Archive for the ‘feminism’ Category

imagesRoses are still blooming in the garden. I hadn’t been to the botanic garden in over a month but the shooting in Newtown, CT made me long for solitude. Some of the paths were blocked off due to uprooted trees, but despite the devastation I still felt soothed by the leafless trees. A tufted titmouse peeked out at me from the braided wisteria  and I spotted another new breed while running in the park yesterday. I went to see The Hobbit on Sunday and then came home and watched Lord of the Rings. I want out—I want a way out of the nightmare that our society has become. Right now there’s a conversation on the radio about mental illness but I haven’t yet heard anyone say we need to have a conversation about GENDER. Women don’t commit these crimes. Earlier this semester I had an unstable male student and for weeks I worried he might come to class armed. He was suspended in October but I still keep an eye out for him—we have no real security on campus and the officer I filed a report with was sanctioned (I think) just for admitting this male student had a history with campus security. The administration was so anxious to protect HIS privacy, but what about OUR safety? He was suspended years ago and then readmitted, and almost immediately started to have problems in all his classes. When he allegedly attacked a female student in my other class, I filed a report and that finally got him removed. Today I opened my email and found a lewd message from another male student. I suspect his account was hacked, but still—in my mind it’s all part of the same problem. Looking forward to being in London soon…yes, it’s more escapism, but sometimes you have to believe there really is a way out…

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The Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College
of City University of New York

Call for Papers
Honoring the Life and Work of Toni Cade Bambara
Sponsored by the National Black Writers Conference
2013 Biennial Symposium

Saturday, March 30, 2013
Founders Auditorium, Medgar Evers College
10 a.m. – 6 p.m.

Toni Cade Bambara (1939-1995), author of such titles as Gorilla, My Love, The Salt Eaters, and Those Bones Are Not My Child, was a remarkable writer, social activist, educator, feminist, and filmmaker. The legacy of her contributions to the African-American literary canon has rightfully earned her the distinguished reputation of being not only a gifted story teller but also an amazing truth teller.
We invite proposals on one of the following topics:

(1)  The authenticity of portraits of Black women and children as agents for social and political change as they are represented in Bambara’s short stories and novels.
(2) The significance of Bambara’s work as a community advocate and how her travels abroad helped to define her role as an activist and a feminist.
(3)  The impact of Toni Cade Bambara’s works on the African-American and American literary canon

Interested faculty, independent researchers, and students should forward a one- to two-page proposal with literature references by January 15, 2013, E-mail to: writers@mec.cuny.edu.

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It’s Thanksgiving weekend up in Canada, which usually makes me crave Stove Top stuffing and pumpkin pie. This year I actually haven’t thought of holiday food, in part because I have some Canadian friends in town and instead we’ve been catching up on politics. I realize that one way to minimize job stress is to spend a couple of days NOT grading, NOT developing lesson plans, and NOT attending work-related events. The latter is especially hard to do—on Saturday I went to the Brooklyn Museum with friends to see the Mickalene Thomas exhibit, which is phenomenal. I saw one of my students, which I expected, since I offered extra credit to my Black Women in the Americas class. I walked out of the gallery feeling an overwhelming sense of pride—Thomas is brilliant and I’m sure my students will be blown away by her glittering portraits of black women.

I haven’t managed to do any writing this month, which is disappointing. But I was heartened to learn that Teaching for Change has a fantastic post on Banned Books Week and the OTHER barriers to equal expression:

Government censorship, of course, is just one element that determines what we can and cannot read. People often overlook another cultural phenomenon that can have a similar effect: publishing industry censorship. Each year there is a scarcity of excellent children’s picture books published. Missing are titles that reflect the realities of students’ lives and communities while encouraging children to think beyond the headlines.

The data bears out our suspicion: Researchers at the University of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center find the number of books by and about people of color fluctuating and decreasing slightly, at the same time that children in the United States increasingly come from families of color. This doesn’t mean that those books aren’t being written—rather publishers refuse to seek them out or reject them, fearing they lack universal appeal, or as one frustrated former editor laments, fail to speak to “the lowest common denominator.” Zetta Elliott, author of the award-winning children’s book Bird, writes on her blog that she is fighting to find publishers for her many children’s book manuscripts. Some are “slice of life stories.” Others, like Bird, speak sensitively to childhood trauma.

The post concludes with a list of wonderful books that have since gone out of print. It’s a wonderful resource for teachers and parents seeking books that truly reflect the diversity of our society.

