In 1986, poet/activist June Jordan published a brilliant essay titled “The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America: Something Like a Sonnet for Phillis Wheatley.” I taught this essay in my course on black women writers; I revisit it often and especially when I am feeling disheartened and demoralized by the publishing industry. Unlike some, who summarily dismiss Wheatley as a “sellout” for penning neo-classical verse, Jordan meditates upon the extraordinary conditions that produced the first black person to be published in the U.S.:
Come to this country a slave and how should you sing? After the flogging the lynch rope the general terror and weariness what should you know of a lyrical life? How could you, belonging to no one, but property to those despising the smiles of your soul, how could you dare to create yourself: a poet?
I have written about daring more than once in this blog, and the courage it takes to assert one’s own voice and artistic vision in an industry seemingly unconcerned with genuine diversity. Today I read yet another article about the struggle many parents and educators face when trying to provide black boys with reading material that reflects their realities. K.T. Horning says it best:
“For publishers, it’s a business. And they’re publishing for how they feel the market is defined,” says Kathleen Horning, director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which studies and compiles data about books for kids.
Of the 5,000 children’s books published every year, no more than 5 percent are written by or about blacks, Asians, Latinos or Native Americans, Horning says. Last year, the center catalogued 172 picture books, novels and nonfiction books published that were about Africans or African-Americans. Of those, 83 were written or illustrated by blacks.
Horning says that despite the growing diversity in classrooms, there hasn’t been much change in the industry, which has few editors of color. “Children just are not seeing themselves in children’s books,” Horning says.
Publishers are loathe to talk publicly about whether they ignore black readers.
None of this is news to me, of course; I’ve spent enough hours writing and raging over the refusal of the children’s publishing industry (and the general kidlit community) to even ADMIT (never mind ADDRESS) this appalling inequality. Some white bloggers fume over the “injustice” of the Coretta Scott King awards being reserved for black authors and illustrators, but have little if anything to say about the fact that white authors and illustrators already have 95% of the publishing pie. Amy Bodden Bowllan, driving force behind the Writers Against Racism campaign, reached out to several publishers in an attempt to engage them in a dialogue about the potential of children’s literature to combat racism and promote tolerance. Their silence has been deafening. What can they say? That they collectively lack the daring, the moral clarity, the fiscal incentive to do right by our kids? Perhaps they will say, “The market can’t sustain more books by and about people of color. There simply isn’t enough demand.” And so they will continue to promote their endless books about Harriet Tubman and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., knowing that educators and librarians across the country need *something* to display when Black History Month rolls around…
In her essay, June Jordan argues that contemporary black and white poets have a different set of concerns, and a different vocabulary with which to articulate their particular “urgencies.” She writes:
I would not presume to impose my urgencies upon white poets writing in America. But the miracle of Black poetry in America, the difficult miracle of Black poetry in America, is that we have been rejected and we are frequently dismissed as “political” or “topical” or “sloganeering” and “crude” and “insignificant” because, like Phillis Wheatley, we have persisted for freedom. We will write against South Africa and we will seldom pen a poem about wild geese flying over Prague, or grizzlies at the rain barrel under the dwarf willow trees. We will write, published or not, however we may, like Phillis Wheatley, of the terror and the hungering and the quandaries of our African lives on this North American soil. And as long as we study white literature, as long as we assimilate the English language and its implicit English values, as long as we allude and defer to gods we “neither sought nor knew,” as long as we, Black poets in America, remain the children of slavery, as long as we do not come of age and attempt, then to speak the truth of our difficult maturity in an alien place, then we will be beloved, and sheltered, and published.
But not otherwise. And yet we persist…This is the difficult miracle of Black poetry in America: that we persist, published or not, and loved or unloved: we persist.
We do persist, though most of us languish in the shadows, obscured by the blinding spotlight focused on a handful of celebrated authors. It seems that if a publisher has one or two award-winning authors of color, they no longer feel obligated to actively seek out new talent, emerging voices that might extend the limited range of realities we find in children’s literature today. And, of course, there is a desperate need for “slice of life” stories that don’t (only) focus on racial or cultural conflict; I’m partial to wild geese and willow trees, but those aren’t the books editors and agents seem to champion. People of color make up a third of the population, and before too long, we’ll reach 50%. In 2050 will we still be petitioning the children’s publishing industry to be more responsive to our needs–OUR urgencies? The Catalyst Chicago article explains,
Many librarians and teachers say that publishing more books for African Americans isn’t merely a matter of political correctness. It’s crucial to lowering the achievement gap.
