Unfortunately I missed the conversation with Terry Boddie last night—migraine. I should have seen that coming—too many trains and planes—but Terry has kindly agreed to answer the questions I prepared for our talk, and I’ll post those on the blog later this month. For now I’m posting my ChLA conference paper. This isn’t the paper I hoped to present—my slides weren’t finished and so I only synched a few with my talk, which means the MLK part of the presentation dropped out. I had about 2/3 of the paper finished before I left for Nevis and figured I could finish the rest on the train to Boston, but I forgot to pack my power cord and so only had about 90 minutes before my laptop shut down. I got to Boston at noon, caught a cab to Simmons College, found the technology lab, pleaded with the student clerk to let me borrow a power cord, and then spent 40 minutes registering online as a “guest” so that I could print my 12-page paper. Arrived at the room five minutes before our session began at 1pm and was allowed to catch my breath and present at the end instead of the beginning. I got some positive feedback afterward and really appreciate that the audience was willing to engage with these issues. And it helped a *lot* that I was up there with three other black women (and “real” kidlit scholars): Michelle Martin, Rachelle Washington, and Nancy Tolson. It was also nice to look out and see some familiar and friendly faces in the audience (thanks, Sarah!). For the second year in a row, I presented and then split, but for the second year in a row I found the experience rewarding and very worthwhile. This paper needs work but I have another essay due July 1 so it’ll just have to be what it is…
“Stranger Than Fiction: Depicting Trauma in African American Picture Books”
or “One Hot Mess”
This paper is a hot mess. I begin with this assertion because it serves as a warning to you, my audience, while also engaging with Bruce Sterling’s definition of “slipstream:”
This is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.
It’s very common for slipstream books to screw around with the representational conventions of fiction, pulling annoying little stunts that suggest that the picture is leaking from the frame and may get all over the reader’s feet.”[i]
Sterling’s essay is a bit murky, and I confess that I am wary of debates within the field of science fiction since they often end badly for people of color. But I do like his idea of a young, badass genre “screwing around with convention.” As a nontraditional scholar I regularly fight against certain stifling conventions, and as a black feminist writer—“a person of a certain sensibility”—I often feel quite strange: never more so than when I am presenting at an academic conference, and most particularly when I am addressing the issue of race and equity in the children’s publishing industry. Sterling asserts that, “Many slipstream books [fall] through the yawning cracks between categories.” This is another point to which I can relate. My third book for young readers, Ship of Souls, was published by AmazonEncore in February of this year; it’s a unique blend of realistic urban fiction, historical fiction, and multicultural speculative fiction. Ship of Souls received a starred review from Booklist and was added to their list of Top Ten Sci-Fi/Fantasy Youth Titles.
I live in and write about New York City; last month I conducted author presentations and writing workshops in twenty schools and libraries across the city. Yet despite my actual presence in NYC and my virtual presence in the blogosphere, I still had to petition the NYPL to add Ship of Souls to their collection. The person in charge of acquisitions, Betsy Bird, explained that she normally finds books through Kirkus Reviews, and since Kirkus opted not to review Ship of Souls, it didn’t come to her attention. I suspect that my books are probably unfamiliar to many of you, and in this paper I want to consider just what “familiarity” within the children’s publishing industry means for writers who may be deemed foreign, exotic, rebellious, or simply “messy.” Richard Horton argues that, “Slipstream tries to make the familiar strange—by taking a familiar context and disturbing it with SFnal/ fantastical intrusions.”[ii] This is what I try to do with my own fiction, inserting historical and fantastical elements in order to transform the familiar urban landscape and the white-dominated field of science fiction and fantasy. In my capacity as an activist blogger, I regularly attempt to disrupt the “familiar context” of children’s publishing with an intrusion—or an infusion—of social justice and critical race theory. Today, after considering the narrow representation of trauma in African American picture books, I will “wake the past,” drawing upon Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to contrast historical and contemporary efforts to challenge white supremacy and achieve equity.
