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If you didn’t attend the 2012 A Is for Anansi conference at NYU last weekend, you missed a chanced to meet the future president of the United States. Sirah Sow (left) was one of three outstanding teens that wowed the audience on Saturday morning’s “If I Ruled the World” panel. She and her aunt also attended the post-conference brunch where a smaller group of participants shared our impressions and suggestions with the two organizers, Jaira Placide and Rashidah Ismaili. Most of us agreed that our main challenge this year was attendance. The panels were tighter, the speakers were diverse and engaging, but ultimately we were preaching to the choir—and a small choir at that. It’s possible that the lingering effects of Hurricane Sandy prevented some local people from attending, though I met one determined attendee who knew she was coming whether or not her power was restored. The US publishing industry is based in NYC, and white editors claim they’re desperate to find more black writers, yet how many of those editors took advantage of this FREE event? Did the storm prevent ALL of the major kidlit journals from covering the conference? This year four legends in the field were honored: Ashley Bryan, Pat Cummings (right, photographed by Sandra Payne), Eloise Greenfield, and William Loren Katz. Will the readers of Horn Book, School Library Journal, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly get to read about the honoring of these literary luminaries? They deserve to know about this one-of-a-kind conference yet I didn’t see any press in attendance. When my panel was over, Dr. Meena Khorana approached me and asked for a copy of my paper; Dr. Khorana is the editor of Sankofa: a Journal of African Children’s and Young Adult Literature and they plan to cover the conference—but again, that’s preaching to the choir. How do we engage those who most need to hear our message? The presidential election is over, thank goodness, and the conversation has since turned to the shifting demographics in the US and the obvious anxiety of many members of the dominant group. In class I try to explain to my students that dominance isn’t tied to numbers—under slavery, small groups of whites controlled much larger groups of blacks. So when racial minorities combine to become the statistical majority in this country, it doesn’t automatically follow that whites will lose their dominance. White supremacy is so entrenched in our institutions that it will take decades to root it out. I think what we’re going to see over the next few years is a circling of the wagons—anxious whites fearing the loss of power and privilege will retreat further into their all-white world and do whatever they can to “keep the horde at bay.” Meanwhile, people of color and their allies will have to keep moving forward, holding fast to the belief that “we shall overcome someday.” On this rainy morning I’m not feeling particularly optimistic. But it was definitely energizing to spend the weekend with so many talented writers and scholars and activists (above: Tony Medina, Nnedi Okorafor, Michelle Martin, & me). Ibi Zoboi took this great shot of our fantasy panel, and I’m hoping she will do a write-up of the entire conference on her blog (below: me, Vicky Smith, Nnedi, Stacy Whitman, and Ivan Velez, Jr.).

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…and you’ll never work a day in your life.” I first heard this years ago, back when I was an avid NBA fan. Marc Jackson told a reporter that his father had given him that advice when he was young, and it made absolute sense to me at the time. I turned 40 a couple of weeks ago, however, and I now know that loving what you do doesn’t mean that you don’t work hard—it just means that at the end of a busy day you don’t feel defeated. You DO get tired, and some days you DO dread getting out of bed. But for the most part, having a job you love means you feel the time and energy you spend are an investment in something important. I spent last weekend in Columbia, South Carolina and was impressed over and over by the enthusiasm and dedication of the librarians and educators I met. On Friday I had dinner with three black women academics (Rachelle Washington, Michelle Martin, and Dianne Johnson) and a recent grad just starting her career in communications. It was an interesting moment—Jasmine laid out her plans for work/life/family and we elders talked about the need for self-care. Rachelle runs a “Sistah Doctah retreat” at Clemson University that provides mentoring and support for black women scholars and graduate students. There have been a lot of articles online lately about the specific challenges black women face in the academy. After my mid-week migraine I had to admit that self-care has not been high on my list of priorities this semester (I just had leftover cake for breakfast). I felt guilty lounging in a hotel room last weekend (I did grade midterms for a couple of hours) but I know that if I don’t slow down, eventually I’ll crash. The semester gets going and you try to “hold on” and “push through,” but that’s not healthy. I haven’t gotten any writing done lately, either, and that just makes me mean…

