Race To The Finish Line (Aisha Yusuf) – Book Review

Race To The Finish Line is one of those books where the cover instantly jumped out and made me want to learn more about it. There are probably few covers as instantly grabbing as a Black Muslim girl standing up to a member of the KKK, especially in 2020. When I discovered that the author is herself a young Muslim woman of colour, and that she was choosing to write about life as a member of that demographic in the US, I was instantly on board.

The book follows Aaleyah, a seventeen-year-old Black Muslim girl living in Canada with her family. When her father gets a new job in the US Aaleyah and her parents move to the town of Anderton, Arkansas. Upon arriving Aaleyah is shocked to find that the town is more then 90% white, and incredibly racist.  She’s subjected to stares in public, muttered insults, and full blown verbal assault at school. And this is only the beginning of the abuse that she receives. Digging into the town history she discovers that there’s an alarming trend of missing persons reports for minorities in Anderton. Teaming up with her two new friends, Brianna and Matthew, she sets out to dig into this past, all whilst trying to survive the racists that infest the town.

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At first I wasn’t sure what to think of the book due to the writing style. The lead character is in her teens, yet the writing often felt like it was aimed at a younger audience. This was largely due to the simplicity of a number of the scenes, the way that Yusuf would gloss over certain details and jump around the narrative very quickly, not giving events a chance to breathe before moving on to the next ones. For the first few chapters I was unsure if I liked the book or not.

However, once Aaleyah reached her school things changed. Suddenly events were a lot more interesting, the things that Aaleyah was experiencing had me on the edge of my seat, and the faster pace began to work a lot better. It felt like I’d found the meat of the story, and the first few chapters were Yusuf quickly getting through the set-up so that she could focus on the important stuff.

This part of the book wasn’t exactly enjoyable, because I don’t think you could ever class this kind of story as enjoyable, but it was certainly gripping. Yusuf didn’t shy away from showing the realities of the racism and Islamophobia that Aaleyah faces. There are times where she is verbally attacked, complete with racial slurs, physical assaults, vandalism, and appearances from the KKK. This is a book that will test you, it will make you feel angry and on edge, it could even hurt you, because despite being a work of fiction this is a very real story.

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It’s a sad thing that this kind of story isn’t relegated to the past, but is still happening today. The Ku Klux Klan are active across the US, Black people are murdered by white supremacists and cops (with the two often indistinguishable), and the Black community have had to take to the streets in protest across the world to demand equality and justice. The way that minorities are treated in the US is abhorrent, and this book doesn’t shy away from that.

I don’t know what it’s like to be treated differently because of the colour of your skin, to face such vile hatred simply because you look different. I can’t understand how hard this kind of thing must be for people like Aaleyah, like Aisha Yusuf. I experience some discrimination because I’m a disabled trans woman, but I know that what I face is a far cry from what Black people in the US suffer through every single day, where you honestly don’t know if you’re about to be murdered or not if a cop stops you. I don’t understand how someone can live with that kind of pressure and hatred thrown at them and remain so strong and so compassionate, and even after reading this book I still don’t get it.

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Reading Race To The Finish Line made me angry at the time. It made me so f*cking angry that this is the daily reality for so many people. It made my heart race as the anger and despair of that kind of life washed over me, and it had me close to tears. This might just be a fictional story, but it’s also a window into the lives of so many people, people whose only ‘crime’ is the colour of their skin.

Race To The Finish Line might not be the most polished book I’ve ever read, and there might have been moments where I wish things were done differently in the narrative, but it’s also a book that moved me. It had a hell of an impact on me, and is one that I know is going to stick in my head for a long while. I know racism can be a scary subject for white people, it can be something that you don’t want to admit is as bad as it is, something that still has such a stranglehold on society, but it’s important that you – at the very least – start to look at it. We can’t make things better if we just bury our heads in the sand and pretend it’s not happening.

If the news is too scary, if real life accounts are too awful to get you engaged, start with this book, and learn a little of what it’s like to have to live with that hanging over your head everyday.  A must read.

Race To The Finish Line is out on 23rd October. 

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