When President Michelle Martin invited me to join this panel, my initial impulse was to decline. I am not a children’s literature scholar, and only began researching racism in publishing after surviving a decade of rejection as a young writer. In fact, I finally accepted a life in the academy only after I finally accepted the fact that I was not going to sell my first novel for a six-figure advance. My academic training allows me to think critically—if not dispassionately—about race and representation within the field of children’s literature. But I know that for some, my critique of the publishing industry will automatically be dismissed as “sour grapes,” and it is true that I likely never would have investigated the players in this game had I succeeded in placing more of my manuscripts. As it is, despite winning a number of awards for my first picture book, Bird, about 80% of my work remains unpublished, and I admit that I began studying the industry in order to understand how so many editors could praise my writing and yet refuse to publish my work.
When I discovered that only 3% of children’s book authors published annually in the US were black, I abandoned my naïve assumption that publishing was a matter of merit; thanks to statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, I now had proof that the problem was institutional and systemic. Whatever others might think of my so-called “bad attitude” (I’m often dismissed as just another angry black woman), there was something much bigger and more sinister at play; black writers in North America face much steeper odds than the average white writer. As John K. Young explains in Black Writers, White Publishers (2006), “…what sets the white publisher-black author relationship apart is the underlying social structure that transforms the usual unequal relationship into an extension of a much deeper cultural dynamic. The predominantly white publishing industry reflects and often reinforces the racial divide that has always defined American society” (4).
I grew up in Canada on the outskirts of Toronto; I attended majority-white schools and then, after college, fled to NYC where I lived in a majority-black environment for the first time in my life. I immediately became immersed in and engaged with the culture and the struggles of “my people,” and vowed that I would never live as a “minority” ever again. But life after graduate school and outside of NYC required me to forsake that vow, and as I began teaching at majority-white institutions, I felt that all too familiar strangeness—the estrangement I experienced in my youth returned, along with all the defenses I acquired over the years in order to combat my own erasure. I was simultaneously conspicuous yet invisible as the only black professor in an all-white department, and/or the only feminist in a department full of patriarchal men, and/or the only unmarried, child-free, thirty-something artist on a short-term contract in a department full of driven, stressed out junior faculty desperately seeking tenure.
Now—here’s where things get a bit messy because I want to talk about the familiarity and strangeness of my estrangement, and then link that to dominance within the children’s publishing industry. To be estranged is “to be removed from customary environment or associations,” and so in that sense, I am not entirely estranged within the academy nor the publishing industry because the first twenty years of my life were spent in rooms much like this one. Majority-white spaces are, within the professional world, far too “customary” and so are familiar to people of color like me. Estrangement also means alienation, of course: “isolation from a group or an activity to which one should belong or in which one should be involved.” Estrangement can also involve the “loss or lack of sympathy;” and to estrange is “to arouse hostility or indifference where there had formerly been love, affection, or friendliness.” [Dr. King referred to segregation as a kind of estrangement: “Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?”]
Taken together, these definitions accurately describe my relationship to the children’s literature community. As a scholar and author, I feel as though I should belong and be involved, and yet I currently find myself experiencing a “loss or lack of sympathy” for those groups that claim to share my belief in the transformative power of books. And so when Michelle asked me to join this panel, I had my reservations because I know that when I speak the truth as “a person of a certain sensibility,” collegiality often vanishes. Michelle is the first black president of this association, and I feel she has already gone out on a limb by citing my 2011 ChLA conference paper in her membership letter. Like another first black president, she runs the risk of being accused of “tribalism,” and I do worry that she may be judged guilty by her association with me. I’ve found that since I began publicly critiquing racism in the children’s publishing industry in 2009, I have become something of a tar baby. It’s clear to me that I make people uncomfortable, not by “pulling an annoying little stunt” but by pointing out the ways white supremacy goes unchecked in the children’s literature community. I consider this discomfort necessary, however, for complacency is largely to blame for the current state of the industry. For decades, critiques have been made about the lack of equity in children’s publishing, yet here we are in the twenty-first century—so-called “minority babies” now make up the majority of births in the US, and yet 95% of books published for children annually are still written by whites, and these authors find their mirrors in the team of professionals who acquire, edit, publish, and market those books.
