The Color of Character

Posted January 13th, 2012

Book CoversFor the record, I’ve never had a nose job, or tried to bleach my skin. I do not straighten my hair—not that there’s anything wrong with that. The fact is, for decades now, I have worn my hair natural in celebration of my African heritage. I am now, and have always been, black and proud.

That said, I take issue with the fact that reviewers routinely begin every discussion of my books by identifying my characters as African American. Now, before you chime in with comments about ethnic pride (“My Greek friends refer to themselves as Greek Americans,” one woman told me, while another said “I’d never call myself Greek-American”) that’s not what I’m talking about, here. Under consideration here are how books are defined in terms of race.

As I noted in a conversation on Facebook, if I were Italian, no reviewer would refer to the characters in my book as Italian-American, unless that heritage was of particular consequence in the storyline. Yet, when it comes to my books, no such distinction is made. The specter of race is raised right out of the gate, with every title, nearly every time, subject notwithstanding. Just recently, I read an otherwise wonderful review of my latest novel, Planet Middle School that did exactly that.


I know it’s possible to write a thoughtful review of this book without mentioning race because K.T. Horning created one for Booklist. Now, since I’ve been in the business for more than 30 years, and most of my books have centered on characters of African American descent, it can be assumed, without prejudice, that my new book does so as well. However, race is by no means germane to the subject or treatment of this particular novel. You’d never know that, though, according to the first review referenced above. Why does that matter? I’m glad you asked.

I understand why librarians might want to be able to quickly identify titles of particular interest to African American readers. And were I a first, or second, or third time author, with no track record, or body of work, or status in the children’s book community, one might argue the importance of mentioning race, at least initially, in connection with my titles. However, none of that is the case.

At this stage of the game, most people involved with, or making use of, children’s literature know that I’m African American, and that my primary characters are, in the main, African American, too. Mind you, I’m not suggesting that I’m “famous” in the sense that we speak of celebrities (God forbid!), but merely that I am well established in the children’s book community, and it is a fairly simple matter to ascertain that the characters of most of my books are African American without having the fact mentioned in review after review after review. Besides, the cover art makes it plain, does it not? (I’ve all but begged publishers to consider creating covers for my books that are not always race-specific, but to no avail!)

“But,” you ask, “what if the cover art is not included in the review?” No problem. Take two seconds to go to or or the Barnes and Noble website, click on the title in question, and up pops the telling cover art, in no time flat. Problem solved. And oh, by the way, if race is the only common denominator book buyers are interested in, they’re free to check out the special listings publishers produce each year to highlight their own black and multicultural titles. Most publishers’ catalogs I see, these days, have a section set aside for those titles. And don’t forget the annual Publisher’s Weekly issue on black books in—when is that? February?

Of course, my issue with the whole race question in discussing children’s literature (or any literature, for that matter) is, if you will, more than skin deep. I have a problem with segregating teaching or reading practices in all schools, whether a school is segregated or racially mixed. Be a student black, brown, yellow, or white-skinned, he should be encouraged to read a diverse selection of good books by authors of every race. Period.

Is a book well written? Is the story well told? Will the subject matter resonate with readers? Does the book have the potential for making an emotional connection with readers? These are the kinds of questions teachers and librarians should be focused on. In the case of books in which race is central to the storyline, race should absolutely come in for a mention. But where it does not, it should not. That is my contention.

Race, as an explicit designation in books, has a marketing component that can’t be overlooked. Books identified as “black” are frequently marginalized in the marketing plan. Their appeal is automatically considered to be narrower than books written by Caucasian authors, sometimes even when those books are about non-white characters. The point-of-view is assumed to be universal, simply by virtue of the white author’s race. In the sellers’ mind, a so-called “black book,” i.e., a book written by a black author, should be exclusively marketed to black buyers. As such, said books are rarely made available in outlets located in predominantly white neighborhoods. This makes me crazy because I have avid fans in those neighborhoods, too. I know because I meet them during my school visits, and find their letters among my fan mail. Luckily for me (and them?) they were exposed to my work at their local library.

I can’t help but wonder how many students are missing out on these reading experiences because my “black books” aren’t being marketed to a broader audience. I never know whether to ball my fists or cry.

I find myself annoyed by reviewers who give my books left-handed compliments. In the first sentence of their review, they’ll mention the African American lead character. Then, in the final sentence, they’ll offer some version of “but the story has universal appeal.” Well, duh! If that’s the case, why bother to point out the fact that the character is African American?

(A question just came to me. Can you imagine referring to a computer program design, or a medical breakthrough, or a work of architecture as “black” simply because the creator was African American? I’m just wondering. Where do we draw the line?)

As I sit at my computer, typing this blog, I think back on some of the gorgeously crafted, well-imagined books I read last year as a judge for the National Book Award. I would hate to think that African American students will miss out on the titles that don’t happen to feature African American characters, or that white students will miss out on those books that do. What a crying shame!

I might be inclined to shrug my shoulders and say, “Maybe it’s just me,” except I know it isn’t. There are other authors of color who are bugged by this issue, as well. (And what about those authors who are from South Africa, but are not black? What kind of box do reviewers put their books into? Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to give race more than its due!) Still, I can’t speak for all authors of African descent. It’s quite possible that some are content to have their entire body of work boiled down to the color of their skin. As for me, I’d rather be known for writing books that are moving, inspiring, impacting, emotionally charged, beautifully written, cleverly constructed and—oh, yeah—universally appealing!

But that’s just me.