Banned Books: Message Rewind

Bronx Masquerade
Bronx Mas­quer­ade


A teacher reached out to me, recent­ly, with a sto­ry that I found chill­ing. He had done a series of fundrais­ers in order to pur­chase 200 copies of Bronx Mas­quer­ade for a unit with his 8th grade stu­dents. How­ev­er, after suc­cess­ful­ly acquir­ing the books, his school’s lead­er­ship informed him that he could not teach this book at his school.

I share this sto­ry because it’s at the heart of the prob­lem with cur­rent mes­sag­ing about banned books.

For some years, there’s been an atti­tude in the gen­er­al pub­lic, and amid many authors, that book bans are a badge of hon­or, and are ulti­mate­ly a good thing because the banned book gar­ners more atten­tion and sales than it might oth­er­wise. And it may be true that, at least in some instances, said book does enjoy addi­tion­al, pos­si­bly even more robust sales. How­ev­er, as the sto­ry above demon­strates so painful­ly, a book’s pur­chase does not guar­an­tee that book’s acces­si­bil­i­ty to the read­ers for whom it was intended.

Ordinary Hazards
Ordi­nary Haz­ards, first removed from school library shelves in Lean­der ISD Texas, is one of the books con­sis­tent­ly being chal­lenged across the country.

To be sure, there are cas­es in which a chal­lenged book remains on library shelves while said book is being reviewed for pos­si­ble removal. How­ev­er, stu­dents who have not been intro­duced to that book by teach­ers, in the class­room, are not like­ly to be aware of that book’s exis­tence. Hence, they are less like­ly to request that book for check­out. In oth­er words, one must not only ask whether a book is being chal­lenged, but whether or not edu­ca­tors are allowed to teach that book, or to have it avail­able on their class­room book­shelves. This is key.

A par­ent or oth­er adult in the young per­son­’s life may pur­chase a copy of said book for the read­er’s per­son­al, home library. How­ev­er, not every child or young adult is priv­i­leged to have a home library. Those read­ers rely entire­ly upon school and pub­lic libraries for their access to books, as I did, grow­ing up. With­out such access, I’ve no idea what would have become of me. I shud­der to think.

The issue of book bans is seri­ous busi­ness, and when any of us laughs it off, or sug­gests that a book’s sale is the begin­ning and end of the sub­ject, this hurts every­one. That mes­sag­ing obfus­cates what’s real­ly going on, and we can’t afford that. Our chil­dren can’t afford that.

We’re in a war, and it’s time to ral­ly the troops. No one will enlist in the bat­tle, though, if we repeat­ed­ly send out the mes­sage that book bans are a joke. I guar­an­tee you, there’s lit­tle laugh­ter among the weary teach­ers and librar­i­ans who are being pub­licly shout­ed-down and maligned by book ban­ners who are call­ing them pedophiles, pornographers—and worse—for dar­ing to fight to main­tain their diverse book collections.

Teach­ers and librar­i­ans across the coun­try are suf­fer­ing metaphor­i­cal bloody noses from fight­ing to pro­tect our chil­dren’s right to have access to the wide range of books we cre­ate for them, books they need. These are books in which young read­ers see them­selves rep­re­sent­ed, books that make them feel less alone in the world, books that inspire, books laced with hope, books that nur­ture the dream­er in each of them. Let’s be clear about what we’re fight­ing for, and what a dead­ly seri­ous bat­tle we’re in. There’s a lot more to be con­cerned with, here, than the dol­lar signs at the end of our roy­al­ty checks. Let’s please, all of us, authors and pub­lish­ers alike, get on the same page for our read­ers’ sakes. There’s a lot at stake here, people.

Banned Books Resource List from Nik­ki Grimes

What Makes a Book “Appropriate” for School?