When I started blogging in 2008, I never anticipated that my blog would operate as a site of resistance. After reading my most recent essay on the kidlit community’s silence around the shooting of Trayvon Martin, a close friend who teaches at a women’s college in MN urged me yet again to compile all my essays in a book. I assured her, yet again, that I would do no such thing, though I briefly entertained the idea this past spring. My book proposal was also a bit “messy,” but attempted to combine two areas of interest: racism in publishing and African American speculative fiction for youth. Unlike my prospective editor, I felt the two topics were inextricably linked—indeed, I think any consideration of children’s literature should begin with an analysis of bias within the industry. It is a mistake to treat children’s literature as organic or naturally occurring when we all know that it is produced and therefore shaped by a commercial industry dominated by middle-class whites who are predominantly straight women.
And so, as I now turn to the depiction of trauma in African American picture books, I must begin with the problem of lack. How do I analyze books that do not exist, and how do I prove that racial dominance and discomfort are to blame? When Michelle approached me about this panel and I overcame my initial resistance, my first thought was to write something about lynching. My dissertation was on representations of rape and lynching in African American literature, and I have long been interested in the ability of children to comprehend the many race-based atrocities that fill this nation’s history. There are plenty of picture books about slavery and the Civil Rights movement—tragic scenarios, one could argue, that offer space for whites to function as saviors or at least as participants in a triumphant narrative. But where are the books about the brutal race riots in Tulsa and Rosewood and Newark and L.A.? African American children, women, and men were lynched for nearly a century in this country—where are the picture books to reflect that fact? Will there be a picture book to help children understand what happened to Trayvon Martin? Do we have enough picture books that address the mass incarceration of black men and the growing incarceration of black women? Do children in this country understand the holocaust that was the Middle Passage?
Kenneth Kidd argues that, “Since the early 1990s, children’s books about trauma, especially the trauma(s) of the Holocaust, have proliferated, as well as scholarly treatments of those books. Despite the difficulties of representing the Holocaust, or perhaps because of them, there seems to be consensus now that children’s literature is the most rather than the least appropriate literary forum for trauma work.”[iii] Acknowledging that African American novels about trauma “have yet to be reclaimed by the emergent field of trauma studies,” Kidd then concludes that “many if not most contemporary children’s books about African American life are historical and often traumatic in emphasis, so pervasive is the legacy of slavery, Reconstruction, and the fight for civil rights.”[iv]
Certainly, the devastating and lasting impact of enslavement, segregation, and the denial of voting rights manifests in the literature produced by African American authors. But again, it seems to me that the limited range of books by or about African Americans should not be read as proof of some organic impulse. If there appears to be a preoccupation with this traumatic history, we must at least consider the curatorial impact of editors who are almost exclusively nonblack. I know that I have twenty unpublished picture book manuscripts, and less than half deal with trauma but those stories about frolicking in the snow are rarely if ever requested by editors. My peers and I have often wondered whether those working in the children’s publishing industry prefer distant historical moments involving African Americans that, though undeniably traumatic, have some sort of “happy ending”—slavery was terrible, but brave white soldiers fought the Civil War to abolish it forever. Segregation was terrible, but brave white citizens marched to end it. Racism was terrible, but white voters elected Barack Obama!
Kidd argues that, “Of all contemporary genres of children’s literature, the picture book offers the most dramatic and/or ironic testimony to trauma, precisely because the genre is usually presumed innocent.”[v] He then points to the rapidity with which the US publishing industry produced picture books about 9/11, an event that Kidd calls “the ultimate and easily knowable affront to self and nation.”[vi] I haven’t been able to place my picture book manuscript about 9/11, “The Girl Who Swallowed the Sun.” Nor have I found a publisher willing to consider my story about lynching as a motivating factor behind the Great Migration. When I first started submitting the manuscript for Bird, it was rejected over and over—one editor at the Canadian press, Annick, declared that it was “too sad;” Lee & Low rejected the story twice before it won their New Voices Honor Award. When an established writer friend kindly put me in touch with her editor, my agent submitted An Angel for Mariqua, my chapter book manuscript about an unexpected friendship between a teen whose mother is dying of AIDS and a little girl whose mother is incarcerated. The feedback we received indicated that the editor found the protagonist’s anger uncomfortable and therefore unacceptable, even though the mentoring relationship that develops helps the little girl to manage her anger. An editor at Viking who read my time travel novel, A Wish After Midnight, which ends with an Afro-Panamanian teen and her Rastafarian boyfriend fleeing the NYC Draft Riots of 1863, declared it “unoriginal.” An easy way, perhaps, of side-stepping the issues of racial inequality and outright violence faced by African Americans in 1863 and 2001.
