Every time the crises facing our youth make the news, I wait (in vain) for the children’s literature community—and its institutions especially—to issue a statement about their commitment to social justice. But the truth is, many in the kidlit community here in the US are NOT committed to social justice and so perhaps feel it is “not their place” to comment on the murder of Trayvon Martin and the problematic profiling of so many youth of color. As scholar/urban librarian Vanessa Irvin Morris points out on her blog,
…any librarian who is worth their education in gold, will at times, embrace a social stance for justice, that will be based on belief and experience – not someone else’s facts and references. We’re talking about real life here, and librarians do live it. If a librarian tells you otherwise – go to another library. Seriously.
I’ve been in a funk lately and felt I ought to write something about the verdict but didn’t really have much to say. There’s a lot of commentary out there, but I was gratified to see my HuffPo article, “Trayvon—Killed by an Idea,” reposted by some friends on Facebook. Over a year ago I wrote,
Imagine what it might mean if those same professionals took a moment to consider what they owe Trayvon Martin and all the other teens of color who don’t see themselves reflected in young adult literature. Imagine what it might mean if they realized that a broader range of images in books might have created a different set of assumptions in the mind of George Zimmerman (or Anders Breivik). I wish publishers recognized that they have the power to help undo the distortions that are destroying our youth.
I feel like I write the same thing over and over again and nothing seems to change. Fortunately, my friend Swati Khurana directed my attention to this encouraging blog post in which a white reader testifies to the power of books she read as a child to foster empathy for others who seem different. In “I Am Not Trayvon Martin. But I Can Be in My Imagination. And That Would Have Made All the Difference,” she writes:
Of course, like all of us, I look at the world through the prism of my experience and who I am. But literature helps me move beyond that “bubble of me” and look at how life is for someone else…So I can be Trayvon Martin in my imagination. I can put myself in his place. He isn’t “other” to me, even though I am a middle aged White woman.
I wish George Zimmerman could have been Trayvon in his imagination. That he could have looked carefully beyond his first impression. That he could have thought about whether he was scaring Trayvon by doing what amounted to stalking him. If he could have seen Trayvon as a kid, not as a “an asshole” or a “f*cking punk”.
I think my study of Literature helps me do this. But Literature is just stories. And sometimes powerful stories just come out of people’s mouths. Or appear on sites like this one. We need to listen. Not just to the words. But to use our imagination to truly feel what another person might feel, how another person’s experience and frame of reference might be different from yours, how you might be making a mistake in the way you are judging someone else.
(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)