Ordinary HazardsWhen I was a teen, I’d have giv­en any­thing for a book like Ordi­nary Haz­ards. Of course, it hadn’t yet been writ­ten. What I did dis­cov­er back then was A Tree Grows in Brook­lyn by Bet­ty Smith. In her nov­el, I found Fran­cie, a char­ac­ter I res­onat­ed with deeply. We weren’t of the same race, nor were our lives a per­fect repli­ca, by any stretch. Still, Smith’s char­ac­ter and I both faced tough chal­lenges in our young lives, and like me, Fran­cie knew the col­or of hell by heart. Because of her sto­ry, I knew that I wasn’t alone in the world, and know­ing that gave me strength for my own jour­ney. This is the pow­er of sto­ry. This is why I became a pur­vey­or of sto­ry, myself.

Over the course of my long career, I’ve writ­ten fic­tion, non­fic­tion, his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, and poet­ry on a wide vari­ety of sub­jects, but the one thing I’ve always believed is that the sin­gle most impor­tant sto­ry I have to tell is my own. Ordi­nary Haz­ards, my mem­oir in verse, is that sto­ry. It is a sto­ry of dark­ness and child­hood trau­ma, of a parent’s alco­holism and men­tal ill­ness, of the seamy side of fos­ter care, and of sex­u­al assault. But it is also a sto­ry of love and light, of faith and grace, and of a young girl’s dis­cov­ery of the pow­er of the writ­ten word.

Mine is a sto­ry of tri­umph over dark­ness, and, as such, is ulti­mate­ly a sto­ry of hope. The pos­si­bil­i­ty of plant­i­ng seeds of hope in the hearts and minds of young read­ers is why I wrote Ordi­nary Haz­ards. As ago­niz­ing as it was to rip open the wounds of mem­o­ry, I knew there were young peo­ple who need­ed a sto­ry like mine—and a true sto­ry, at that. And thou­sands of read­ers across the coun­try have already been inspired by it. This is why I was stunned when I learned that a school dis­trict in Lean­der, Texas, had elect­ed to remove my award-win­ning mem­oir from their curriculum.


It is one thing to rip a book from your own teen’s per­son­al library, but to inter­fere with every oth­er teen’s access to that book through­out your school dis­trict goes beyond the pale.

Leander’s issue with Ordi­nary Haz­ards—and Jacque­line Woodson’s Red at the Bone, and Lau­rie Halse Anderson’s Shout, among oth­er titles recent­ly removed—is that these titles are con­sid­ered to have “inap­pro­pri­ate con­tent.” I’m assum­ing the con­tent in ques­tion in Ordi­nary Haz­ards is dif­fi­cult sub­ject mat­ter, name­ly alco­holism, sex­u­al assault, and men­tal ill­ness. Dif­fi­cul­ty, though, is no rea­son to remove a book from an age-appro­pri­ate reader’s easy reach.

The truth is, the lives of many teens are dif­fi­cult. Some are home­less, or have par­ents in prison, or have been bounced from one fos­ter home to another—or all of the above. Oth­er teens live, as I did, in homes where a par­ent wres­tles with men­tal ill­ness or alco­holism, or may strug­gle with these issues them­selves. Final­ly, though you may be unaware, count­less teens of every gen­der, sit­ting in high school class­rooms right now, have been sex­u­al­ly assault­ed. Is this sub­ject uncom­fort­able? Absolute­ly. But writ­ing about the top­ic is hard­ly inap­pro­pri­ate, espe­cial­ly when it’s han­dled delicately.

Cen­sors will find noth­ing sala­cious, graph­ic, or gra­tu­itous in Ordi­nary Haz­ards. I specif­i­cal­ly chose to write my mem­oir in poet­ry because the form allows for the del­i­cate treat­ment of dif­fi­cult con­tent. As such, no one can rea­son­ably charge the writ­ing itself of being inap­pro­pri­ate. When it comes to sex­u­al abuse, what is inappropriate—not to men­tion criminal—is the abuse itself. Writ­ing about that abuse is both appro­pri­ate and nec­es­sary. Teens need to know that sex­u­al assault is not a secret to keep.

