Black Box: Race in Children’s Literature

Posted February 17th, 2011

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?

This Ain’t No Joke

Posted February 1st, 2011


A Dime a DozenMy girlfriend
Guadalupe knows
she’s not
the only one
who speaks
two tongues.
I’m fluent in
two Englishes:
one “Black”
the other “good.”
It pays to speak
both languages
/in my neighborhood.

—A Dime a Dozen


This is a touchy subject, so I may as well jump on in.

I was recently asked to read and comment on a book featuring a main character who frequently thinks and speaks in poor English throughout, and I had a problem with it.

I grew up in neighborhoods where children, and many adults for that matter, dropped g’s and split infinitives on a daily basis. And, to be clear, I’m not talking about regional dialects, or colloquialisms. I’m talking about grammatically incorrect English. I heard it used every day. I, myself, was discouraged from using it by my parents, and most especially by my self-taught grandmother, who would drop everything and give me the evil-eye if I so much as used the word “ain’t” in her presence.

Now, I was not taught that I would be better than anyone else if I used “good” English, but I definitely got the message that the use of standard English grammar would stand me in good stead when I went out into the larger world to make my way. Wise advice, as it turned out.

Right or wrong, in mainstream society, particularly in the marketplace, we are judged by the manner in which we communicate. If we routinely use incorrect grammar, (or speak with a thick accent) we are often assumed to be less intelligent or capable than someone who uses good grammar. Mind you, the Standard English speaker may not, in fact, be the smarter of the two. However, doors will be opened for the one, and closed to the other, based solely on the perception of intelligence as judged on the basis of speech patterns. Anyone who has ever been an immigrant, as I once was in Sweden, knows exactly what I’m talking about.

What does all of this have to do with the book I read? I’m getting to that.

Most of the stories I write are set in the kind of inner-city neighborhoods I grew up in. My characters live and breathe in these communities, have the same experiences as people living there, struggle with the same problems, and share the same regional dialects, slang, and colloquialisms. However, you will not hear my characters using poor grammar, and that is not by accident.

For more than 30 years, I have been giving voice to African American children, in general, and urban children of color in particular. I create stories that validate them, respect them, and speak to and through them. And I do so without using heavy dialect or incorrect grammar. Why? While I’m all about validating the person, I don’t want to encourage or validate a speech pattern that will ill serve these children later in life when they leave the neighborhood to work, get a higher education, or apply for a bank loan to start a business. Instead, I try to create a good and valuable model of language use that, I hope, my readers will aspire to; models that language arts teachers and reading coaches can point to as they seek to raise the language bar for their African American students, in particular. And yes, there’s definitely a line, here. I walk it every single time I put pen to paper.

Like many authors, I often choose to use authentic speech in the dialogue I write, but I’ve discovered that a little goes a very long way.

Some people argue that there’s nothing wrong with mimicking the actual speech patterns they hear in a given community since, well, that is the way they speak. But that’s a weak argument. Sure, I’ve heard children say “we ain’t been doing nothing bad,” it’s true. However, there are also those who use four letter words with great abandon, and employ the “f” bomb in every other sentence. Should storytellers, particularly those of us who write for children, mimic that, as well?

As writers of fiction, our job is not to regurgitate everything we see and hear precisely as we see and hear it. We are not reporters, or court stenographers. We are storytellers. As such, we get to make decisions about what our characters say, and how they say it. And those of us who write for children have an added responsibility in the models we create for our young readers. After all, we are reaching them at a time in their lives when they are still malleable. That matters.

There’s another side to this issue, though. Call this the dollars-and-cents side of things. African American children’s authors are already at a disadvantage in the marketplace. We have a tough time getting our books into the mainstream simply by virtue of the fact that our book covers feature black characters. As it is, there are booksellers, teachers, parents, and even librarians who presume that a child who is other than African-American will not relate to a book featuring an African American character. Ask any Black author you know, and he or she will confirm what I say. We, as authors, have to work doubly hard to prove how wrong this assumption is. Given such a climate, is it really wise to create a book written in a manner that will discourage even more teachers from using that book in their classrooms, or keep librarians from sharing it with the students they serve, or dissuade booksellers outside of the black community from putting it on their shelves?

Obviously, the choice of language style is up to the individual author. I’d simply like to stress that there is a great deal to consider when making that choice.