Black Box: Race in Children’s Literature

Black Box“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?

17 Responses

  1. You are address­ing the core of what good stories–and all good art–should do: break down walls, instead of rein­forc­ing them. May pub­lish­ers be hum­ble enough to see the bar­ri­ers they have erect­ed in the name of mar­ket­ing, and brave enough to be will­ing to change. We would all be bet­ter for it.

  2. I abhor clas­si­fy­ing chil­dren’s books along col­or lines. Art tran­scends our stu­pid self-imposed bound­aries. I work in an all-white school and my stu­dents love sto­ries cre­at­ed by and star­ring all kinds of peo­ple. Our library is a gor­geous lab­o­ra­to­ry where we try on the tra­di­tions, art and cul­tures of many, and rejoice in our com­mon human­i­ty. I wish all chil­dren the same kinds of beauty!!

  3. What a great blog post. I remem­ber when I was in my MFA pro­gram my African Amer­i­can teacher, the bril­liant Jef­fery Rey­nard Allen, had his writ­ing com­pared to Bald­win and Wright on his nov­el jack­et. This con­fused me, because Jef­f’s writ­ing is so much more like William Faulkn­er, who is quite dif­fer­ent. Any writer ought to be flat­tered to be com­pared to Bald­win or Wright, but it always struck me as rather dun­der­head­ed that his pub­lish­er did­n’t reach out­side of Jef­f’s eth­nic­i­ty for the com­par­i­son. I told Jeff that his writ­ing remind­ed me of Faulkn­er, and I could see he was very touched. (Who would­n’t be?) It must be ter­ri­bly frus­trat­ing for the seri­ous artist to be put inside a box like that. In a small­er way, I some­times feel boxed in, being a woman writ­ing YA fic­tion that is inevitably char­ac­ter­ized as “chick lit.” Such a dis­mis­sive term. In a per­fect world all us writ­ers would get togeth­er and refuse to pub­lish our pic­tures, use only ini­tials in our writ­ing monikers, let the work stand on its own apart from race or gen­der. But then again, in a per­fect world, we would­n’t need to, would we?

  4. There seems to be a lot of valu­able dis­cus­sion on this top­ic out there in the blo­gos­phere this week! I don’t know how long it will take to trick­le up to publishers/bookstores, but hope­ful­ly many more read­ers will make an effort to look beyond cat­e­gories as a result of so much thought­ful discourse.

  5. Why do we have to label every­thing and fill quo­tas any­way? As late as this morn­ing the Swedish news again brought up mul­ti­cul­tur­al issues that “are not addressed often enough” in schools or soci­ety in gen­er­al. It dis­turbs me as I try (and cer­tain­ly want) to work with my stu­dents as indi­vid­u­als and not mem­bers of dif­fer­ent eth­nic groups.
    All these reminders slow down the process for an equal soci­ety and per­ma­nent gaps. Let us all work for over­com­ing this for once and all. We need peace in order to work efficiently.
    And yes, Nik­ki, take on the chal­lenge from the white kid!

  6. A few years ago I went into a book­store look­ing for Toni Mor­rison’s book, *Sula*. I searched all through the the lit­er­a­ture sec­tion, then tried the best sell­ers even though it was an old book by then. I final­ly asked the sales clerk for help, and he direct­ed me to the “Black Authors” section.

    I stared at this clerk and asked him out­right if all clas­sic lit­er­a­ture writ­ten by African-Amer­i­can authors was to be found in this sec­tion. He did not have the good grace to be embar­rassed when he replied that yes, all Black authors’ work was “grouped” (his word) in the Black Authors section.

    I am Italian_American and white. I was mor­ti­fied and annoyed. And demor­al­ized on behalf of authors like you, Nik­ki, whose tal­ent and art should not be mar­gin­al­ized or pigeonholed.

    I have since become a school librar­i­an, and it would be over my dead body that any book in my library would ever be shelved by cat­e­go­riz­ing it by the author’s race.

