A while back I wrote a post about “queering kidlit” in which I critiqued the attempt to prove that books by/about people of color are “just like” books by/about whites. I later asked my friend for some further reading and she pointed me to this article by Cathy Cohen. This was JUST the quote I needed:
transformational politics…a politics that does not search for opportunities to integrate into dominant institutions and normative social relationships, but instead pursues a political agenda that seeks to change values, definitions, and laws which make these institutions and relationships oppressive.” ~Cathy J. Cohen, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens
I plan to cite this article in my Kidlitcon presentation in October. It looks like a really great line-up; if you’ll be attending, please let me know. Right now I’m trying to prepare a short video statement about the relationship between the crisis in Ferguson and the crisis within the children’s publishing industry. I’m struggling because I don’t know what language to use—can’t be too angry or bitter (and lose the softness that makes me a woman people will listen to) but I’m not feeling optimistic these days. Yet to write for kids, you do have to have hope—and all artists do, right? Otherwise why create? So my bit of sunshine for today is the cover for my 9/11 story The Girl Who Swallowed the Sun. When systems fail, you have to find another way forward…
I’ve been thinking lately about this essay by Marita Bonner, “On Being a Young—a Woman—and Colored” (1925). Black women have been trying to hold onto their humanity for such a long time, and it makes one so very, very tired. I think I wrote my latest story about a bunny because that’s one way of staying “soft”—same with all the cat videos I post on Facebook. I don’t have a whole lot of faith in human beings these days, and I am working on that. But it’s hard…
Every part of you becomes bitter.
But—“In Heaven’s name, do not grow bitter. Be bigger than they are”—exhort white friends who have never had to draw breath in a Jim-Crow train. Who have never had petty putrid insult dragged over them—drawing blood—like pebbled sand on your body where the skin is tenderest. On your body where the skin is thinnest and tenderest.
You long to explode and hurt everything white; friendly; unfriendly. But you know that you cannot live with a chip on your shoulder even if you can manage a smile around your eyes—without getting steely and brittle and losing the softness that makes you a woman.
For chips make you bend your body to balance them. And once you bend, you lose your poise, your balance, and the chip gets into you. The real you. You get hard.
…And many things in you can ossify…
I’m back on Facebook, but I’m limiting myself to 30 minutes per day. This week I’ve felt a lot better, and I’m extremely grateful for my friends who can help me think and talk critically about the crises facing Black people in this country while still remembering to count our blessings. In some ways it feels strange focusing on children’s books when there’s so much chaos in the world. I’ve spent the summer preparing two new titles for publication—The Girl Who Swallowed the Sun and The Magic Mirror—and I’ve resized three of the four titles I released last spring. Next week I’ll develop my strategy for getting these books into kids’ hands. Even the children of Ferguson are heading back to school, and children’s literature always has a role to play in helping kids to better understand their world and their emotions. When I first started writing for kids I kept a chronology so I’d know how my stories evolved. Right after I wrote The Magic Mirror I wrote a long poem called “A Place Inside of Me.” I can’t remember what prompted me to write it—the shooting of Amadou Diallo? The brutalization of Abner Louima? The lynching of Laura Nelson? This is one of the many manuscripts I will have to self-publish because white editors would be too scared to touch it. There are ten stanzas altogether but here are a few:
A Place Inside of Me
there is a place inside of me
a space deep down inside of me
where all my feelings go…
there is joy inside of me
a happiness deep down inside of me
that glows as bright and warm as the sun
and shines delight on everything I see
there is sorrow inside of me
a sadness deep down inside of me
that is cold and dark
as a watery grave
at the bottom of the sea
there is hunger inside of me
a yearning deep down inside of me
that refuses to be silenced or bound with chains
and insists on being
there is pride inside of me
no shame deep down inside of me
for I know how long and hard we have struggled
and against all odds my people have emerged
© Zetta Elliott
How do Black children process the endless killing of members of their community/family/race? How should artists and authors help these kids? Why does the kidlit community so often remain silent on subjects that matter to Black people?