For read­ers who come to this mem­oir hav­ing had any of the par­tic­u­lar tough expe­ri­ences I write about, this sto­ry lets them know they are not alone. Oth­er read­ers encoun­ter­ing Ordi­nary Haz­ards come away with some­thing equal­ly valu­able: the knowl­edge that, what­ev­er chal­lenges they may face in life, they can come out on the oth­er side, and not only sur­vive, but thrive—just as I did. Do we real­ly want to restrict young people’s access to a sto­ry that holds out that kind of hope?

Per­haps some have for­got­ten the pur­pose and pow­er of Sto­ry. Sto­ry is more than repos­i­to­ry of fact and fic­tion. Sto­ry is poul­tice, is salve designed to mit­i­gate pain and stim­u­late the heal­ing of wounds, espe­cial­ly those fes­ter­ing beneath the sur­face unseen. But this metic­u­lous­ly craft­ed treat­ment only works when applied.

Not every sto­ry is dark or dif­fi­cult, nor should it be, but those that most often inspire are hard sto­ries in which the pro­tag­o­nist tri­umphs at the end. Ordi­nary Haz­ards: A Mem­oir is such a sto­ry, and there’s noth­ing inap­pro­pri­ate about that.


First pub­lished in the 8/30/21 edi­tion of Pub­lish­ers Week­ly as “Appro­pri­ate­ly Yours,” as well as the 8/27/21 online edi­tion of Pub­lish­ers Week­ly under the title of this article.

The Social Dilemma

selectric typewriterI am, by nature, a self-con­fessed Lud­dite. I write the ear­ly drafts of all of my books on yel­low lined pads, and only turn to the com­put­er when it’s time to input the fin­ished draft. I then print out the draft, and write my revi­sions and edi­to­r­i­al notes on the hard­copy. Writ­ing and/or edit­ing on the com­put­er is sim­ply not a thing in my world. If it weren’t for the ground­break­ing, time-sav­ing func­tion of dig­i­tal copy and paste, I doubt I’d have ever turned my IBM Selec­tric® in for a per­son­al com­put­er at all.

It should come as no sur­prise that it took anoth­er 10 years or more before I was dragged, kick­ing and scream­ing, into the world of elec­tron­ic mail. For years, I had an assis­tant oper­ate an email address on my behalf, and only took over those duties when she neared the due-date for her first child. I knew what she did­n’t: her new baby was going to require all of her atten­tion for quite some time.

Once I was on email, my pub­lish­ers began nudg­ing me to set up a web­site, which of course I resist­ed. I even­tu­al­ly caved, and my site went live the day Bronx Mas­quer­ade won the Coret­ta Scott King Award, at which point fans were start­ing to search for my online pres­ence. Fine, I thought. But a web­site was absolute­ly, pos­i­tive­ly as far down the dig­i­tal rab­bit hole as I intend­ed to go.

Next, I was drawn onto Face­book which those in the biz tout­ed as a pri­ma­ry tool for pro­mot­ing books. With mar­ket­ing depart­ments push­ing authors in this direc­tion, this seemed worth a try. Face­book, though, was as far as I was going to go into the world of tech and social media. And I stuck to that, too—right up until I took a sec­ond look at Twit­ter and the impact it seemed to be hav­ing on author expo­sure and book sales. Now, here I am, locked in hook, line, and Twit­ter handle.

Turns out, there were some excel­lent rea­sons for me to avoid the dig­i­tal rab­bit hole, if only I’d known.

I came to under­stand, fair­ly ear­ly on, how addic­tive social media can be, but that was­n’t espe­cial­ly wor­ry­ing. It meant that I need­ed to be fair­ly dis­ci­plined about my use of it, and I’m a fair­ly dis­ci­plined indi­vid­ual, so that was okay. Then, grad­u­al­ly, I became aware of some of the neg­a­tive aspects on the vul­ner­a­ble who were being bul­lied online by bad actors tak­ing advan­tage of their anonymi­ty to say and do things, they would nev­er say or do to a per­son­’s face. That was trou­bling. Then it became appar­ent that young peo­ple were either los­ing, or deriv­ing their sense of worth from social media likes or respons­es to their self­ies, with or with­out the use of new-fan­gled fil­ters. Not good. Social medi­a’s down­ward slide start­ed pick­ing up speed.

