That was the last question asked at today’s panel—which I almost missed because The Graduate Center has moved since I was there last and so I went to the wrong address. Which means I missed my former prof’s paper on African Canadian autobiography, though she was kind enough to give me a copy. Luckily, Leslie was on the same panel as Marleen S. Barr, and as promised, I’m going to share my notes from her paper, “The Laugh of Anansi: Why Science Fiction Is Pertinent to Black Children’s Literature Pedagogy.”
Barr began by sharing her amazement at a Kindle commercial that featured a black boy telling his grandmother how anxious he was to read about zombies and wizards; the child wasn’t yearning to be a civil rights activist, and slavery in no way figured in his fantasy life. So why are black children being offered so many civil rights and slavery narratives? Barr broke her discussion into three parts: Realism, Sci-Fi: Powerfully Black, and Laugh of Anansi (a summary of the NYU A Is for Anansi conference, cut short due to lack of time). Barr read a passage from Walter Mosley’s 1999 essay, “Black to the Future” (you can read an excerpt here), and argued that the “elitist walls” separating sci-fi from the classroom be torn down.
Realism has become, in some ways, a trap for black children—and it is black women writers who have, according to Barr, found a way out. Citing Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Octavia Butler as early speculative fiction writers, Barr named Nnedi Okorafor and Alaya Dawn Johnson as leaders of the next generation. Barr noted that as a young woman, she was drawn to speculative fiction because powerful women characters in and writers of realistic fiction often wound up dead (Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf); the same is likely true for young black readers, Barr concluded—Malcolm X was assassinated, and kids raised in the era of Obama are “not native” to the world of Richard Wright.
Science fiction offers black children an alternative way of dealing with “legacy, tradition, and memory.” Barr cited Virginia Hamilton as an important and acclaimed black speculative fiction writer who nonetheless continues to be overlooked by scholars in the field.
Barr concluded by discussing the A Is for Anansi conference, noting how she found the theme of speculative fiction recurring across the various panels. She shared the responses given by three boys on the children’s panel, all of whom crave fantastic tales and are tired of reading books about “problems.”
At some point Barr also mentioned a 1914 book by Elizabeth Gordon, Watermelon Pete (cringe, right?). Her main critique of the story was that “Blacky,” the fairy-like creature, was depicted as more of an insect or vermin—nothing like the dainty Tinkerbell image created by Disney. No mention was made of racial stereotypes, which I found odd (ETA: Barr contacted me to clarify that she *did* twice refer to the book as “terrible” and didn’t elaborate on the racial stereotype due to lack of time). There was also a reference to Princess Tiana, but I missed that…sorry!
The best part of the day came when Leslie, a professor at York University in Toronto, assured me she was committed to working on a multicultural children’s literature conference that will take place in 2012—hurray! I was just counting my pennies, seeing if I could afford to pull it off myself, but I’m relieved to know that others are willing to help make it happen. And now, back to my novel…