My website’s getting an overdue overhaul and it’s been challenging to find a “look” that represents who I am as a writer. There will be purple, of course, but I originally wanted a “plantation ruins” aesthetic that proved hard to achieve. My designer asked for a quote for the site and I was initially stumped but finally went with a line uttered by Genna in A Wish After Midnight: “I don’t know which matters more—where the seed comes from, or where it takes root and grows.” I realized that I wanted my ancestor photos to appear on the site because they are my source—folks from Canada, Nevis, and the US. I just tidied up the ancestor wall in my apartment and framed a “new” photo that my uncle gave me a couple of years ago; Ellen Gowland (above) married my great-great-grandfather James Henry Allen, and one of her sisters married one of his brothers. Ellen’s white family was so appalled at her marriage to a Black man that they moved and changed their surname (to Golden, I think). Unreal. James wouldn’t allow himself to be photographed because he didn’t want his descendants to be ashamed…what I wouldn’t give to see his face! That tells you just how racist Canada was (is); it was so hard being Black that he decided the family would gradually leave their blackness behind and “pass” for white. Some of James’ and Ellen’s kids could pass for white but some could not; my great-grandfather Richard Allen fell into the latter category. I don’t know if he’d be proud of me—I don’t know if he hated blackness or just the way Blacks were disadvantaged throughout Canadian society. I wish I had more photographs of my Caribbean family. My mother took me and my sister to a professional portrait studio when I was about 6 months old; apparently I was sensitive to bright light even back then because the photographer’s flash left me wide-eyed for hours…
In other news, here’s the cover for my latest book:
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I’m not sure when I stopped caring whether people thought of me as “nice.” I’ve known for a long time that I’m not “sweet,” and I know some people find me intimidating because I’ve learned from so many Black feminists before me that “your silence will not protect you.” Yesterday morning I got back from Sacramento and despite jet lag went out in the evening to celebrate a friend’s 40th birthday. On the train ride home we were acting very silly and laughing hard and loud. I asked her why she doesn’t want to call herself middle-aged as I proudly do, and she replied that unlike me, she hadn’t always been invested in seeming older. I skipped a grade when I was 6 so I did spend much of my early academic life thinking a lot about my age; I knew I could compete academically, but I was afraid of doing socially inappropriate things that might lead people to realize I was younger than my peers. In college age only mattered because I stayed underage longer than my friends, but since I didn’t drink anyway, it wasn’t such a big deal. Somewhere in my thirties I started wishing I looked older; almost all of my friends have very visible grey hair and I’ve got just two white strands that can hardly be seen amidst my copious curls. I don’t like being underestimated and I think if I looked my age, perhaps people would stop referring to me as “a young woman,” which is what people call me right before they dismiss me or express amazement over my abilities. I should be articulate. I should be forthright. I should call out b.s. when I see it. I should speak up when something appears unjust. Why do people expect anything less?
I haven’t read any of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, but I read an interview with him recently where he summed up his latest theory about people who are disruptive in the best possible way. This is the gist of his theory: 1) be completely indifferent to what people say about you (disruptors “are what psychologists call disagreeable—they do not require the approval of their peers in order to do what they think is correct.” 2) develop an active imagination—reimagine the world by reframing the problem in a way no one has framed it before. 3) reframe the problem to remove constraints so that you can act with urgency.