More recent­ly, the tox­ic envi­ron­ment of Face­book in par­tic­u­lar, and social media in gen­er­al, start­ed get­ting to every­one. Some folks sim­ply decid­ed to get out of Dodge. I hung in, though, but I became increas­ing­ly frus­trat­ed when attempts to engage in polite dis­cus­sions with peo­ple of a dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal per­sua­sion became impos­si­ble. Con­ver­sa­tion was being replaced by ver­bal combat.

Alarm bells did­n’t sound off in my head ful­ly until I watched a lit­tle doc­u­men­tary called The Social Dilem­ma. And by lit­tle, I mean a bombshell.

Among my take­aways: social media has, by design, worked to elim­i­nate our shared real­i­ty. It has, by design, cre­at­ed addic­tion to itself that’s so strong, even its design­ers have a dif­fi­cult time dis­en­gag­ing. This, of course, serves adver­tis­ers who want our atten­tion, and need us to be on social media for as long as pos­si­ble, each and every day. They are the cus­tomers, and we are the prod­ucts the tech com­pa­nies are sell­ing to them.

Social media has aid­ed the grow­ing divi­sion in our nation. The use of this media has ratch­eted up a young per­son­’s sense of lone­li­ness, iso­la­tion, and ulti­mate­ly, a sense of worth­less­ness that has wild­ly increased the per­cent­age of teens and pre-teens suf­fer­ing from depres­sion and com­mit­ting sui­cide (up by as much as 187%). And, bad as that all is, it’s only part of the story.

Some of you read­ing this will, no doubt, say “well, duh!” But I won­der how many under­stand to what extent social media plays into the hav­oc we’re cur­rent­ly expe­ri­enc­ing in our lives and the lives of our chil­dren, and how much this media is con­tribut­ing to the break­down of our democracy.

young boy with smartphone

Like most, I have been painful­ly aware of the neg­a­tive impact this media has been hav­ing on rela­tion­ships with friends and fam­i­ly, and have been griev­ing it. How­ev­er, I didn’t ful­ly under­stand the insid­i­ous ways social media has under­mined us all, not by work­ing poor­ly, but by work­ing as it was designed to. The doc­u­men­tary, The Social Dilem­ma, was a giant wake up call. The media’s very design­ers broke it all down, in great detail.

Once I picked my jaw up off the floor after view­ing this film, I reached out to a cir­cle of friends, urged them to watch it, then arranged a vir­tu­al group dis­cus­sion, short­ly there­after. By the end of our talk, we all felt it vital that we broad­en the con­ver­sa­tion, urge oth­ers to watch this film, espe­cial­ly with their fam­i­lies, and to have nec­es­sary con­ver­sa­tions of their own. This blog is one of my attempts to move that forward.

Please watch this film. Watch it with friends. Watch it with your col­leagues, your stu­dents. Most of all, watch it with your chil­dren. Fol­low the view­ing with a con­ver­sa­tion about what sur­prised you, and what did­n’t, what fright­ened you or gave you pause, and what steps you think you might want to take in response to it.

This is not a call to close your accounts or aban­don the media, alto­geth­er, although some may. As an author, I’m part of an indus­try that’s locked into this media, so I see myself alter­ing how I engage with it— and how often—but don’t see myself leav­ing it entire­ly, at this point. I do find it telling, though, that the very cre­ators of this media for­bid their own chil­dren to engage with it. Think about that.

girl mesmerized by screenSome design­ers sug­gest demand­ing leg­is­la­tion that sets con­trols on the media where there cur­rent­ly are none. Oth­ers pro­pose that an age-lim­it be applied to the use of social media, in much the same way as we put age-lim­its on drink­ing, and on dri­ving. After view­ing this film, you might find this worth con­sid­er­ing. Whether you do or not, this is a clar­i­on call to take a sober account of social media. We all under­stand what’s good about it, but we need to con­front what isn’t. We need to ful­ly com­pre­hend its harm­ful, and dan­ger­ous, impact on our lives, and espe­cial­ly on the lives of our most vulnerable.