Laura Atkins has written several articles on the ways in which white privilege operates within the children’s publishing industry. Laura is a friend of mine, and she was the first editor who saw merit in my work and asked to meet face to face. Regrettably, Laura left publishing for academia, though she still manages to work as a freelance editor, often with writers of color who turned to self-publishing after finding themselves locked out of the mainstream publishing industry. Laura’s work led me to an essay by Joel Taxel, “Children’s Literature at the Turn of the Century: Toward a Political Economy of the Publishing Industry.” Taxel rightly contends that, “While obvious to those within the industry, the impact of the business side of children’s literature has not been given the sustained and systematic scrutiny it deserves by children’s literature scholars and the educational community in general.”[vii] Yet as thorough, important, and impressive as Taxel’s article is, his analysis of the corporatization of publishing includes only a limited consideration of racial dominance within the industry. He acknowledges that,
Fear of controversy undoubtedly has led some cross-cultural writers and their editors to stick to safer, simpler books or to avoid writing and publishing books with complex and divisive issues and themes (e.g., racial conflict, violence, sex and sexuality, etc)…Novels of this sort are anathema in many communities, especially in conservative times, and many teachers believe they would risk losing their jobs if they taught books that addressed issues of racial conflict and violence, sex and sexuality, etc. in their classrooms. Publishers are mindful of the way these attitudes impact sales.[viii]
I believe Taxel is correct to conclude that publishers are primarily concerned with profit, but what is left unsaid is the extent to which editors, marketers, teachers, and librarians may fear something other than diminished profits and/or the loss of their job. The books do not exist because the WILL does not exist to directly address this nation’s long history of white supremacy and white privilege. Just look at what’s happening in Arizona with the dismantling of the Mexican American Studies Program—its social justice and cultural heritage curriculum has been accused of generating “resentment toward a race or class of people,” meaning whites.
I have no doubt that some of you have been scribbling down titles that you feel must have escaped my attention. “What about Marilyn Nelson’s A Wreath for Emmett Till?” you will say. “Or Tom Feelings’ Middle Passage?” I call this phenomenon the “big fish, small pond” syndrome, which ensures that a handful of authors (writing approved and/or “daring” narratives) are celebrated while emerging talent often is left undiscovered and/or undeveloped. Arundhati Roy calls this the “new racism,” which she explains using this brilliant analogy:
Every year, the National Turkey Federation presents the US president with a turkey for Thanksgiving. Every year, in a show of ceremonial magnanimity, the president spares that particular bird (and eats another one). After receiving the presidential pardon, the Chosen One is sent to Frying Pan Park in Virginia to live out its natural life. The rest of the 50 million turkeys raised for Thanksgiving are slaughtered and eaten on Thanksgiving Day. ConAgra Foods, the company that has won the Presidential Turkey contract, says it trains the lucky birds to be sociable, to interact with dignitaries, school children and the press.
That’s how new racism in the corporate era works. A few carefully bred turkeys – the local elites of various countries, a community of wealthy immigrants, investment bankers, the occasional Colin Powell, or Condoleezza Rice, some singers, some writers (like myself) – are given absolution and a pass to Frying Pan Park.
The remaining millions lose their jobs, are evicted from their homes, have their water and electricity connections cut, and die of AIDS. Basically, they’re for the pot. But the fortunate fowls in Frying Pan Park are doing fine.