It can be challenging when you’re surrounded by people who don’t share your sense of urgency. Day 1 of Kidlitcon was fabulous because right from the start I found attendees who seemed like potential disruptors. After years of chatting online, I finally got to meet Multiculturalism Rocks! blogger Nathalie Mvondo (on right with librarian/blogger Edith Campbell) and her opening panel was fantastic. Unlike traditional conferences, Kidlitcon had a very open format—presenters often started by asking for audience input and the code of conduct probably wasn’t necessary because almost all the attendees were women, which means conversations were conducted with courtesy and consideration. By Day 2, I noticed more attendees expressing a desire not to be “too negative,” which is unfortunate because sometimes rigor demands that we abandon the (socialized) urge to be pleasant and positive all the time. After the We Need Diverse Books panel, my friend and fellow publishing industry disruptor Laura Atkins and I had to take a walk around the block to blow off some steam. The night before we’d had dinner with Edi, Maya Gonzalez, and her beautiful family; we scarfed down tasty vegetarian food and lingered over apple spice cake drizzled with cider syrup…it felt very indulgent and yet also very necessary. So few people truly embrace change and aren’t afraid to be disruptive. I forget that sometimes because I’ve been a “troublemaker” within my family for decades and most of my friends are outspoken feminists of color. We tend not to wait. We don’t “go slow.” We try to build the reality we see in our dreams. Of course, everyone has to follow her own path and I left Sacramento reminding myself that what’s urgent to me won’t ever be urgent to everyone else. But we did meet new allies and I’m especially encouraged by the 20-somethings at Kidlitcon who seem poised to turn their anger into action. Watch out for the Twinjas’ Diverse Blog Tour and brace yourself for the unfiltered reflections of Sarah Hannah Gómez. And don’t count out we middle-aged mamas who are still plotting revolution offline…
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Kidlitcon is just a few days away and I’m working on my panel presentation, which means I’m gathering up all the bits and pieces that explain why I do what I do. I’m a bit of a mess these days. On Sunday the protestors singing a “Requiem for Mike Brown” brought me to tears; the night before I pulled out my Sarah Vaughan CD and got misty while writing about my father in the introduction to an article I later scrapped. Late last week there was quite a dust up over at the Horn Book blog when Roger Sutton decided to explain why there’s no place for self-published books in his elite review journal. He subsequently offered a “Selfie Sweepstakes,” which I won’t be entering, but the debate at least made me clarify my point of view and connected me with some sympathetic folks online. And yesterday I heard from Amy Martin at the Oakland Public Library; last spring she and other librarians explained the importance of shelving books, which prompted me to resize three of my recently published titles. As Amy explains on the OPL blog, Max Loves Muñecas! now meets their formatting standards and will hopefully be on the shelves soon…
I just read an article about a study that shows whites are becoming less supportive of diversity initiatives as people of color shift from minority to majority status in the US. This piece will definitely become part of my Kidlitcon talk:
The researchers say the results are related to whites feeling threatened in a way that is distinct from their concerns about economic competition or clashing cultural values. They concluded that the demographic changes are threatening whites’ sense that they best represent the American identity.
“Whites have long benefited from being seen as the ethnic group that best represents what it means to be American,” said Huo, a faculty member in the UCLA College. “Thinking about a future in which whites are no longer a numerical majority threatens this claim to the American identity and, we have found, results in a reluctance to embrace diversity and greater support for newcomers to assimilate to American society.”
The “threat to identity,” Danbold said, is often overlooked in discussions about why whites are uneasy about changing demographics.
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On Thursday I was sitting at my desk listening to NPR when they announced Attorney General Eric Holder’s resignation. I felt my eyes filling with tears and immediately thought of W.E.B. DuBois’ decision to surrender his U.S. passport and move to Ghana after a lifetime of fighting for social justice. Holder insists he hasn’t been pushed out by Republicans who have been calling for his resignation for years; it seems his wife was worried about his health and God knows his body must be weary from fighting the good fight for 6 years in D.C. Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time inside my head and when I return to the real world I see or hear an echo—a ghost. Holder conjures DuBois, Viola Davis fights back when the NY Times calls her ugly and I think about Audre Lorde’s important reminder: “For to survive in the mouth of this dragon we call america, we have had to learn this first and most vital lesson––that we were never meant to survive. Not as human beings.” Yesterday I met a friend and her mother to tour the beautiful new center at Weeksville. The corner lot that was once a stretch of grass has been completely transformed and yet I remembered my former self standing outside the old chain link fence, gazing at the Hunterfly Road houses and dreaming up A Wish After Midnight back in 2001. I remembered taking the very first printed copy of the novel to the women who worked there and never getting a response; sending more copies in the years that followed and still nothing. Yesterday we took a tour and our graduate student guide was so warm and enthusiastic, engaged in her own study of textiles from the 19th century. Then we went over to the new building and the new executive director came up to us and asked, “Are you all teachers?” She gave us educational material, offered us some cookies, and seemed genuinely excited when I offered to send her a copy of Wish. In November I’ll be on an Afrofuturism panel, which has me thinking about the blues motif of “repetition with variation.” We do seem to be trapped in a cycle…another Black teenager was shot dead by cops in Louisiana. The cops who shot a Black man holding a toy gun in Walmart won’t face charges. Two young Black women were killed in Florida—left bound and naked on the side of the road—and no one’s rallying or rioting. But these ghosts and echoes aren’t only proof of repetition (the more things change…). They’re opportunities for variation, for creating a different outcome or a different response to a recurring event. If you face rejection over and over again, you can choose/try not to internalize the implied message of worthlessness. As Viola Davis explains,
I’ve heard that statement [less classically beautiful] my entire life. Being a dark-skinned black woman, you heard it from the womb. And “classically not beautiful” is a fancy term for saying ugly. And denouncing you. And erasing you. Now … it worked when I was younger. It no longer works for me now. It’s about teaching a culture how to treat you. Because at the end of the day, you define you.