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Pushing back against a migraine this morning. I’m still working on this essay, which I said I would submit on Friday. I hate missing my own deadlines but know this paper needs a couple more days to cohere. I finally figured out which voice to use. That sounds odd, but I can’t write anything remotely academic until I establish who I am and where I stand in relation to these texts in this particular moment. Somewhere in the footnotes I’m going to have to admit that contributing to this anthology is preventing me from finishing my latest novel—which pisses me off. But it’s my own fault for saying yes when I should have said no. The paper is a bit like “Hot Mess” in that I’m writing about incongruity, incompatibility, and nonbelonging…which sets the stage for magic.

Did anyone see the Audre Lorde film that was screened at Weeksville last night? They posted this photo on their Facebook page and I just had to post it here:

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I woke up this morning with my introduction written out in my mind. It shouldn’t have taken me this long to turn to black feminist writer June Jordan, and thinking about my favorite poem of hers reminded me of the James Baldwin quote I used for the title of my dissertation: “the terror of trees and streets.”

Even tonight and I need to take a walk and clear
my head about this poem about why I can’t
go out without changing my clothes my shoes
my body posture my gender identity my age
my status as a woman alone in the evening/
alone on the streets/alone not being the point/
the point being that I can’t do what I want
to do with my own body because I am the wrong
sex the wrong age the wrong skin and
suppose it was not here in the city but down on the beach/
or far into the woods and I wanted to go
there by myself thinking about God/or thinking
about children or thinking about the world/all of it
disclosed by the stars and the silence:
I could not go and I could not think and I could not
stay there
as I need to be
alone because I can’t do what I want to do with my own
body and
who in the hell set things up

like this

Which bodies belong in which spaces? Our age, race, gender, and sexual orientation too often determine where we’re able to find sanctuary. I’ve read almost half of Ruth Chew’s books and won’t have any trouble comparing hers to mine, but need to begin with a consideration of the way African Americans relate to nature. In Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, editor/poet Camille Dungy reflects on the trauma of enslavement (and lynching) and its impact on the way blacks engage with the natural world:

    African Americans are tied up in the toil and soil involved in working this land into the country we know today. Viewed once as chattel, part of a farm’s livestock or an asset in a banker’s ledger, African Americans developed a complex relationship to land, animals, and vegetation in American culture. (xxii)

Given the active history of betrayal and danger in the outdoors, it is no wonder that many African Americans link their fears directly to the land that witnessed or abetted centuries of subjugation. (xxvi)

Even during the most difficult periods of African American history, the natural world held potential to be a source of refuge, sustenance, and uncompromised beauty. (xxv)

I’ve got a few more articles to read on the development and design of urban parks, and the memorialization of the dead…writing an essay is like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. Not exactly fun, but challenging and—if it coheres—satisfying. Scheduling a midday break at the museum…


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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.

[Final slide:

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]

[i]Slipstream” by Bruce Sterling.

[ii]On the Net: Slipstream” by James Patrick Kelly.

[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.

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Ever since Downton Abbey wrapped up in February, I’ve been missing the Sunday night teas I hosted at my apartment. Luckily, I wasn’t the only one experiencing “Brit flick” withdrawal, and so last night “the girls” reconvened at my place to watch the conclusion of Great Expectations on PBS. I missed Game of Thrones, but found that two of the characters in GE were in Season 1 of GOT. And at the end of the day—when our post film discussion wrapped up at midnight—I realized that our gatherings aren’t really about whatever’s on TV. The three of us are writers and professors; we’re all trying to finish our respective books, and we all find ourselves—as women of color—having to stop what we’re doing to educate others about race. At one point, one of my guests said, “Sometimes I just think people SUCK!” And I laughed because I’d had the exact same thought earlier in the day. I declined an invitation to attend my friend’s church and instead went to the park to enjoy the sunshine and blue sky and excited chattering of birds building nests high up in the trees. On my way to the park a seagull swooped down from above and I smiled to myself because the night before I purchased my ticket to Nevis. In mid-June I’ll spend one week researching my family roots and plotting out my first adult novel since One Eye Open (tentatively titled The Hummingbird’s Tongue). Seeing seagulls in Brooklyn always reminds me that we’re on the sea—that despite all the concrete, I live on an island, too, so perhaps my return to Nevis won’t be quite so jarring. I circled the park, immersed in my own daydreams, trying to block out the animated conversations of other Brooklynites. “So many people,” I thought to myself, “I wish they’d go away.” But you can’t avoid people on the weekends. So I headed home and then my heart sank as I spotted a pair of wings on the ground. I didn’t let myself stop because it was clear that someone had ripped the wings off a toffee-colored pigeon—the wings themselves were lovely, but then I saw the tufts of flesh clinging to the exposed bones and made myself walk on. Who does that? And why? I went home and stayed sullen for most of the afternoon. Made myself start work on the latest academic paper (“No novel-writing for you, missy”), and then baked cookies for my guests. Drizzled honey over some strawberries and washed the teapot, cups, and saucers. I took something to ward off a gathering headache and then my friends arrived and we dove into a recap of our respective weeks. At 11pm I changed the channel to HBO but found our conversation too compelling and so hit mute after the theme music for GOT had played. Somehow we started talking about being confrontational and I reminded my friends that I’m conflict averse. They laughed. “You’re always telling people off!” I wasn’t indignant, but I was genuinely surprised. I *hate* conflict. I don’t even like people all that much, and I certainly don’t want to spend my limited social time bickering with idiots. I believe in “strategic silence” but I know that if you always back down, the people who tear wings off helpless birds will run things. And that’s not the world I want to live in.