Reading test scores show that blacks significantly lag behind whites. Among 4th-graders, the gap was 27 points; it was 26 points for 8th-graders, according to 2007 data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. On average, black boys scored 28 points behind their white counterparts, while the gap between white girls and black girls in the 4th grade was 25 points.
The lack of diversity in publishing is not entirely to blame for this achievement gap but it contributes nonetheless, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that children of color might read more avidly if they had more choices of books to read. We also need books that can help to restructure environments and attitudes that are hostile to our children’s survival. In April of this year, two 11-year old boys in two different states hanged themselves after enduring relentless, homophobic taunting from their classmates (read more about these tragic deaths here). New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow concludes,
In short, homophobic bullying is pervasive. It disproportionately affects black and Hispanic kids. A new study suggests an apparent link between bullying and suicide. To wit, black and Hispanic adults who are gay reported higher “serious suicide attempts” than their white counterparts, most of those attempts taking place when they were young.
What I am trying to say to children’s publishers is that the lack of books for children in our communities IS A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH. I am not asking you to level the playing field as a “favor” to people of color. I am asking you to work with us in our efforts to transform children’s lives. Isn’t that why you chose this field in the first place? I grew up in Canada in a semi-rural community on the outskirts of Toronto; I grew up without any stories that featured children of color, save the extraordinary books of Ezra Jack Keats. In a country that regularly boasts of its commitment to multiculturalism, I grew up not dreaming in color, and the first picture book story I ever wrote featured a white protagonist. I grew up never knowing black people could write books; I never met a black author or illustrator, and I suspect that most children in Canada are living that same sad reality today (thirty years later). The situation is better here in the U.S., but still far from perfect. In the 21st century, when we have managed to elect our first African American president, how is it possible that the children’s publishing industry is still 98% white? Is it any wonder, then, that the books being produced for children are also disproportionately white?
I have decided that the best way to proceed is to develop multiple strategies that can be implemented simultaneously on different fronts. As Haki Madhubuti reminded his audience at this year’s Harlem Book Fair, “We didn’t come into this world as beggars.” Forty years ago, he founded Third World Press with the goal of providing:
…quality literature that primarily focuses on issues, themes, and critique related to an African American public. The Third World Press mission is to make this literature accessible to as many individuals as possible including our targeted market of primarily African American readers…Our goals are to cultivate a broader readership of individuals who want to gain greater insight into African American cultural traditions; to reach individuals that are younger and/or less scholarly-focused; and also to reach that customer who just did not know that we existed. (my emphasis)
Lately I have found myself invoking some lines from the conclusion of Toni Morrison’s masterpiece, Beloved:
Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don’t know her name? Although she has claim, she is not claimed.
I KNOW that there are hundreds of writers of color out there with stories that deserve to be in print. Yet again and again I hear white editors deploring the lack of publishable material–”Those stories just don’t cross my desk!” Maybe, dear editor, you need to get up from your desk and go out into the world, into the communities where these writers reside. Great writers of color are not in hiding; many are simply persisting, holding onto hope, waiting to be “claimed” by an agent, an editor, any gatekeeper with more than dollar signs in her eyes. Some of us are following Haki’s lead and are becoming our own publisher; my own press was inspired by the black feminists of an earlier era who founded Kitchen Table Press so that their work would finally have a home and a life in the larger world.
Yet self-published books and those produced by small, independent publishers are often dismissed as illegitimate and/or unworthy of serious critical attention; they are generally excluded from traditional marketing and distribution channels, and so reach only a very small audience. I am exceedingly grateful to the librarians, reviewers, bloggers, educators, and journal editors who have embraced my self-published young adult novel; A Wish After Midnight will be featured on the cover of the Fall issue of MultiCultural Review, and it has been adopted by several public schools, the Brooklyn Public Library, and the New York Public Library. I urge all readers to embrace the new reality of the 21st century: gatekeepers don’t always get it right. It’s up to all of us to look in nontraditional locations for music, books, films, and other art forms that are meaningful yet marginalized. It’s fair to argue that many self-published books are poorly written, but more and more competent writers are turning to publishing on demand out of desperation AND a determination to circumvent a publishing industry that insists upon conformity (when it opens its gates at all). Wall Street head honchos got it wrong, and people throughout the world are suffering as a result. We cannot continue to implicitly trust children’s publishers who get it right sometimes, but so consistently fail us in every other way.
The world we dream in literature can one day become our reality. I am an immigrant, and one of the things I love most about this country is that it is a land of dreamers. Yes, I am sometimes bitter about the contradictions embedded in those dreams, and the inconsistent commitment that leads to only their partial fulfillment. But I still believe that the stories we tell ourselves will shape the future, and the more voices permitted to join the chorus, the better off we’ll ALL be.