In preparation for a lecture I was giving on the use of poetic elements to enhance prose, I dug through a few old newspaper and magazine articles I’d written for sample passages in which I had done precisely that. In the midst of my search, I came across a piece of reportage from 1977 that had particular resonance. The title of the piece was “Broadway Orchestras: A Pit of Discriminatory Hiring,” and it was all about a lack of diversity in Broadway theater orchestras, discussed at a public hearing I was sent to cover.
“During this year, the Houston Opera Company produced two major Black shows. The first, Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, featured 35 musicians in its orchestra. The second, Porgy and Bess, features a 43 man orchestra. Of these 78 musicians only seven were black.
“Eleanor Holmes Norton, of the Commission on Human Rights, brought these facts to attention recently in a public hearing entitled “Hiring Practices for Broadway Musical Orchestras: The exclusionary Effect on Minority Musicians.”
“The hearings, designed to ‘determine which recruitment and hiring practices result in this (exclusionary) pattern…’ brought out some of Broadways key producers, contractors, and Black musicians. Among them were producers Norman Kean and Philip Rose, contractors Earl Shendell and Mel Rodnon, musicians Gayle Dixon and Jack Jeffers, and actor, producer, director Ossie Davis.
“What brought on all the hooplah?”
Reading this piece gave me chills, for a range of reasons. For one, Ruby Dee, widow of the late Ossie Davis, had just passed. For another, the viola player Gayle Dixon, sister of friend and cellist Akua Dixon, was a personal acquaintance. Akua had just recently mentioned Gayle, who passed years ago. These twin facts were reason enough for my goose-bumps, but there was a third. The piece was about diversity or, more precisely, the lack thereof. In this case, it pertained to Broadway orchestras. These days, a lack of diversity most often pertains to children’s literature, a subject I have addressed on more than one occasion. Apparently I’ve been bumping up against, and speaking out about, this issue for quite some time.
I wonder about the state of Broadway orchestra pits today. It’s been a long time since I last followed up on the subject. I’ll have to get the skinny from Akua. As for diversity in children’s literature, well, in case you haven’t been keeping up, the stats remain pretty dismal. But this isn’t a piece about statistics. This isn’t even a piece about the dollars and sense of publishing and marketing a more diverse selection of books for an ever-expanding, diverse population of readers. Instead, I want to talk about the good of it all. What comes from sharing books featuring children of one race or culture, with readers of another? That’s what I want to speak to.
I know a thing or two about sharing children’s books across the color line, and not because I’ve taken polls, but because I’ve written and published more than 60 books since I entered this field, in 1977. Over that time, I’ve gathered hundreds of letters and emails from readers. I haven’t crunched the numbers, but I’ll wager that a significant percentage of them are something other than African American. Some are Asian, some are Latino, and many are white. How do I know that? It’s usually easy enough to judge from the name but often I don’t have to because the readers, unbidden, choose to mention their ethnicity. Yes, they write to tell me how they feel about my books, but also to introduce themselves. In the process, they share basic information about who they are: their names, ages, schools, grades, where they come from, and their ethnic backgrounds. Mind you, if we adults didn’t make such a big deal of the latter, these young people wouldn’t either!
The notes and letters I receive from children and young adults across the country, and around the world, are very telling. Here’s what I’ve learned from readers:
They like humor.
They enjoy being moved and inspired.
Some have come to my books disliking poetry, but have come to love it. Many have since tried their hand at poetry, themselves.
Some come to my books as reluctant readers, but leave as avid readers.
They relate to my contemporary storylines.
They see themselves in my characters.
As for the color of my characters? Basically, my readers could care less. When they comment on race at all, it is only to explain exactly why race doesn’t matter:
Zach A. writes: “I think that if most of the characters in a book are not the same race as you, that should not stop you from reading it. That’s racist and just plain silly.”
Ary B. comments: “I stick my nose in your book, and have a hard time taking my nose out of it. I can put myself in your characters’ shoes and pretend to be them, even though I am white. I think African American authors should actually be recognized more, because it is nice to think that instead of assuming everyone is white, which white people tend to think, we are looking at the world in a whole new perspective.”
Can I get an Amen?
Unlike adults, children and young adults get it: the thing that matters most about a book is Story. And when readers are given the opportunity to dive into stories across lines of color and culture, they walk away with valuable lessons, such as:
- We are more alike than we are different.
- We all bleed.
- We all experience joy and laughter, suffering and pain.
- We all need love and blossom when we have it.
- We are all capable of both good and evil.
- What separates us is not our color, but our character.
We live in a country that, in word at least, celebrates its cultural multiplicity. Isn’t it past time that the books we share with our children reflect that, as well? There is only one right answer to that question, by the way.
If we live in a culturally diverse world—and we do—it behooves us to learn something about the cultural groups we live among. One of the least intimidating ways to learn those lessons is between the pages of a book. Yes, I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating.
As we in the diverse children’s book community like to say, let’s move the needle. This issue has been stuck on pause long enough, and it’s our children—Native American, Asian, Latino, African-American, and white—who are paying the cost.
I just got back home from seeing the movie, “Heaven is for Real” and I’m baffled.