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It’s the first full day of fall and I’m in hibernation mode. I finished a grant application yesterday, which means I woke up today with nothing pressing to do. I decided to see a matinee of The Skeleton Twins and loved it, but found myself wondering whether people from functional families would appreciate it, too. The film is about two siblings who haven’t spoken in 10 years; just as the sister is about to commit suicide she gets a call from a hospital in LA—her brother tried to slit his wrists. We learn that their father took his own life, too, and their mother is a narcissistic hippie who blows in and out of their lives whenever it suits her. When I read the summary this morning, I knew it was my kind of film. It’s fairly accurate to say I’m estranged from my siblings and we haven’t really spent time together since my father died in 2004. Last weekend my cousin came to town and I spent a wonderful afternoon in Brooklyn with him and his girlfriend. At one point he told me about our thirteen-year-old cousin who’s just starting to play football in Toronto. I said, “It’s too bad I’m not in touch with my brother—he plays for the CFL.” And my cousin (who’s much younger than me) didn’t even know who I was talking about. He’s not alone—there are plenty of people in my life today who have no idea that I have a younger brother and sister. I have an older brother and sister, too, and most of my friends know about them, though some people assume I’m an only child because I pretty much operate that way. When I went through all my unpublished manuscripts this summer I was struck by how family-centered the stories are; my father shows up again and again, and there are almost always grandparents there to comfort and guide the child narrator. Not a lot of stories about mothers, though the one I’m readying for publication now (Billie’s Blues) starts with a single mother heading off to night school, which was my experience as a child. I write about familial dysfunction in my novels but not in the picture books; when you’re young, you need to believe that your family is your sanctuary. While my cousin was in town we reminisced about our large extended family and in The Skeleton Twins the siblings do the same—they laugh about the past, even the therapist they had to see after their father’s suicide. But there’s a lot of sadness in their lives, too. That’s what I miss most about having siblings—the way they served as witnesses to the major and minor events of our shared life. I have such vivid memories of my childhood and can’t really share (or verify) them because my older siblings are either out of touch or forward-looking only. My younger siblings weren’t even born until I was a teenager and though we were close when they were young, they feel like strangers now. I came home from the film and found a message on Facebook from my little brother. He’s in Hong Kong and wanted my mailing address. I’ve stopped asking or even hoping for a “normal” relationship with him. If one email a year is what I get, that’s what I get. I want to talk to him about Ferguson and everything that’s going on in the NFL, but my brother doesn’t want to have those kinds of conversations with me. It’s strange to be bound to people who are so distant. But someday they may need a witness and turn back to me, though my siblings tend not to trust my version of events…
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Yesterday was a big day! Print copies of The Girl Who Swallowed the Sun finally arrived, we launched Kid Lit EQUALITY, and my latest Huffington Post essay went up. First things first: head over to the KLE website and click on DOWNLOADS; Maya Gonzalez has created the most beautiful posters that you can print out and share with kids and/or adults. I’m tempted to send the link to those white women teachers in Staten Island who wore NYPD t-shirts on the first day of school…
For now I’ll just share some of my HuffPo article—I hope you’ll read the whole essay and share with others:
Lots of people clamor for greater diversity in kid lit but remain silent whenever another Black teenager is shot down — Ramarley, Trayvon, Jordan, Renisha, and now Michael Brown. They cling to the fantasy that white supremacy has shaped every US institution except the publishing industry. They look at the reality of racial dominance in children’s literature and pretend that the innocence ascribed to white children extends equally to Black children. At a moment when 75 percent of whites have no minority friends, the need for diverse children’s literature (which can foster cross-cultural understanding at an early age) is greater than ever.
The Kid Lit Equality movement asks people to stand up and speak out about the ways our community serves — or could better serve — youth who are marginalized in our society and then under- and/or misrepresented in children’s literature. Some of us are traditionally published authors and some of us have started our own presses in order to create a wider range of stories that reflect these kids’ diverse realities.
Have you seen Maya’s video? It’s powerful:
Have you seen Elizabeth Bluemle’s latest article over at Shelftalker? How can she best help emerging writers of color? Add your ideas in the comments section…
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Scorpios aren’t keen on collaboration, but I feel so honored to be partnering with Maya Gonzalez on a new project: Kid Lit EQUALITY. This was a very stressful summer, and it was frustrating to hear silence from so-called allies in the kid lit community as the crisis unfolded in Ferguson, MO after the police shooting of Black teen Michael Brown. In August Maya asked me to join her in starting a conversation about police brutality and we decided to launch a video campaign. Maya’s partner, Matthew, has set up this great website and you can also find the videos on our Youtube channel. But the best part is that Maya has created
8 10 stunning illustrations that you can DOWNLOAD and distribute to kids (or color them in yourself!). We’re still sending out invitations so stay tuned—more testimonials will be added to the website in the days to come.
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