On Saturday I got some books at the Robert Mills Museum and then walked over to the Richland County Public Library to meet Michelle’s graduate students. They had compiled a list of more than *fifty* questions after reading Wish and we had a wide-ranging conversation about the novel, my writing process, and the challenges of getting published. I also got to learn about their literacy projects, which include books clubs, book drives, and puppetry! The library has its own puppet theater and I melted a little when I saw all their puppets hanging on the wall. I immediately recalled the raggedy old monkey puppet my mother saved for me when she retired from teaching. I need to figure out how to be the kind of professor who gets to play with puppets now and then. Or maybe I should’ve become a librarian! The ones I met in Columbia were so energetic—especially when talking to or about their teenage patrons. The best part of my author presentation was the Q&A and the two young women who talked about their own struggles with writing. “Did your parents support your decision to become a writer?” Uh—no! Not at all. They eventually came to tolerate my writing but you can’t expect *your* passion to mean as much to other people. I often say that being around teachers is like being around family, but the difference is that the teachers and librarians I meet *now* truly value my work. Having dinner with RCPL librarians Heather, Sherry, and Jennifer was a lot fun—we talked about Game of Thrones, trauma in picture books, having immigrant parents, and (of course) the election. Sunday was a day of rest and then I spent Monday at Westwood High School—a beautiful, brand new school just north of Columbia. My librarian host, Marti Brown, is also a student of Michelle Martin so she was familiar with my work and planned an amazing visit for me with her co-librarian Cathy. How often do you show up at a public school and find hot biscuits, grits, scrambled eggs, and bacon?! I ate my fill and then gave a short talk to a nice group of teachers—as long as their day is, they still showed up early to hear about my books. Then I gave a presentation to about three hundred students in the school’s state of the art auditorium—complete with cordless mic and remote so that I was able to roam around and still advance my slides (all tech stuff was handled by members of the broadcasting club!). I told the students later that I wished the kids in Brooklyn could see Westwood High—*every* child should be able to attend a school like that. Before leaving for the airport I had a pizza lunch with the book club and heard a powerful poetry performance by Marshay, the Miss Westwood pageant-winner. They sent me off with a portable Redhawk blanket that kept me warm on the chilly flight home…one of my best school visits ever.

It was lovely to be spoiled like that but it was also good to come home. Getting out of NYC wasn’t easy—we’re still recovering from “Superstorm Sandy” and it was hard to hail a cab since most of them were taken and/or were in line waiting for gas. I got gouged by the cabbie (and lectured on why I should have kids) but I made it to the airport on time and even made my connecting flight despite a one-hour delay leaving JFK. I stepped off the plane in Columbia and looked up at a clear, blue sky—there was sunshine and a strong breeze—and I felt a mixture of relief and guilt. Everyone I met asked how I had weathered the storm and I shared how blessed I felt not to have experienced any flooding or power loss. So many New Yorkers are still homeless, still without power and heat—and it’s FREEZING right now. We had a snowstorm yesterday and there are plenty of empty seats in my classroom because my students are struggling to recover from the storms. I woke up on Monday morning and there was no hot water in the hotel; I immediately went on Facebook and typed up a complaint to post on my feed and then had a reality check. This week has been rather overwhelming but I don’t have the additional challenges faced by those who live along the coast. I have heat, power, internet access, and food. I’m busy, but I’m also blessed. Trying to focus on that fact as I do what I can for those in need.

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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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I hope we’ll see you there! I will be moderating the fantasy panel on Saturday morning.

Institute of African American Affairs

New York University

presents

A Is for Anansi: Literature for Children of African Descent

“Africa, the Future, and the Urban Landscape”

November 9-10th, 2012

Location for all programs: Kimmel Center-NYU,

60 Washington Square South, E&L Auditorium, 4th Floor

“A Is for Anansi: Africa, the Future, and the Urban Landscape,” the second conference hosted by the Institute of African American Affairs, aims to deepen and diversify the cannon, conversation and scholarship of the literature as told by its most influential critics, scholars, teachers and producers. The need for more in-depth analysis and for more information, critical evaluation, and publications on this topic still remains. The conference will look at these and consider other questions and issues as well.

Keynote by Dr. Michelle H. Martin

Panels include Fantasy: The Final Frontier, Urban Landscapes, Africa Imagined

Panelists include: Nancy Tolson, William Loren Katz, Meena Khorana, Varian Johnson, Christine Taylor-Butler, Georgina Falu, Kathleen Horning, Zetta Elliott, Nnedi Okorafor,   Vicky Smith, Stacy Whitman, Ivan Velez, Jr., Tony Medina, Coe Booth, Terry Williams, K.C. Boyd,  Rashidah Ismaili, Elana Denise Anderson, Vivian Yenika-Agbaw, Anika Selhorst, Mohammed Naseehu Ali,  Katharine Capshaw Smith

Anansi Award will be presented to  Ashley Bryan, Pat Cummings, William Loren Katz, and Eloise Greenfield

Free and open to the public. Space is limited.
Please RSVP at (212) 998-IAAA (4222)
For more information please visit:
http://africanastudies.as.nyu.edu/object/IAAA-Anansi-2012.html

Schedule:

Friday, November 9th, 2012 – Opening Reception

6-6:30 pm
● Opening KEYNOTE

6:30-8:00 pm
● Perceptions and Realities:  When Color Blinds and Reveals
Perceptions of how notions of whiteness/blackness, both implicit and implied, are presented and their effects. Borrowing a page from Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, whiteness and blackness in the literary imagination.

Saturday, November 10th, 2012

Registration – 9-9:30 am

9:30 – 11:00 am
● Fantasy: The Final Frontier
The scarcity of fantasy/science-fiction books featuring children of African descent.

11:00 – 12:30 pm
● Children’s panel:   “If I Ruled the World”
As a teacher / publisher / writer / reader how they see themselves in the world and how they are depicted. If they were in control and in power/what would they teach, assign to read, defending it why and why not.