If you haven’t seen it already, check out this Atlantic article on “The Greatest Girl Characters in Young Adult Literature.” As many of the commenters pointed out, half the books are technically middle grade novels, but my main concern is that not ONE of the characters listed is a girl of color. Yasmin and Erica interviewed me last summer about whitewashing in YA lit, and their fantastic article has been published in the latest issue of Teen Voices. You can subscribe, or check it out at your local library. I sent the link to the author of the Atlantic article. Why not send her your comments and suggestions, too?

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Yesterday was not my best teaching day. I try to let my students express themselves in class, and I try to listen patiently even when problematic ideas are coming out of their mouths. After all, the point is to figure out where they’re starting from—what they know now so that we can try to move forward together. I’m usually ok if they disagree with me on something—so long as they can back it up. But when we’re talking about sensitive issues (like homosexuality) I find I sometimes lose my patience. Yesterday was one of those days. I knew we had fifteen minutes left in class and I didn’t want to “go there” when it was clear that this one particular student wasn’t ready to reconsider her position. So I left her there and moved on. Didn’t feel good about it, but I had another class to teach and a faculty film group to facilitate after that…and there will be opportunities later in the semester to revisit the subject. I got back to my office after the faculty group wrapped up and another student from that class had sent me this email:

Good afternoon Professor Elliot, I’m _____ from your noon class on Tuesday and Thursday and I just wanted to say that I’m really enjoying this class. I almost didn’t sign up for it but I’m happy i did. You are a excellent professor and I’m really learning more in this class than my others. By the way this Isn’t sucking up or anything I’m just showing that i have interest in your class.

Sounds like sucking up to me, but you know what? I really needed to hear that yesterday! Attendance in my morning class was down by about a third, and I couldn’t help but wonder if students skipped class because they didn’t want to talk about homosexuality. I need to do better. And I’ll try, though this semester is proving to be much harder than I thought. On Monday I got this sweet email from a former student, which reminded me of the long-term impact great teaching can have:

I am SO happy to hear you are still teaching and showing some of the materials you used for us at MHC; I really cannot even begin to tell you how much your courses continue to help me. It is really crazy to see how so many students have never spoken about or taken any classes on race relations in the US or on Black studies/Black history at an education school like ____ of all places; so, I find myself longing for and appreciating the work we did in your courses at MHC all the time. I am using so many of the readings from both of your courses, particularly from the Black Studies Reader, Tricia Rose articles, and poems from Amiri Baraka to conduct a literature review on work regarding ethnic studies courses, hip hop collegians, and language (particularly signifying–to this day, the most fascinating thing I ever learned, so thank you!) Please stay in touch and let your students know just how incredibly fortunate they are to have you as their Professor. Best of luck with the launch of your new book!