I took a peek at Facebook today and think I may need to take another week off. I missed it at first and I have some beautiful artwork I’d really like to share, but I can’t tie together all the angry, sorrowful threads that stem from the situation in Ferguson. Last week someone posted a graphic on Facebook that read, “The more you stay in your comfort zone, the smaller it gets. The more you leave your comfort zone, the bigger it gets.” Right now I’m stepping out of my comfort zone by filling an order for 250 books. I’m an organized person, but I don’t have much experience as a book distributor, and after lugging 300 books home from my office in a broken suitcase, I have no real desire to haul boxes of books to the post office. But I did it today, and I’ll take another box tomorrow until my new hand cart arrives later this week. I don’t want to be a publisher; I’m doing this because I feel I have no other choice. But if I’m going to do it, I’m going to try to do it right. That means making mistakes and learning as quickly as I can so I can keep moving forward. I’m negotiating a contract right now for a picture book and it feels *so* good to be treated with respect by this publisher. I have a tendency to withdraw and I can live in the world inside my head for days on end. That’s why I consume so many hours of television and radio news—I know I need to stay connected to what’s happening in the real world. And as an artist, I need to bear witness. PBS just aired a segment on perceptions of racial bias in the Ferguson situation; not surprisingly, most whites feel race isn’t an issue and most Blacks feel that it is. My impulse is to pull back, to avoid all those who refuse to face reality—including those Facebook friends who post pictures of cupcakes and nothing about Gaza or Ferguson. But if I practice avoidance then I can’t be too hard on others who do it too. Maybe art is the bridge between us…
Finding Fela is a (long) cautionary tale: be original, be defiant, build knowledge, but don’t be an egomaniac. There were a few too many gratuitous booty/crotch shots in the film, and I found myself saying over and over in my mind, “Lord, don’t ever let me be a prop in someone else’s play.” Someone really needs to make a movie about Fela’s wives. His daughter by his first wife, Yeni, provided some insight into her father’s chaotic household/lifestyle, and his African American lover, Sandra Izsadore, got to share her point of view. But the only funeral they covered was Fela’s; he died of AIDS and refused to practice safe sex, so what did that mean for the dozens of women fighting each other to have sex with him each night? The footage in the film shows his wives endlessly applying makeup, smoking joints, styling their hair, and sitting silently behind Fela during interviews when they aren’t gyrating on stage. Much of the film focuses on Bill T. Jones’ experience bringing the musical Fela to Broadway, and it helped that he expressed his discomfort around Fela’s treatment of women. He also insisted on Fela’s “madness,” which I found interesting because those who were close to Fela only wanted to focus on his greatness. He was a genius but does that make his destructive behavior inevitable?
I left the theater trying to think of an ending for “The Last Bunny in Brooklyn.” It’s an allegory about race and dislocation. Every time another Black person is killed and it makes the news I think to myself, “It won’t be long now.” But as my wise pigeon explains in the story, “Extinction is a lengthy process.” When angry outbursts occurred following the murder of Mike Brown, I thought of the well-known passage anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells once wrote in her diary:
I felt so disappointed because I had hoped such great things for my people generally. I have firmly believed that the law was on our side and would, when we appealed to it, give us justice. I feel shorn of that belief and utterly discouraged, and just now, if it were possible, would gather my race in my arms and fly away with them.
In the 19th century, Ida advocated for migration—if they’re lynching your people in the South, go west. But today, in the 21st century, where should Black people go to avoid “gradual extermination?” If it were possible for me to “gather my race in my arms,” there are a few fools I might leave behind. I’m listening to R&B on Pandora as I write and half the time I have to click on the album cover to see whether the person singing is Black. Whites have learned to sing like Blacks, white writers win acclaim for writing about experiences not their own. Chloe, the last bunny in Brooklyn, asks the wise pigeon, “What’s an artifact?” And he explains, “an artifact is something or someone that is no longer of use to anyone.” Allegories are meant to be subtle and subtlety isn’t a strength of mine…but I’ll see if I can find a way to wrap this story up. Maybe another trip to the garden is in order.
I’m almost done with this new story, “The Last Bunny in Brooklyn.” The idea came to me a few years ago when I first noticed the absence of bunnies in the botanic garden. Yesterday I decided to do some research and found two helpful women gardeners who answered some of my questions. Turns out rabbits aren’t the main problem in the vegetable garden—that would be rats and raccoons! I never imagined scavengers feasting on fruits and vegetables but I guess it makes sense. Who wouldn’t prefer fresh food to the moldy stuff you find in the trash? And the gardener in the rose garden said she uses cages for young bushes since they’re most vulnerable to rabbits—which are plentiful if you’re around at dawn or dusk when they come out to eat. This story is meant to be an allegory; I’m not sure it works but it felt good to be writing steadily yesterday. No Facebook, a few hours of news consumption, lots of music, a bit of time in nature, and an amazing discovery at the Brooklyn Museum. If you haven’t yet gone to see Swoon’s exhibit, Submerged Motherlands, you need to go NOW. It closes on August 24th and I suspect I’ll be going back again next week. If only Swoon had made Beasts of the Southern Wild…
If I can finish this story in the next couple of hours I think I’ll go see Finding Fela. Keep on feeding the spirit…