“Why must you always bring up race?” That’s not a question a black person asks. In fact, most of us would be quite happy if the issue of race were never raised in our day-to-day lives. But the fact is, in our society, the specter of race is raised again, and again, even in the realm of children’s literature. Besides, this is Black History Month, so let’s take it on.
The other night, on the new Oprah Winfrey Network, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said, “I don’t believe we are now, nor do I think we’re ever likely to be—certainly not in my lifetime—race blind….This country has a terrible birth defect of slavery.” I couldn’t have said it better. No matter how much we want to wish it away, the issue of race is a constant in American Society, and the children’s book arena is not exempt.
But don’t take my word for it. Ask any African American illustrator, fighting for an opportunity to illustrate books by non-black authors, as well as those by black authors. Ask any African American author whose books are marginalized at the point of marketing simply by virtue of the fact that his/her book features an African American child on the cover. Then ask if he/she has any choice in the matter. On more than one occasion, I’ve implored a publisher to use abstract art on the cover, so as to broaden the book’s marketability, and been told no.
It is maddening.
I recently told an editor, concerning the packaging of one of my new titles, “This is not a black book. Please don’t turn it into one.” I thought a little straight talk might get me somewhere. It didn’t.
Maybe now you understand why I titled this piece “Black Box.”
There’s a new twist to this issue in my life these days. On more than one occasion, I’ve had young white fans of my books ask me, with all sincerity, why I never write books featuring children who look like them, and if I ever will. I never saw that one coming, but talk about a turnaround! I’ve never written a book starring a white character, but that’s not to say I never will. I wonder, though, how hard of a time I’d have trying to sell it. After all, publishers have me pegged: to them, I’m not an author. I’m a black author, one who writes about black people, with art featuring black illustrators. It’s a package deal, or so I’m made to understand.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love writing about my people. I’m proud of the culture from which I come, the strength of my ancestors, the beauty of my skin. And there are a host of phenomenal black illustrators working in the field today whose art is absolutely breathtaking. I count myself blessed, indeed, when one of them signs on for one of my books. But here’s my issue: I don’t like being put in a box, however lovely it may be. Why? Because, though my skin is black, the color of my skin is not all that I am.
I’m a textile artist, a handmade book designer, a multilingual world traveler, a Christian. I’ve studied Spanish and French, but spoken Swahili and Swedish. I was born in Harlem, but have lived in Africa, and Europe. In other words, I don’t fit neatly into any single category, so please don’t shove me into one. That’s all I’m saying. That’s all we’re saying. Our lights are many, and varied. Just give us room to shine.
I know, I know. What about quotas? Every publisher is trying to fill a certain quota of black authors on their list in order to claim some degree of diversification. We’ve been pushing for diversity and multiculturalism in children’s literature for years, and I’m all for diversification. There needs to be a greater African American presence in the field of children’s and young adult literature. No question. But does that mean that once a publisher has added a black author to his stable he must limit that author’s output to a specific category, or that he must limit the marketing plan for that author’s books to a black audience, even when the book is clearly universal in appeal?
Here’s what I’m hoping for. I’d like to see more African American authors and illustrators in the field, but writing and painting whatever they choose, for the broadest possible audience. I’d like to see publishers targeting their books, our books, to whatever audience an individual book most appeals to, without limiting the scope of that marketing from the book’s very inception. I’d like to see all books made available to all children, so that they get to choose what they like, or don’t like. After all, shouldn’t readers be the arbiters of books? Shouldn’t they get a say in the matter?
What’s the worst that could happen? They might, I don’t know—learn something about another culture, perhaps? Learn that they have more in common with a story’s black/brown/red/yellow protagonist than they thought? Yeah. I think we should risk it.
What do you say?