In the Ghetto

C is for City

Grow­ing up, it trou­bled me that the books to be found about black peo­ple con­cerned either slav­ery or the Civ­il Rights Move­ment, and pre­cious­ly lit­tle else. As for books about con­tem­po­rary life, for­get it. It was as if African Amer­i­cans sim­ply did not exist with­in that frame­work.  So, as an author, I deter­mined ear­ly on to focus on African Amer­i­can chil­dren nav­i­gat­ing the ups and downs of con­tem­po­rary life. I want­ed to cre­ate sto­ries with which today’s young black read­ers could relate.  In doing so, I sought, and con­tin­ue to seek, to give voice to the voiceless.

That said, my books are not only relat­able to black read­ers. The sto­ries I tell are human sto­ries, sto­ries of loss, for­give­ness and grace, sto­ries that are some­times humor­ous, some­times trag­ic. My char­ac­ters laugh and cry, bleed red when cut, wres­tle with rage, remorse, con­fu­sion, and all the oth­er emo­tions human beings expe­ri­ence. In oth­er words, despite the speci­fici­ty of race, my sto­ries, whether in poet­ry or prose, are for everyone.

Recent­ly, I vis­it­ed two of the largest inde­pen­dent book­sellers in a major met­ro­pol­i­tan area.  In the first, the store’s own­er and two of her employ­ees expressed how hon­ored they were to meet me.  They each rat­tled off some of their favorites of titles authored by me, spoke glow­ing­ly about shar­ing my books with their young charges, in schools and libraries where they’d worked in the past, and even posed for pho­tographs with me.  Clear­ly, they had enor­mous respect for the work I do. And yet,they had only one copy of one of my books on their shelves—and the most com­mer­cial one, at that. As for the sec­ond store, they had not a sin­gle title—this in a sea­son in which I had two new books, and one reis­sue ship­ping to stores across the country.

Huh? I don’t get it.

I left both stores shak­ing my head, but it didn’t take me long to con­nect the dots. Each store was locat­ed in a pre­dom­i­nant­ly white neighborhood.

Now, before you say “Oh!  That makes sense,” keep in mind that my read­er­ship cross­es all bound­aries of race and cul­ture.  I get let­ters from black and His­pan­ic read­ers, as you would no doubt assume. There are also fans as far away as Chi­na and Japan.  But I also get at least half my let­ters from white read­ers on farms in the Mid­west, min­ing com­mu­ni­ties in Appalachia, schools in the south, and points through­out the Pacif­ic North­west, among oth­ers. In oth­er words, white chil­dren are read­ing and lov­ing my books. So, the chil­dren are not the problem.

Once again, the prob­lem is with the gatekeepers—in this case, the book­sellers. It is they who assume that their cus­tomers will not be inter­est­ed in the books I write. Why? Because the char­ac­ters on the cov­er are African Amer­i­can. But those book­sellers are wrong. I fre­quent­ly hear from white par­ents who are frus­trat­ed in their attempts to build racial­ly diverse book col­lec­tions for their chil­dren, want­i­ng to expose their young ones to all of the cul­tures that make up this great coun­try. They go to their local book­stores on the hunt and are dis­mayed by the lack of mul­ti­cul­tur­al and, specif­i­cal­ly, black titles avail­able on the shelves.

Some well-mean­ing white friends some­times try to shush me when I bring up race, espe­cial­ly as it per­tains to the children’s book field, but the hard truth is that race remains a sticky wick­et in this coun­try, a black man in the Oval Office notwithstanding.

I’ve spent many long years try­ing to write my way out of the ghet­to. I’ve pub­lished prodi­gious­ly, pro­mot­ed my work through book­store events, reg­u­lar­ly spo­ken at con­fer­ences and book fes­ti­vals, criss­crossed the coun­try vis­it­ing schools, giv­en count­less inter­views, writ­ten fea­tures and edi­to­ri­als for numer­ous trade jour­nals and more. I’ve even gar­nered a fair share of pres­ti­gious book awards. But for all that, I find that my work is still being mar­gin­al­ized. I’ve lost count of the num­ber of book­store shelves absent of my books, even in those years when I’ve pub­lished as many as five titles.  Sigh.