Lunch – 12:30 – 1:30 pm

1:30 – 3:00 pm
● Urban Landscapes: Stories for a Global World, Realism and Dominant Images
The lure of urban life and culture, its offerings and sacrifices. What the urban landscape does to the literature and vice versa. How the black urban experience is interpreted and reimagined. How does dwindling rural development and shifts to urban landscapes fragment and reconstruct lives and cultural retentions?

3:00 – 4:30 pm
● Africa Imagined
“What is Africa to me” remains a fundamental question in all Africana studies. How African culture is identified, constructed in the literature.

4:30 – 5:00 pm
CLOSURE/ROUND UP/SURVEY

5:00 PM
AWARD RECEPTION
● Tribute to Ashley Bryan, Pat Cummings, William Loren Katz, and Eloise Greenfield

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This past summer I had the chance to share my beloved Brooklyn with the amazing educator/blogger/author Ed Spicer. Filming in Prospect Park was a bit of a challenge (we’re in the flight path of 2 major airports) but Ed still managed to make a great short film—take a look!

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Sometimes people suck. On my way to the airport this morning I found myself making a mental list of the people in Canada who could do something significant about youth violence but who instead choose not to use the power they’ve got to stand up for our kids. I worked myself into quite a funk and realized—yet again—that I can’t wait for those with power to do the right thing. As a friend from Montreal pointed out, we’re going to have to address the problem ourselves. As always.

I was still pretty cranky on the plane but my seatmate, Sylvia, was warm and friendly—when I told her about my father only returning to Nevis twice after leaving as a teen, she admitted she hadn’t been back since 1970! The plane was packed, as was the ferry coming over from St. Kitts; everybody’s in town for Culturama. I was just making the mental transition from “people suck” to “crowds suck” when a pretty little girl came up to me at the airport and asked, “Are you Aunty Zetta?” And from that moment on I remembered that sometimes—even most times—people ROCK. I met Carol Ottley-Mitchell online about a year ago, I think; she was living in Ghana at the time, but shared her fabulous children’s books with me (which are set in St. Kitts) and we swapped stories of our respective struggles to provide kids with culturally and historically relevant material. When I told Carol about the book fair in Nevis, she emailed me back and offered to meet me at the airport; her lovely daughter joined us for lunch at The Ballahoo, which overlooks a busy roundabout in Basseterre. Over a delicious meal we talked about self-publishing, living a transnational life, and which services would best serve the youth of SKN. I met Carol’s parents, got signed copies of her books, and I even got a cheap little cell phone to use while I’m in Nevis. While walking through town we ran into Mrs. Daniel, intrepid organizer of the inaugural book fair. Later she and I took the ferry over to Nevis and on the pier I was introduced to half a dozen people. My landlord was waiting for me in a bright red shirt with “Canada” printed across it. If you look at that photo of the restaurant in St. Kitts you can see a sign for Scotia Bank on the far left…they also have CIBC (another Canadian bank). I’m still thinking about the gun violence in Toronto and the alienation that leads *some* young people down such a destructive path. I grew up in a different city, and my childhood friend sums up the way I feel in this earnest letter to the city’s most recent victims:

I’m sorry that I didn’t have the privilege of knowing you. I’m sorry that you were killed so horribly, so inexcusably, by stupid men with guns. And I’m sorry if now, in death, both you and those you loved are being blamed.

I’m sorry if you have grown up in a city and in a land where it is easier for some to offer hurtful words about immigrants and their children than it is to express simple sadness for your deaths. I’m sorry if your family and those surrounding you are dealing not only with unfathomable grief, but also with the bigotry and cynical politicking that preys so eagerly upon the suffering of others.

The truth is, as angry as I get at those who sit back and do nothing to defend children of color in Toronto, I can’t deny the fact that I’m not there doing something—anything—for the kids who can’t escape the city I was able to abandon. Guilt sucks and it doesn’t get us anywhere. I was planning to visit Toronto sometime this fall—think I better get there sooner rather than later. Ah, the transnational life…

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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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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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For the month of May you can get 100 titles on Amazon for $3.99 or less! And I’m happy to announce that Ship of Souls is included in this great promotion. I did three school presentations today, and a librarian at one school held up her copy of SoS and asked, “Is this a true story? It feels so real!” She also said she’ll never see Prospect Park the same way now that she’s read about the nether beings…

Jen Doll has followed up her all-white list of greatest girl characters in YA with another article on “The Ongoing Problem of Race in YA.” I sent her an email after the first piece ran, and others must have shared their concerns as well because she did her homework this time:

It is a sad truth that each girl in my recent list of “The Greatest Girl Characters of All Time” are white. It shouldn’t be that way—but those are the books most of us of a certain age (and class and race) read growing up. The black characters we did get in our books were often peripheral, or were caricatures—or possibly, made to stand as a statement, to educate, to teach a diversity lesson. The latter is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a bad thing if it’s the only way races other than white are portrayed, and continues to be so.

My own essay on the relationship between the murder of Trayvon Martin and racism in children’s publishing is now up on The Huffington Post. Visit your local bookstore and see how many books YOU can find that feature a black male protagonist…

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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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