I rarely rec­om­mend films. It’s even rar­er that I rec­om­mend a doc­u­men­tary. I have nev­er urged every­one to watch a par­tic­u­lar film. I am doing so now.

Please make the time to watch The Social Dilem­ma on Net­flix. We all need to under­stand the mech­a­nisms of this crea­ture we’ve invit­ed into our homes, into our lives, and into our brain­stems. What we do with this infor­ma­tion is up to each of us.

This one thing I know: knowl­edge is power.


Ten Argu­ments for Delet­ing Your Social Media Accounts by Jaron Lanier

The Dan­gers of Social Media by Paul Otway

Tris­tan Har­ris—US Sen­ate June 25, 2019

How a Hand­ful of Tech Com­pa­nies con­trol Bil­lions of Minds Every­day, TED Talk by Tris­tan Harris

How Your Brain is Get­ting HackedTED Talk by Tris­tan Harris

Your Phone is Try­ing to Con­trol Your Life, by Tris­tan Har­ris, YouTube

Can Truth Sur­vive Big Tech? Tris­tan Har­ris, YouTube

Articulate, Anyone?

Nikki Grimes accepting the Children's Literature Legacy Award

When I was young, I was often bul­lied for “talk­ing white.” That’s the way my pre­cise enun­ci­a­tion, robust vocab­u­lary, and pol­ished use of the Eng­lish lan­guage were cat­e­go­rized by oth­ers in the Black com­mu­ni­ty. At the oth­er end of the racial spec­trum, sev­er­al white teach­ers ques­tioned the author­ship of my com­po­si­tions because they were “too well writ­ten.” As for my abil­i­ty to speak, they would raise their eye­brows in utter sur­prise and say, “My! You are so artic­u­late!” The left-hand­ed com­pli­ment was nev­er lost on me: as a Black girl, I was not sup­posed to be artic­u­late. When­ev­er a white per­son would call me artic­u­late, I’d think to myself, “and why would­n’t I be?” Eng­lish was, by far, my best sub­ject, I prac­ti­cal­ly lived in the library, had a grand­moth­er who got on my case every time I mis­tak­en­ly said, “Can I”, rather than “May I,” both my nat­ur­al par­ents were avid read­ers, as were the fos­ter par­ents I stayed with the longest, my moth­er had ora­to­ry skills, and my father was no slouch in that depart­ment, either. Chances were pret­ty good that some of that would have result­ed in my being fair­ly well-spo­ken. Just saying.

I went on to uni­ver­si­ty, grad­u­at­ed with a degree in Eng­lish, and a minor in African lan­guages, won a Ford Fel­low­ship to study in East Africa, and returned to the U.S. to begin build­ing a writ­ing career. Strange­ly enough, I con­tin­ued to be fre­quent­ly “com­pli­ment­ed” on my abil­i­ty to string words togeth­er in a pleas­ing fash­ion. Now, 40+ years into a respectable career as an author spe­cial­iz­ing in poet­ry, and as a speak­er, I am, appar­ent­ly, still aston­ish­ing white peo­ple with my abil­i­ty to be artic­u­late. And I’m not the only well-read, well-trav­eled, well-edu­cat­ed Black per­son singing this song.

In all the years that I have giv­en keynotes at major con­fer­ences across the coun­try and abroad, or shared pan­els with white authors, or spo­ken at book fes­ti­vals and lit­er­ary con­fer­ences, I can nev­er once recall hear­ing a white author praised for being artic­u­late, though most of them were. The dif­fer­ence, in case you haven’t caught on, is that they were expect­ed to be artic­u­late, so there was no obvi­ous need to remark upon the fact.