    I com­plained that day to the book store’s man­ag­er ( who saw me–no doubt–as some crank), but in light of that chain’s bank­rupt­cy fil­ing just today, it seems maybe they and oth­ers should lis­ten to their cus­tomers. Speak up! I’m so glad you did on your blog.

  7. Kudos to you for putting into words what authors AND librar­i­ans, besides oth­ers, deal with on a dai­ly basis. Can we EVER get beyond race to HUMAN race as the box we check off on all the forms of life???!!!

  8. We clear­ly have a long way to go. For Amer­i­cans race is an every­day issue. Like Con­di said, how can it not be? Mar­ket­ing def­i­nite­ly rein­forces this. The best books don’t have to point this out, but cre­ate teach­able moments because of their supe­ri­or art and sto­ry telling.

  9. Good points. I looked through 250 pic­ture books pub­lished this year for the Cybils, and very few fea­tured chil­dren of col­or with­out it being the Point of the book. I was very hap­py to have A Beach Tail as a Cybils final­ist because it’s the kind of book I want to see from more pub­lish­ers. Her­itage and his­to­ry is impor­tant, but I want to see more diver­si­ty in illus­tra­tions so we see all kids just being kids.

  10. I work in a school that is half His­pan­ic and half a mix of every oth­er race and what I always take a quick note of at when read­ing through chil­dren’s books (or any writ­ing for that mat­ter) is the pre­sump­tion on the part of the author as to who the read­er is and who the pre­sumed “oth­er” is on the part of the author.
    This is some­thing I became aware of big time back in Eng­lish Lit 101 where I noticed that the Nor­ton Anthol­o­gy used in the course had numer­ous foot notes in sto­ries writ­ten by non-white authors explain­ing what the edi­tors pre­sumed the read­er would be unfa­mil­iar with being a col­lege stu­dent and pre­sum­ably white about the details of life for African Amer­i­cans and oth­er authors in their “diverse” col­lec­tion of stories.
    On the oth­er hand the edi­tors would feel no need to foot­note to the read­er details a in a John Cheev­er sto­ry like: “Martini‑a drink pop­u­lar in wealthy white enclaves.”
    In chil­dren’s Lit what always galls me are the books that seem to be about how the read­er would be sur­prised to know that the cute lit­tle char­ac­ter of col­or in the poor vil­lage or the ghet­to actu­al­ly is “just like us” with the same dreams for suc­cess in life and we should admire “them” for that.

  11. The points you bring up are all well made, and in line with the thoughts sit­ting in my head this evening as I work on pick­ing books for a girls sum­mer book club I orga­nize (enter­ing its third year). Our library had select­ed Make way for Dya­monde Daniel last year for its read­ing group, and I’m plan­ning on adding Rich to the sum­mer book club list even though we’ve read it twice in this (white) house. What I appre­ci­ate most about this series is the con­ver­sa­tions it has start­ed. We’ve talked at length about friend­ship, tran­si­tion, mon­ey, love, hard work and tough choic­es — and no assump­tion was made that those might just be “black” issues — in this case they jsut hap­pen to involve a black charachter. The set­ting is hard but not harsh and the charachters flow eas­i­ly and believ­ably amid events and places that are com­pre­hend­able even if it is not what we see out our own sub­ur­ban win­dows. It is a shame that these or any book might not get more read­er­ship because of a bias that extends as far as cov­er art. At least I know that for the moment I can influ­ence a group of girls to read the book and lead a dis­cus­sion about mon­ey, pover­ty, home­less­ness, love and friend­ship — not “us” and “them” but the risks and rewards “we” all face in a com­pli­cat­ed world.

  12. You have an amaz­ing way with words! This reminds me of some­thing that Maya Angelou said when I heard her speak years ago. She chal­lenged the audi­ence to read all types of lit­er­a­ture because you nev­er knew in what book you would find your­self. I hope I get this next part right..she said that when she was a teenag­er going through tough times in her life, she read Shake­speare and she could have sworn the main char­ac­ter was an black, teenage girl, grow­ing up in the South. I have learned so much about life by read­ing fic­tion! Let the read­er be the judge…not the book cov­ers or illus­tra­tions. All books should be mar­ket­ed for everyone!

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