Walsh continues. “I want you to be realistic and clear about the odds. That’s my only goal.” I stare up at the posters on his wall again and then back at him, trying to mend the gap. Why did he bother hanging them at all?


Excerpted from The Chosen One © 2022 Echo Brown. Reproduced by permission of Christy Ottaviano Books / Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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