“Heaven is For Real,” based on a book of the same name, is the story of a four-year old boy who has a near-death experience. Once he returns to his body, he begins relating anecdotes of his visit to heaven. He’s quite matter-of-fact about it all. Sadly, no one else is. Not the members of the church board, who prayed fiercely for his recovery; not his mother who leads the church choir; not even his father, who is the church’s pastor. And that’s what’s baffling. A man acquainted with the holy scriptures, which declare the existence of heaven, in no uncertain terms; a man who has read about, and, I’m sure, preached on the promise that, when a believer dies, he or she will enter heaven and be greeted by loved ones who passed on, before—this man does not actually believe that his son has seen heaven, or that heaven physically, literally—not metaphorically—exists.
What is such a man doing in the pulpit? What exactly is his wife singing about every Sunday morning? Why do members of the church board bother to gather, at all? That is what baffles me. After all, when it comes to the Nicene Creed, Heaven and Hell, death, resurrection and eternal life are pretty basic.
In May of 1974, I rocked back and forth over the grave of my daughter, Tawfiqa, my one and only child. She died just before her fourth birthday. As a poet and author, it’s fair to say that I am quite the wordsmith. However, believe me when I say this: I do not possess the language to make you understand the depth of the pain I felt at the loss of my child. The pain I feel. The pain I will continue to feel until the day I die. What makes it possible for me to stand, let alone laugh and know joy in my life, is the certainly that I will one day see my precious child again. The Bible has taught me that. The Spirit of God has impressed that upon my heart. Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ who died on Calvary, then conquered death by rising again, did so, in part, to make that very reunion possible. If you believe that, as I do, you live your life with power. If you don’t, as the pastor in this film did not, then you live within the constraints of your own human power, which is to say, with no power at all. Let’s face it, human power is, at the end of the day, an illusion. I’m not interested in living with the limitations of man. Are you? But I digress.
My central question, here, is why anyone would pour himself into the work of the church universal if he doesn’t even believe in its most basic doctrines. And when he, for a moment, began to consider that maybe heaven actually was real, why did he care that people made fun of him for it? If, in fact, he’s going to heaven, he will most certainly have the last laugh. When people mock my faith, that’s what I hold onto. But then, he is not me.
Maybe the gentleman in this story was placed near the Light so that his own son could lead him fully into it. Yeah. That could be it. Of course, what this particular man was doing in that particular church pulpit is really none of my business. It’s God’s. Better I should direct my time and energy into feeling grateful—grateful that I believe in the Christ who died so that I could live for him here on earth, and with him some day in heaven; grateful that I can look forward to seeing my beautiful daughter, again, as well as my foster brother, and many others whom I’ve lost along the way; grateful that my belief in such things is matter-of-fact—not because such things aren’t miraculous, but because the God of the Universe has shown me miracles time and time again.
What about you? Have you run into any angels lately? Have you experienced the miraculous? Do you even want to? The one great power we humans have is choice.
Letter writing has become a lost art. I’m sure you’ve heard that before. I wish it wasn’t true. Beyond simply languishing in a sea of despond over the matter, though, I do my best to hold the line. I write letters, at least randomly, if not routinely. No matter how much time I need to set aside for the task, I’m never sorry that I did.
In recent months, a dear friend of mine lost his partner of over 30 years. Her death was both sudden and grisly. As you might imagine, her passing left my friend spinning. I’ve buried enough loved-ones to more than empathize.
I was rocked by the news when it reached me, one time-zone and hundreds of miles away. Immediately, I wanted to cover the crack in my friend’s heart with my own two hands, but I couldn’t. I wanted to offer my shoulder for those unutterable moments when he could no longer hold back the tears, but I couldn’t. I wanted to hop on the next plane and, literally, fly to his side. But, for a host of reasons, I couldn’t. And yet, I was desperate to be present for my friend.
I sat down to write him a letter, one of the things I had it in my power to do. I’ve written several letters since, penned a poem just for him, and sent a collection of verse that might bring him a little healing, a little light. I sent each with the appropriate postage, and something more: I sent each with a prayer, and I hoped. I hoped that my meager attempts at being present, from a great distance, would, in some small way, matter.
The other day, I received a card from this friend, with a carefully worded, handwritten note. The first words made my heart leap:
Thank you, thank you, thank you…”
In the body of the note, my friend let me know that my words on paper had spoken hope to his heart; that they had given him glimpses of a future in which he would, once again, be able to step into the light; that my simple words of encouragement and connection had mattered to him in this extraordinary time of need, and had mattered deeply.
When was the last time you wrote a letter? I’m not talking about a hastily dashed-off email, sent between sips of coffee, or bites of a hamburger during lunch. I’m talking about an old-fashioned, carefully considered, handwritten or typed letter. When?
I know you’re busy. Who isn’t? But when did we become so busy that we don’t make time for a friend who hungers for the words of encouragement, hope, advice—or even humor—that only we, as friends, can offer? Yes, finding the time to write a letter can be difficult. However, when those words matter as deeply as they do, isn’t it worth the l sacrifice?
Maybe one day, you trade the time you’d spend hanging out on Facebook, or checking your Twitter feed, to compose a letter instead. Or maybe you give up one episode of that half-hour sitcom to do the deed. The fact is, time can always be found for the things that matter. All I’m saying is, this is one of them.
That’s it. That’s all I have to say on the subject, except this: What are you waiting for? Somebody needs to hear from your heart, and a letter can be the perfect package in which to send it.