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Archive for the ‘activism’ Category

cv041968My grandmother was an ardent admirer of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A “colored” woman raised in Canada to pass for white, my grandmother proudly displayed a framed copy of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the wall of her home. As a teenager in Toronto I took a class on American history in order to learn more about the “Negro” ancestors my grandmother so often discussed, and I was devastated when she made a gift of the speech to my frivolous older sister. I was the one teaching the Civil Rights Movement to my high school classmates; I was the one who could recite portions of the speech by heart. My grandmother did give me her carefully preserved copy of Life magazine and though I admired Mrs. King’s sorrowful yet elegant profile, I still harbored resentment over the allocation of the speech. That piece of parchment went from a place of honor in my grandparents’ manse to the wall of my sister’s apartment; it hung next to the stereo, which blared lyrics by Jay-Z that would have made Mrs. King blanch. It took years for me to realize that my grandmother gave Dr. King’s speech to the granddaughter who needed it most. I wrongly thought that my investment in social justice entitled me to inherit the framed speech, but my grandmother knew that I was ready for something more and she was right—by my last year of college I was critiquing the “I Have a Dream” speech in the campus newspaper.

BirdwinnerSince penning that editorial twenty years ago I have worked to develop my skills as a black feminist cultural critic. In 1994 I reversed the migration that brought my African American ancestors to Canada in 1820. Unfortunately my grandmother passed in 2002, months before I earned my PhD in American Studies from NYU; my dissertation, which focused on representations of racial violence in African American literature, was dedicated to her. I currently teach courses on race, gender, and sexuality in the Center for Ethnic Studies at BMCC, a community college in lower Manhattan that serves mostly immigrant and working-class students of color. Many are reluctant readers and so I’ve had to develop innovative ways of introducing them to black literature, which they wrongly expect to be irrelevant, outdated, and uninteresting. In addition to my teaching I’ve published scholarly essays, short fiction, and poetry in various anthologies, and my plays have been staged in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland. I’ve also published three books for young readers—one of which, BIRD, won numerous awards after its publication in 2008, including a Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent for the illustrator, Shadra Strickland. Though she hoped at least one of her grandchildren would follow in her footsteps and become a preacher, overall I think my grandmother would approve.

imagesI speak to hundreds of school children every year and my author presentation always begins with the shiny stickers on the cover of BIRD. Here in the US, children always know who Coretta Scott King was and they know that, like her husband, she believed in justice and equality for all. We talk about the way awards draw attention to a particular book and often ensure that it won’t go out of print. Then I ask the children to guess how many books are published in the US each year. Once we settle on the figure (about 5,000), I ask the children to guess what percentage of those books have black authors. They’re natural optimists, children. Most of the students I meet attend majority-black schools—urban schools that are just as segregated as those that predate the Civil Rights Movement—and it’s not uncommon for them to have black-authored books in the classroom. So there are always gasps of amazement when I hold up three fingers and inform them that less than 3% of all the children’s books published each year are written by authors who look like them. I add that Asian American, Latino, and Native American authors each represent less than 1% of the total, leaving 95% of all books for children written by members of one racial group. “Does that sound fair to you?” I ask and invariably I hear a chorus of indignant NOs in response.

todd-duncan-coretta-scott-king-and-rosa-parks_i-G-65-6570-AZ82100ZWhen I saw the list of CSK Award recipients on Monday, I wondered what Coretta Scott King would think. I never had the privilege of meeting Mrs. King and all I know about the award is what I’ve read on the ALA website. I know that in 2009 the CSK Book Award celebrated its fortieth anniversary, and I do believe that black authors and illustrators are better off today than they were in the “all-white world of children’s books” of the 1970s. But when we look at the small number of authors and illustrators who seem to win a CSK Award year after year after year, are we looking at a picture of real diversity? Is the award helping to increase the overall pool of black authors and illustrators, or is it merely upholding the status quo by feeding a few big fish in a very small pond? Publishers no doubt realize the committee’s seeming preference for books about Dr. King and Rosa Parks and (a few) other historical figures. Does an editor’s desire to win yet another shiny sticker deter her from publishing other authors of other kinds of books that also “demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values?”

The soft-minded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea.

Self-published author and quilter Kyra Hicks has conducted an analysis of the award recipients and her findings indicate that the past four decades have produced a sort of winners club, an African American artistic elite whose insider status affords them creative opportunities too often denied their emerging and/or aspiring peers. It would seem as if the John Steptoe Award for New Talent, “occasionally given for young authors or illustrators who demonstrate outstanding promise at the beginning of their careers,” was developed to help remedy this situation and yet it was not given out in 2011 or 2012, which puzzles me. The African American authors and illustrators at The Brown Bookshelf annually publish a list of 28 contributors to the field of black children’s literature. Is it possible that the CSK Book Awards Committee found no one worthy of recognition for two consecutive years?