So tomorrow I’ll put on my new school marm dress and try to get it right. I did learn yesterday that I got a travel grant to help pay for my trip to France, so I’m going to focus on the positive and keep pressing on…

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I’m not a spontaneous person. In fact, I have anxiety issues, which means I try to plan as much of my life as possible. I walk with an umbrella in case it rains. I have a mini pharmacy in my purse to deal with any health emergency. When I travel, I use Hop Stop to plan my trip. I also live off-peak as much as possible—I avoid rush hour on weekdays and avoid the trains altogether on weekends because that’s when track work takes place. Well, yesterday I was uncharacteristically late (thirty minutes late!) for a wonderful Homecoming event up in Harlem. Hop Stop said to take the C train, but that runs local and I wasn’t going to take a local train from one end of the city to the other. So I went to the station only to learn that the Q wasn’t running. So I waited on the packed platform for the shuttle train to arrive; did some mental calculations and decided to take the 4 since it runs express. Except when I got to the next station, the 4 train was running local. So I took the 2, which runs local in Brooklyn but goes express in Manhattan. Except this 2 got to Manhattan and ran local. So I switched to the A at 42nd and finally got to 145th—late. On the way home, I took the A express again, then switched to the local C train in Brooklyn–and it ran express. Sigh. If I hadn’t just spent three hours with some remarkable young women, I might have gone off on somebody. Or I have might have gone for a big slice of cake. But the positive energy of the homecoming event (and closing cupcakes) kept me calm and instead I came home to reflect on all I’d learned. Cidra M. Sebastien, Associate Director of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, wrote a great summary on Facebook last night:

So what happens when a world-traveling private chef, author-professor, DJ-filmmaker, actress-playwright, physician-activist, young mothers’ advocate, and a professor-author-music connoisseur are in the same room sharing their life stories?

The practical and the fantastical.

Here are selected gems the circle of women shared…

* The distance between where you are and where you want to go is shorter than the distance between where you started and where you are.

* Birds remind me to look up…Keep your feet on the ground and look up.

* You might try and fail but success is about endurance.

* Fear will paralyze you. Don’t make decisions based on fear.

* Never fail to stand up for what you believe in.

* Daydream.

* Usually the most difficult thing you choose to do is the right thing to do. And will bring rewards.

I’m sure you can guess which piece of advice came from me. When I learned that invited guests would be asked to give a 2-3 minute speech on the theme “Building Your Wings,” I naturally sat down at my computer and wrote a speech about birds. But as I sat in the circle and listened to the other guests sharing their advice, I realized that I wasn’t meant to deliver a formal speech. So I had to improvise. I *suck* at improvising. I tried to remember part of what I’d written and then I realized I was rambling so I just stopped talking and resolved to be better prepared next time. But maybe what I really need is to let go of the need to be prepared all the time. I want to be better at thinking on my feet, which is hard because I’m accustomed to sitting at this laptop with the ability to cut and paste. I spent the afternoon sharing my college experiences and listening to the young women in Sister Sol—they were so honest and earnest. And bright! They reminded me of my students and I wondered how many young women have a support group to help them get through life? We all need mentors, we all need a space to ask questions and search for answers. I learned a lot from the other guests as well—that first point is especially important, I think. It’s easy to get caught up in all the things you *want* to achieve, but don’t forget to draw strength from the distance you’ve already traveled. Take time to acknowledge the progress you’ve made in life. My anxiety issues are better than they once were, and I can practice spontaneity while still being moderately prepared. The advice I needed to hear as a teen? You don’t have to be perfect. And forgive yourself when you fail.

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If you don’t already follow the Crunk Feminist Collective, you should! I’ve just started my holiday baking (check out my guest post over at Crazy Quilts) so I especially appreciated this recent post on feminist gift-giving practices:

This holiday I would like to actively engage in a more feminist practice of gift giving. I want to give presents that affect the people I love the way these presents have affected me. I don’t want to just give presents: I want to give lasting memories.  Also, the less people I oppress, the better.

Some ideas I came up with:

  • Support local craft fairs and purchase hand made items by local [women] artists
  • Print one of your favorite photographs in black & white and frame it
  • A CD of all of the top ten songs on the radio the year your loved one was born
  • Spread the feminist love by giving a young adult a book written by a woman of color feminist author
  • Make a book of coupons with redeemable actions: hugs, chores, homemade dinners, back rubs, quickies, etc.
  • Compile a cookbook of your families’ most cherished recipes and include a brief bio of every cook
  • Make a homemade calendar full of your favorite family photographs that highlights all the birthdays
  • Seeds, pots, and soil so that they can plant their favorite flowers or start their own vegetable garden
  • For the new parents: children’s books that feature people of color
  • Dance classes
  • An autographed copy of your loved ones favorite book
  • Write their autobiography :o
  • Interview family members and ask them to share their favorite holiday memories, make a compilation and give everyone a copy
  • Make jars full of dry (organic) ingredients of their favorite cookies

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