Here’s what I’ve come to: I can’t con­trol book­sellers, or oth­er gate­keep­ers, or their rea­sons for choos­ing not to stock, at the very least, my most cur­rent titles. The only thing I can con­trol is my work.  So I will con­tin­ue to write books that mat­ter, for chil­dren and young adults who mat­ter, whether they oper­ate in the mar­gins or not. I still hold out hope that my work will some­how con­tin­ue to reach the broad­est pos­si­ble audience.

I hope book-lovers in every com­mu­ni­ty begin to demand a more racial­ly diverse selec­tion of titles from which to choose. In the end, that’s not on me. I get that now.

9 Responses

  1. About how to get book­sellers to put your book on the shelf where we’d all like to read it:
    1. Now is the age of abstract cov­er design. White words on black back­ground. But I know I’ve heard many peo­ple speak about the impor­tance of see­ing an African Amer­i­can on the cov­er for African Amer­i­can read­ers, so that won’t fix it.
    2. I’ve seen peo­ple put pur­ple, blue, and green peo­ple on the front cov­er to infer pig­ment, but also imply a sort of inte­ri­or hue that is the same in all peo­ple instead of skin col­or. But I think that day is long over. Why be so sug­ges­tive when you can now say what you mean?
    3. Maybe a cov­er with peo­ple of more than one col­or on the front? Maybe a set of your books, spine out, inside a nice box cov­ered in sym­bols, objects or images that are the uni­ver­sal things you love to speak about. Maybe it’s real­ly about aes­thet­ic prej­u­dice in art and less about prej­u­dice against peo­ple and good sto­ries. A cov­er with one char­ac­ter with dark skin on the cov­er with a pale back­ground screams out, this is about pig­ment, or this is about my inte­ri­or life and not about you.
    A cov­er with a very pale skinned per­son on a black back­ground screams out that they are very vul­ner­a­ble like cer­tain Vam­pire books.
    A cov­er with a pale per­son on a pale back­ground looks dreamy and introspective.
    A cov­er with a dark skinned per­son on a dark back­ground looks mysterious.
    It’s some­times about col­or the­o­ry in the artist’s sense. A less real­is­tic paint­ing of a per­son, no mat­ter their col­or, can have all sorts of col­ors and tex­tures that imply all kinds of things and may be more invit­ing. Look at Van Gough and others.
    Or tell the pub­lish­er to wrap them in brown paper. Every­one will have to buy them and stock them because every­one loves a good mys­tery right? 

    Thanks for your blog
    I hope the book sell­ers restock better,
    Pol­ly McCann
    Ham­line U.

  2. Nik­ki,

    Hear! Hear! and Amen!
    Occa­sion­al­ly, African Amer­i­can authors and illus­tra­tors are not preach­ing to the choir. Oth­ers do hear you. And we agree with Mitali. “You’re speak­ing the truth in love.”

    Thank you,

    Cheryl and Wade Hudson
    Just Us Books, Inc.

  3. Greet­ings from Harlem!
    We are a class of 3rd graders in a pub­lic school on 127th street in Harlem. We are a diverse group of indi­vid­u­als; in race, per­son­al­i­ty, learn­ing styles and beliefs. We are from Puer­to Rico, Domini­can Repub­lic, Africa, islands in the Car­ribean, Yemen and Europe. Although our life expe­ri­ences have taught us dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives, we all can relate to each oth­er through under­stand­ing emo­tions. This is also how we con­nect to your books. No mat­ter where you are from, how much mon­ey you have or what your skin col­or is, we have all felt fear, anx­i­ety, love, des­per­a­tion, hap­pi­ness and tragedy. Right now we are read­ing “Jazmin’s Note­book,” which takes place right around the cor­ner from our school. We look out on the world from Jazmin’s stoop and con­nect to her through our own expe­ri­ences. We have read “Meet Dan­i­tra Brown” and love the way she loves her­self. We are con­tin­u­ing to learn about you and why you write. We are read­ing lots of your books. Thank you for cre­at­ing char­ac­ters that we can relate to and learn from. Please keep writ­ing so we can con­tin­ue to learn about our world and our­selves through your characters!

  4. When­ev­er I see book authored by peo­ple of col­or, I turn them face out even though as soon as a clerk sees them, I know they’ll go back to their hid­den space. Small ges­ture, but maybe for those few min­utes, they will cap­ture a read­er’s atten­tion and wallet.

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