Perhaps it is easier to look backward at the past, which is familiar and safe, than it is to look forward where new possibilities—frightening to some—extend across the shifting terrain of the future. Yet the recent presidential election revealed the danger (and ultimate futility) of holding onto a romanticized version of the past, and the 2008 election of Barack Obama demonstrated that eventually the old guard must yield to the new. The publishing world is gripped by upheaval right now and many steadfastly cling to old models for fear of embracing innovation and developing new traditions that will respond to and reflect the realities of the twenty-first century. With so-called minorities expected to make up the majority of the US population in thirty years (minority babies already constitute the majority), what can the CSK Book Awards Committee do to ensure that equity—an ideal cherished by Dr. and Mrs. King—is not undermined by the children’s publishing industry? If 95% of children’s book authors were men, white women across the country would mobilize to create change. But where is the outrage over racial dominance in the children’s literature community?

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

In the past I have defended the CSK Award against claims that writers of all races should be eligible. With less than 3% of the publishing pie, though we constitute 13% of the US population, I felt that black authors and illustrators deserved something to call their own. Today I am less convinced of the relevance of the CSK Awards and wonder if I ought to revise the portion of my author presentation that claims the award reflects the values of Dr. and Mrs. King. The award-granting process is often controversial and generally shrouded in secrecy, though a 2010 article in School Library Journal lifted the veil on the Caldecott Medal. The CSK Book Awards Committee considers all genres, I believe, but the Caldecott focuses on one genre illustrated books only and still jury members can expect to review more than 700 titles each year. I am not entirely convinced of the link between quantity and quality in books, but there is something to be said for competition and I think creativity truly flourishes when more (and more kinds of) people are invited to the drawing table. As television’s numerous talent competitions demonstrate, the US has a deep pool of gifted individuals who are simply waiting for an opportunity to shine.

Last year I received a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to write a family memoir about my African American ancestors; I am anxious to explore the social pressures that first led them to flee slavery in the US only to further escape into whiteness in order to avoid racism in Canada. In my country of origin, an average of two black authors manage to publish a book for children each year, making a race-based award like the CSK impossible. Things are better here in the US, which is why I chose to relocate, but after more than a decade trying to publish my twenty manuscripts for young readers, I’m ready to throw in the towel and move on. I am close to completing two young adult novels, both speculative fiction, and once they’re done I plan to leave the world of children’s literature behind. I am disappointed by the complacency of so many individuals and institutions that claim to have children’s best interest at heart, yet I am encouraged by the fact that a small group of activists is currently in the process of reviving/reinventing the Council on Interracial Books for Children. I will do what I can to assist with the launch of this endeavor, and I hope its emphasis on social justice will truly honor the transformative vision of Dr. and Mrs. King.

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imagesI think my list of black-authored MG/YA novels published in the US is pretty complete—thanks to Edi and everyone on Facebook for helping me develop the 2012 list. We came up with 53 titles altogether, but 3 were reprints so that leaves us with 50 new middle grade and young adult titles. Of those 50 books, 11 were published by Saddleback Educational Publishing; the Juicy Central and Lockwood Lions series feature “hi-lo” content for teens reading below grade level. The two major romance publishers—Harlequin and Kensington—are next in line: Kensington’s K-Teen Dafina imprint published 10 black-authored titles in 2012 and Harlequin’s Kimani-Tru imprint published 3. That means THREE publishers are responsible for almost HALF (24) of the black-authored novels published for young readers this year. Scholastic and Aladdin both published 3 titles and Amistad published 2. The rest of the titles are “loners”—they represent the only black-authored MG/YA novel published by Wendy A. Lamb Books, Chronicle, Carolrhoda, Nancy Paulsen Books, HarperTeen, HarperCollins, Little, Brown, St. Martin’s Griffin, Darby Creek Publishing, Margaret K. McElderry Books, Henry Holt, Knopf, Simon & Schuster, Urban Books, Turner, Harper & Wells, and my own publisher AmazonEncore. I’ll leave it to someone else to figure out which imprints belong to the “big 5.” It would also be interesting to figure out how many first-time authors are published each year—are publishers even looking for new talent or are they happy to just wait for their “regulars” to produce a new novel? Any way you slice it, it’s not good. There are 13 million African Americans in the US and our kids have fewer than 50 novels to choose from each year…and how many do you think have LGBT content? (3, I think)

We need greater transparency in the publishing industry, which is why I compile these lists. We’re working on a new initiative so stay tuned…

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Just—say—no! Easier said than done, right? After I finish this essay I am taking a break from academic writing. I had my end of year evaluation at work this afternoon and my director actually told me to slow down…great advice! I want to finish two novels this summer, but that’s probably not realistic. As she said, there’s no point pushing yourself so hard that you’re burnt out by the time the fall semester begins. So if you’re thinking of asking me to contribute to some fantastic project, think again. Please. Help me help myself…