I don’t want a handful of books on the historical and ongoing trauma experienced by African Americans. One or two books about lynching will not suffice because those brutal murders were not an aberration; for too long in this country—all over this country—lynching was “the norm.” It did not disrupt everyday life; it was a regular part of it. I am reminded here of Laura S. Brown’s work on the gendering of trauma diagnosis, and how everyday experiences that devastate women—like incest, sexual assault, and harassment—did not constitute “an event outside the range of human experience” and so were not initially considered genuine causes of trauma. She explains:
“Human experience” as referred to in our diagnostic manuals, and as the subject for much of the important writing on trauma, often means “male human experience” or, at the least, an experience common to both women and men. The range of human experience becomes the range of what is normal and usual in the lives of men of the dominant class; white, young, able-bodied, educated, middle-class, Christian men. Trauma is thus that which disrupts these particular human lives, but no other. War and genocide, which are the work of men and male-dominated culture, are agreed-upon traumas; so are natural disasters, vehicle crashes, boats sinking in the freezing ocean.[ix]
This definition, Brown contends, has devastating consequences for women, and I would argue, equally damaging consequences for people of color who live with the effects of racism and social injustice on a daily basis:
What purposes are served when we formally define a traumatic stressor as an event outside of normal human experience and, by inference, exclude those events that occur at a high enough base rate in the lives of certain groups that such events are in fact, normative, “normal” in a statistical sense? I would argue that such parameters function so as to create a social discourse on “normal” life that then imputes psychopathology to the everyday lives of those who cannot protect themselves from these high base-rate events and who respond to these events with evidence of psychic pain. Such a discourse defines a human being as one who is not subject to such high base-rate events and conveniently consigns the rest of us to the category of less than human, less than deserving of fair treatment. (103)
And, therefore, less deserving of equal representation in children’s literature.
Yesterday I returned from a week-long trip to Nevis, the Caribbean island where my father’s family originates. I’m not exactly rugged, but I am Canadian—I grew up camping and romping around outdoors, and didn’t imagine I’d have any trouble hiking up Nevis Peak. However, this particular mountain—a dormant volcano covered in rainforest—was not at all what I expected. It was practically vertical, and scaling the mucky, rocky slope laced with roots proved too much for me. As my guide urged me on, I found myself repeating one question over and over in my mind: “Why am I doing this?” Nevis Peak is usually cloaked in fog, so when we turned back at the halfway point and returned to the base, my guide pointed out that we probably wouldn’t have been able to see much anyway. The next day I could barely walk—for DAYS I could barely walk. Every muscle in my body ached. “I’ll train and come back and climb this darn mountain!” I vowed. But then I thought, is that really the best use of my time and energy?
I have reached the same conclusion regarding the children’s publishing industry. I had hoped the US would follow the UK’s lead and adopt a Publishing Equalities Charter as implemented by DIPNET. But as far as I can tell, all we have so far is the Children’s Book Center’s new “Diversity Committee,” which is composed entirely of industry insiders whose primary goal, it seems, is not to collect data on hiring practices but to maintain a bibliography and “keep the conversation going.” Of course, you can keep talking without actually proposing anything new. Which is how I’m starting to feel. Bruce Sterling talks of a “parody of the mainstream”—I see this Diversity Committee as something of a parody, not in the sense that it intends to mock DIPNET, but that it is instead “a feeble or ridiculous imitation.”
I selected a number of quotes from Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to share with you, but I haven’t the time or energy to go through them all now. [Here’s one:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.]
I have decided instead to devote my time and energy from this point forward to finishing the two novels I have underway and the three new book projects I started this past spring. While in Nevis I followed the newly developed “Heritage Trail” but noticed there was little if any mention made of the experiences of the enslaved men and women who made the tiny island one of the richest sugar producers of the 18th century. When I asked about this I was told that the historical society’s membership consisted primarily of white expats from Canada, the US, and the UK. The island recently joined UNESCO’s Slave Route Project and they plan to develop a school curriculum around slavery in Nevis. I see a role for myself in that project, and I hope to have greater success “screwing around with convention” on that Caribbean island than I have had here in North America.
In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“The Trumpet of Conscience,” 1967]
[iii] Kenneth B. Kidd, “‘A’ is for Auschwitz: Psychoanalysis, Trauma Theory, and the ‘Children’s Literature of Atrocity,’” Children’s Literature, Volume 33, 2005, 120.
[iv] Kidd, 133-134.
[v] Kidd 137.
[vi] Kidd 137.
[vii] Taxel 146.
[viii] Taxel 179.
[ix] Laura S. Brown, “Not Outside the Range: One Feminist Perspective on Psychic Trauma,” in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, edited by Cathy Caruth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995) 101.