Lessons from Charleston

Posted June 22nd, 2015

Bronx MasqueradeAn unarmed black person dies at the hands of, or in the custody of, white policemen, and we run around as if our hair were on fire, screaming, “What can we do? What can we do?”

Nine black souls are massacred in a house of worship, in a state where the Confederate flag, symbol of hatred, flies proudly, and we run around as if our hair were on fire, screaming, “What can we do? What can we do?”

I won’t claim to have all the answers, but I certainly can suggest a few, the most important of which has nothing to do with gun control, and everything to do with empathy. We need to teach our children empathy. It’s a lot harder to murder someone you have empathy for than someone you don’t.

The perpetrator of this latest atrocity was not mentally ill, as some wish to suggest. (Please don’t insult me by suggesting every white person who kills a black person is mentally ill. I grew up with a parent who was genuinely mentally ill, so I, for one, know the difference. Oh, and, I should note: she didn’t kill anyone.) Nor was this perpetrator born with hate in his heart. No one is. Hatred is a seed that must be planted, watered, fertilized, and nurtured. The ugly fruit of hatred is not produced in a single, sudden moment. Rather, it ripens over time. It is not inevitable. I repeat: race hatred is not inevitable.

As a seedling, hatred can be uprooted early on. Or, it can be left untouched in its own environment and allowed to produce a head and heart both poisoned, and poisonous. While children are yet children, and still under our care, we adults get to influence which of those two things happen.

Instead of looking the other way while hatred takes root in young hearts and minds, why not try this: Plant the seeds of empathy. Teach the young to feel the heartbeats of races and cultures other than their own. Replace any possible fear of the unknown, with knowledge of the knowable. Teach them the ways in which we humans are more alike than we are different. Teach them that the most important common denominator is the human heart. Start with a book.

Give young readers books by and about peoples labeled “other.” I’m not talking about one or two books, here and there. I’m talking about spreading diverse books throughout the curriculum, beginning in elementary grades, and continuing through to high school. Why? Because racism is systemic and teaching empathy, teaching diversity, needs to be systemic, too.

You say you want to change the dynamic of race relations in America. Well, here is a place to begin—unless, of course, you’re not really serious. In that case, by all means, keep running around like your hair is on fire, screaming, “What can we do? What can we do?” every time an unarmed black person is killed by a white policeman, or a group of innocent black people is massacred. Just don’t expect me to keep listening. I’ve already told you where to begin.

Mister Cellophane

Posted September 11th, 2014

A Good Long WayI recently read a blog post by author René Saldaña, Jr., that got me wondering—and not for the first time—how much effort teachers and librarians, especially, go to when searching for books by authors of color. It is a question worth asking.

The other day, out of curiosity, I Googled myself. I found a whopping 1, 470,000 results listed under my name. These include bios, videos, interviews, periodical features, photos, and, of course, books and audio-books. Wow. And yet, I regularly meet teachers and librarians who are wholly unfamiliar with my work. How is that possible?

Talkin' About BessieNow, I’m not saying my work is the greatest thing since sliced bread, because there are writers out there whose wordsmithing I envy. What I’m saying is that my titles are not exactly in hiding. In fact, throughout the course of my career, I have worked diligently to make sure they’re not. From seeking out bookstore signings, in my early days; to doing school visits; to producing postcards and bookmarks; to creating a comprehensive website; to investing in teacher guides for my books; to developing an online presence via Facebook, and now Twitter—in these ways, and more, I have made a concerted effort to put my work out there. How is it, then, that many people still manage to miss it?

Pocketful of PoemsBefore I go any further, let me say that I am extremely grateful for those teachers and librarians who have sought out and found my work, over the years, and then went on to share it with the students they serve. Obviously, I wouldn’t have much of a career without these literature-loving professionals. They have kept a goodly percentage of my 46 trade, and 20-odd mass-market books in print. I’m hoping they receive to my next two titles with equal kindness. However, after 30+ years in the business, I still routinely hear people say, “I’ve looked for your work everywhere and can’t find it,” to which I respond, “Huh?”

Almost ZeroI have a website featuring all of my titles, awards, audio-clips, and select reviews, with posted links to IndieBound.org and Amazon.com. In addition, I have a Wikipedia page, as well as an Amazon.com page. How hard have you been looking, exactly? I’m confused.

Sylvia Vardell’s must-view Poetry for Children website lists many of my poetry titles. TeachingBooks.net features my Coretta Scott King Award and Honor winners (six in total). I, thankfully, have books on any number of Best Book lists. Tell me again how hard it is to find my work.

Bronx MasqueradeClearly, there’s more to the lack of diversity in children’s books than whether or not POC are creating and publishing them. Could it be that some lack the motivation to seek out the books that are already there? That’s what René Saldaña, Jr., is asking. Now, I am, too.

Mind you, I’m not saying that we don’t need more books by people of color, because we most certainly do. The numbers show that we are woefully off the mark in producing diverse books in numbers commensurate with the proportion of our ever-increasingly diverse population. But that said, I am suggesting that we, perhaps, look at the issue a little more closely, that we ask a few more uncomfortable, but necessary, questions.

René Saldaña, Jr., spoke to this issue from the point of view of an author with a little less visibility than mine. And yet I have to agree with so much of what he has to say.

The juggernaut that is #WeNeedDiverseBooks is hard at work to raise the visibility of books by, and for, people of color. This is great and important work. Still, I can’t help but wonder if there’s more going on beneath the surface that would explain why the gatekeepers in this business continue to miss the POC books—including Coretta Scott King, Pura Belpré, Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, and National Book Award Winners—that are already out in the marketplace.

Where, exactly, is the disconnect? Is it the want-to that’s missing? If so, how do we begin to address it?

Let’s talk.

Everything Old is New Again

Posted July 21st, 2014

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.

newspaper article

“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?” 

Akua Dixon

Akua Dixon (photo: James Rich)

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.

The Road to ParisI 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:

Bronx MasqueradeMariah T. says: “I’m white but to me race doesn’t matter, not one bit, and I’m reading your book Bronx Masquerade, and so far, I love it.”

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.

Planet Middle SchoolWe 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.