Yesterday I had my film date with CUNY TV—I’m going to be featured on their show, Study With the Best, and so we spent more than three hours at the African Burial Ground yesterday (three hours of footage they’ll have to edit down to *five* minutes!). I pulled on my top as I dressed that morning and swore I could still smell the sea—even though I hand-washed that shirt the night before. I came home from the film shoot and mailed more books back to Nevis. I’ve got my 1871 map of the island on the wall above my desk, and my growing library of books on Nevis will require me to buy a new bookcase this week—despite what I said at ChLA about books being designed to circulate and not to reside in the home…

I’m doing research for this paper on NYC parks and it’s reminding me of graduate school when I did one of my exams in the field of urban studies. I’m trying to build momentum but Dr. King’s words are still ringing in my ears. If you haven’t read his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” lately, do take another look. I had lunch with a friend today and we marveled at those PoC authors and editors who jump up and insist that publishing is a level playing field—how else to explain their individual success? Dr. King shared these pearls of wisdom 50 years ago:

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence…So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?…Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists. (my emphasis)

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Turns out Booklist is *not* the only kidlit review journal to pay attention to Ship of Souls. We got a “sneak peak” at the upcoming School Library Journal review, and it’s great! Here’s are the concluding lines—the complete review will run in May:

This succinct tale brings well-researched historical background to a compelling urban fantasy. Dmitri’s magical journey through the city’s burial grounds leads him along a deeper emotional one, forcing him to face his grief and acknowledge that more in life is waiting for him. With a suspenseful story that will leave readers feeling inspired, this is a quick and intriguing read.

Thanks, SLJ! You can also watch a video interview with me conducted by Amy Bodden Bowllan, a blogger at the School Library Journal website. Amy runs the Writers Against Racism series and is an outspoken supporter of diversity in children’s literature.

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The only good thing about waking at 4am this morning was finding this email from a former student in my Facebook inbox. You’ve probably heard about the teacher in Michigan who was fired for mobilizing her students around the Trayvon Martin case. Radical teaching—which is what we NEED to achieve social justice—should be celebrated, not punished. You can sign a petition and learn more here.

Greetings,
I know it’s been awhile, but I wanted to let you know that I am still following your work and to also, again, thank you for your inspiration and support in my scholastic endeavors. I am currently in my second semester at ___ State University and am in the process of getting my masters in the teaching of writing. I am currently interning for a class titled “Theory of Composition,” where we actually just attended a lecture given by Dr. Y. I wrote the following email to my professor, Dr. S, that I thought may be of interest to you and to also remind you, again, of the impact you’ve had on me as a learner/teacher. Having had some experience as a teacher working in foreign countries for the past three years, I know what it means to receive genuine and honest feedback; it is one of the many things that makes teaching so rewarding. So, I thought I’d send you a copy of the email I sent my professor to not only demonstrate the effect you had on me, but to also demonstrate how the messages we teach, when they are truly meaningful, can spread like wildfire to places or, in this instance, to classes you hadn’t imagined.

She then shared my blog with her professor so that their conversation about young adult lit can include a consideration of race and equity in publishing! Touched and very proud…

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Join Us for a Post-National Black
Writers Conference (NBWC) Event
featuring
NBWC Past Participants
TAVIS SMILEY
and CORNEL WEST

Meet Tavis Smiley and Cornel West
at a Fundraiser for the
Center for Black Literature

Friday, April 20, 2012
6:30pm
The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College
695 Park Avenue (at E. 68th Street)
(between Park & Lexington Avenues)
New York, NY 10065


POVERTY THREATENS OUR DEMOCRACY
Smiley and West take on the “P” word—poverty. During this compelling lecture and book-signing they challenge all Americans to re-examine their assumptions about poverty in America-what it really is and how to eradicate it.

Join Tavis Smiley and Cornel West

on Friday, April 20, 2012

at a lecture & book signing for

The Rich and the Rest of Us

a Fundraiser for the Center for Black Literature

Get Your Tickets In Advance & Buy Now!
$35 (includes book)
$25 (without book)
Go to www.CLSJ.org and click “Donate”
[Online ticketing administered by the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College (CLSJ)].

We thank you for your continued support of
the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College!
For more information, call 718.270.4811
or visit www.centerforblackliterature.org

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Up before dawn on the first day of spring break, hoping this headache doesn’t bloom into a migraine. Lots to watch online (episode one of Great Expectations at PBS.org) and Amy Bodden Bowllan has posted Part 1 and Part 2 of our conversation about race and representation in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin. I use this poem by Sharon Flake in my poetry workshops, but think I’ll include the cover image from now on…

I showed Pratibha Parmar’s brilliant film, A Place of Rage, in my classes yesterday. As always, the students were deeply moved and impressed by the profound statements made by Alice Walker, Angela Davis, and June Jordan. Pratibha posted this important Ms. Magazine blog article on Facebook this morning:From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin: How Black Women Turn Grief Into Action.” And the students are writing on Audre Lorde’s essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” It’s not enough to mourn. You have to channel the pain that is the core of rage into something constructive that can help others in addition to yourself…

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