Mind you, I whole­heart­ed­ly appre­ci­ate some­one telling me fol­low­ing an in-per­son or vir­tu­al keynote, or pan­el pre­sen­ta­tion, that my words moved them deeply, or that I said some­thing that made them see the world in a new way, or that my words were inspir­ing or even pow­er­ful, or that you found my word choice exquis­ite. (No one has actu­al­ly said that last thing, but feel free!) Who would­n’t love that? But that’s sub­stan­tial­ly dif­fer­ent from “com­pli­ment­ing” an author and poet who makes her liv­ing as a pro­fes­sion­al word­smith and speak­er, by saying—always with a hint of sur­prise and empha­sis on the last word—“You’re so artic­u­late.” Imag­ine prais­ing a tai­lor for sewing straight seams, or com­pli­ment­ing a sur­geon for deft­ly han­dling a scalpel, or con­grat­u­lat­ing a lawyer for know­ing the law, or applaud­ing a min­is­ter for famil­iar­i­ty with Holy Scrip­ture. Lord, give me strength!

Chris­tine Mallinson, pro­fes­sor of lan­guage, lit­er­a­cy, and cul­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land, Bal­ti­more Coun­ty, had this to say to Busi­ness Insid­er: “When a white col­league tells a col­league of col­or ‘You’re so artic­u­late’ or ‘You speak so well,’ the remark sug­gests that they assumed the per­son in ques­tion would be less articulate—and are sur­prised to find out they aren’t.” Pause for a moment and take that in.

Black folk already nav­i­gate a world lit­tered with loaded lan­guage, cod­ed phras­ing, and microag­gres­sions. (And there’s a sep­a­rate set of microag­gres­sions women have to con­tend with that focus on things like body image, but that’s not my focus here.) “You’re pretty—for a black girl.” “Is that your real hair?” “Where are you actu­al­ly from?” “You’re not like them.” “You’re good with your hands.” “Your Eng­lish is so good!” (Yes, I’ve actu­al­ly been told that.) Ouch!

There are always assump­tions that I sub­let my home, rather than own it, and that my nice car is a rental. When I step into the pri­or­i­ty lane to board a plane at the air­port, my right to occu­py that space is fre­quent­ly ques­tioned. When I enter a cloth­ing store, or a bou­tique of any kind, I am auto­mat­i­cal­ly fol­lowed around the premis­es, mere­ly based upon the assumption—unspoken or otherwise—that I am there to steal, rather than pur­chase, merchandise—this no mat­ter how metic­u­lous my attire at the time. I won’t even begin to tell you the num­ber of apart­ments I lost, back when I was a renter, sim­ply because my skin is black. Occa­sion­al­ly, just for fun, I would have a white friend apply for an apart­ment after I’d been told it was no longer avail­able. Every sin­gle time, the mirac­u­lous­ly still avail­able apart­ment was offered to that white friend. Sigh.

This is some of why being Black in Amer­i­ca can be so damn tire­some. But I’m not about to give up my beau­ti­ful black skin, or the rich her­itage of my peo­ple in the fields of sci­ence, math­e­mat­ics, art, music, fash­ion, acad­e­mia, sports, eco­nom­ics, entre­pre­neur­ship, med­i­cine, lit­er­a­ture, and beyond. Against all odds, Black peo­ple have sur­vived and thrived in this coun­try, and I stand among them.

I enjoy my work as a poet, author, and speak­er, and hope to con­tin­ue this work for some years to come. As always, I look for­ward to meet­ing fans vir­tu­al­ly, or in per­son once it’s again safe to trav­el, and to gath­er at con­fer­ences and book fes­ti­vals. I will wel­come any warm, kind words you choose to share with me fol­low­ing my pre­sen­ta­tions. That said, let me be clear: if you con­tin­ue to find it shock­ing that I’m artic­u­late, might I sug­gest you ask your­self why. In the mean­time, should the idea of prais­ing any Black per­son for being artic­u­late cross your mind, please con­sid­er instead telling us what our words have meant to you, how you have been moved or touched by them, or how our words have inspired, chal­lenged, or lift­ed you up. Those are true com­pli­ments we’d be more than hap­py to hear, any day of the week.

