In the Ghetto

Posted October 27th, 2010

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.

“Black History Month”

Posted October 11th, 2010

Talkin' About Bessie

I don’t live in real time. Does anyone? It seems the practice of being present has gone the way of the dinosaurs. But I digress. My profession requires me to always think ahead. I’m forever mired in planning future speaking events, booking flights, scheduling school visits, preparing future conference presentations, navigating book deadlines—always looking ahead. So, although it’s only October, my thoughts are already running to February. More specifically, to Black History Month.

I have mixed feelings about Black History Month. Don’t get me wrong. I love the attention on heroes and heroines of the African American persuasion, though I see no reason not to highlight them year round as part of, say, American History. BTW, I loved Chris Crutcher’s comment on  “Color Me Perplexed,” in Hunger Mountain, regarding a bookstore’s mind-boggling segregation of black history books from American history books. As Dyamonde Daniel would say, “Puleeze!” And yes, I get why there’s a Black Studies section in many bookstores, but what about shelving key titles in both sections? Why not shelve a biography of Bessie Coleman, say, in both the biography and the black studies sections? Who knows? A body might actually be able to find the book they want. Okay. Enough on that subject, for now.

Black History Month definitely has its plusses. I especially appreciate some of the wonderful films and documentaries featured that month on network and cable television. One of the things I do have a problem with, though, is being trotted out as the lone black act in a conference or book festival held during that month. I often get the distinct impression that the inviter has no particular liking, passion, or even knowledge of my body of work. All that matters during the month of February is the color of my skin. Period. My name on the program takes care of the requisite quota of color for the conference sponsor. One black author booked for Black History Month. Check!

I rarely accept invitations to speak during the month of February. Can you blame me? If someone wants to pull me away from my writing desk, I prefer it be because my work is known and respected, and not because I am the politically correct choice for Black History Month. I’m just saying.

That said, I’ve spoken to enough librarians and reading specialists to know that, in some cases, author invitations are tied to special funding for multicultural programs, which can most easily be exploited on holidays such as Martin Luther King jr.’s birthday, or during Black History Month, (or Chinese New Year, or Cesar Chavez Day, etc.) For those sponsors in that position, by all means, make hay while the sun shines. But do choose an author whose work matters to you and your students, please. Don’t choose him, or her, based on skin color alone.

How about we invite, support, recognize all worthy authors—of whatever color— year-round? How about that? It’s just a thought.