Owning Our Words

The per­son cur­rent­ly occu­py­ing the White House has a pen­chant for spew­ing hate speech, as we have been remind­ed with his racist tweets sug­gest­ing that four out­spo­ken Con­gress­women, who hap­pen to be peo­ple of col­or, should “go back to where they came from,” nev­er mind that three of the four were, in fact, born right here in the U.S. of A, while the fourth, born in Soma­lia, has been an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen since the age of sev­en­teen. POTUS’s racist com­ments, while famil­iar, are nev­er­the­less dis­turb­ing. Worse yet, this par­tic­u­lar speak­er often refus­es to own the words that have spilled from his lips five min­utes after they’ve hit the air—unless, as in this case, he decides to dou­ble-down, which is a sub­ject for anoth­er day.

As an author, I’m acute­ly aware of the pow­er of words to heal or harm, to build up or tear down. I believe it’s imper­a­tive to choose our words care­ful­ly, and to own the words we choose, as well as the inten­tion with which we use them. POTUS rarely does, of course. I won­der, though, how many oth­ers of us con­sid­er the words we use.

I’m par­tic­u­lar­ly sen­si­tive to the word “aban­don,” or any of its deriva­tions. I see it thrown around a good deal, these days, in con­nec­tion with chil­dren forcibly sep­a­rat­ed from their par­ents at the bor­der. To be clear, when a child is ripped from a par­en­t’s arms, the par­ent can hard­ly be said to have “aban­doned” that child. Yet, this is the lan­guage being bandied about.

I’ve noticed how fre­quent­ly the word “aban­doned” is attached to the com­mon­ly held nar­ra­tive of the black father, and I wince every time. A man’s absence from a home is usu­al­ly far more com­plex than that word would con­note, espe­cial­ly if that man is black. His absence might be due to mil­i­tary assign­ment, work out of state, bal­anc­ing mul­ti­ple jobs, incar­cer­a­tion, or a con­tentious divorce. None of the above con­sti­tutes “aban­don­ment.” No mat­ter the rea­son for a man’s absence, he may, in fact, remain active in the life of his child with­out shar­ing the child’s home. 

While writ­ing my mem­oir, Ordi­nary Haz­ards, I had to address my own father’s peri­od­ic absence from my life. There were cer­tain­ly moments, as a child, when I might have felt aban­doned. But look­ing back, I know the label does not apply. My father’s absences were more com­pli­cat­ed than that. He nev­er gave me up, blocked me from his life, or left me with the inten­tion of nev­er return­ing. Nor was he ever emo­tion­al­ly unavail­able. On the con­trary, over the course of my child­hood, he was quite present, and in crit­i­cal ways. I would not be the per­son I am otherwise.

James Grimes, Jim­my to his friends. 
I called him Daddy. 

It was my father who gave me my ear­ly arts edu­ca­tion. He intro­duced me to the bal­let, the­ater, and clas­si­cal music. He escort­ed me to my first art exhib­it, fea­tur­ing artist Tom Feel­ings with whom I would one day col­lab­o­rate on a book. My father signed me up for, and attend­ed, my first poet­ry read­ing at thir­teen. He was the per­son who exposed me to lit­er­a­ture by and about writ­ers of the African Dias­po­ra. He took me for week­end jaunts to New Jer­sey and Wash­ing­ton D.C. He took me shop­ping for school clothes. We hit the occa­sion­al movie the­ater togeth­er and went for piz­za runs dur­ing my week­end vis­its. Does any of this sound like aban­don­ment? And yet, the casu­al observ­er, falling back on the com­mon nar­ra­tive of the absent black father would look at my sto­ry, note my father’s peri­od­ic absences and would say two+two = aban­don­ment. Wrong.

We must care­ful­ly weigh our words and own them, whether we’re talk­ing about absent African Amer­i­can fathers, or immi­grant par­ents detained at our bor­ders, weep­ing for the return of their chil­dren, or the Con­gress­women of col­or who are full cit­i­zens with the right to serve their beloved coun­try, regard­less of the dark com­plex­ions and sur­names that mark them to some as “oth­er.”

It’s too easy for our nar­ra­tives to casu­al­ly be reduced to a few handy catch-words and phras­es. When they are, we need to reclaim and reframe those nar­ra­tives using lan­guage that encom­pass­es the nuances of our truth. And we must do so over, and over again. It’s not a one-time propo­si­tion. Just ask the four Demo­c­ra­t­ic Rep­re­sen­ta­tives tar­get­ed by the racist tweets from POTUS. This isn’t the first time some­one has told them to go back where they came from and, sad­ly, it won’t be the last. Oth­ers will make false assump­tions about them, and they will have to reclaim their nar­ra­tives afresh, choose their own words and descrip­tors to set the record straight. And when they do, some­thing tells me they will own their care­ful­ly cho­sen words, every sin­gle time.

Going for the Gold: An Author Intervention

I’m on my way to ALA, the sweet land of chil­dren’s book award cer­e­monies. I’ll only be there to pro­mote my new mem­oir, Ordi­nary Haz­ards, not to pick up any plaques, or medals this year. Still, it got me thinking. 

Coretta Scott King honor

Who does­n’t want a book award or cita­tion, or even a starred review? We wel­come them, pine for them, lust for them, hope for them. We do so, in part, because we assume they will guar­an­tee suc­cess and longevi­ty of our books, and keep them in print. Sad­ly, that is not always the case. I would know, hav­ing a num­ber of such award-win­ning titles on the prover­bial scrap heap of out-of-print books. A notable book cita­tion did­n’t keep What is Good­bye? from hit­ting the pile, nor did the Coret­ta Scott King Illus­tra­tor Award keep Some­thing On My Mind from dis­ap­pear­ing from book­store shelves. (These aren’t my only OP titles, but ouch!) Then, there are those beau­ti­ful books that nev­er stay in print long enough to find their mar­ket (Under the Christ­mas Tree, any­one? I dare you to say the paint­ings by Kadir Nel­son are any­thing less than scrump­tious! My poems weren’t too shab­by either, if I must say so. I’m get­ting off point, though. Sorry.)

If awards and major cita­tions don’t keep a book in print, what’s the point? What’s the deal? The truth is, book pub­lish­ing has always been a crap-shoot. There’s real­ly no nail­ing down which book will make it, and which one won’t, which book will be cho­sen for spe­cial hon­ors, and which won’t. Don’t waste your time tak­ing bets. Besides, awards, while love­ly (I won’t be giv­ing any of mine back, thank you very much!), those shiny stick­ers don’t come with any guar­an­tees. (Okay. So maybe there’s one or two excep­tions. Still.)

Don’t get me wrong: awards are cer­tain­ly worth cel­e­brat­ing, and I’m ready to do the hap­py-dance when­ev­er one comes my way. Even so, an award can’t be the rea­son I write a book. If it were, I’d con­stant­ly writhe in mis­ery (well, more than I usu­al­ly do) when­ev­er one of my books failed to take home the gold, or even the sil­ver. No. I write books because I have to, because I have sto­ries to tell, because I want to enter­tain, encour­age, inform, inspire and chal­lenge young read­ers. I write because I want to touch hearts and, ultimately—I’ll admit it—hopefully change minds, and maybe even lives. Whether I fail or suc­ceed in the try­ing, an award is beside the point. Every time I receive a glow­ing let­ter from one of my read­ers, or a teacher, a par­ent, grand­par­ent, or a librar­i­an, I remem­ber that. You should, too. 

Chin up, my fel­low scribes! Hope to cross paths with you on the road as we share our sto­ries, and our hearts, with the young read­ers who move us to put pen to paper, in the first place.