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Free Expression Articles

Reading Racism: Don’t Let Books Become Victims of Our Discourse on Race Published on The Root

At a time when racist actions fill our newsfeeds and send us into a low-grade depression, the last thing we want to see is the n-word in our children’s schoolbooks. So the recent decision of a Virginia mother to ask that state’s Accomack County to remove Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird from the local schools was understandable. It just wasn’t right.

But I get it. I was a young person for whom the n-word and others equally damaging were the flora and fauna of my environment. So when my kids were little, I, too, tried to keep certain words from crossing my lips. I switched off certain songs when they played on the radio, and monitored the movies that came into my home. But then I decided to write a historical novel about a girl held in slavery, and guess what? The words that the master used to address the young female protagonist could not be pretty. What would he call her? You can imagine.

Our kids need our protection but also our honesty. So books that describe a racist society as a racist society are not bad. They are necessary. If a character in a book uses the n-word, we can explain this to our child in the same way we teach that God is invisible, death is inevitable and it is folly to make idols out of celebrities. That’s the reality of parenting, and it is our duty.

We also need to point our children in the direction of books that will support their self-concepts. We Need Diverse Books is one resource. So are the Brown Bookshelf and anything published by Lee and Low and Just Us Books.

But it’s important to take a hard line on the removal of books from classrooms and shelves. Not only does that express our fear of ideas, but the crazy thing about censorship is that everyone wants the other person to shut up. So when we take books that we don’t like from the shelves, we can’t complain when others remove those that reflect our views. What happens if books about civil rights, early freedom fighters and slavery, for example, begin to disappear? You can bet that in this conservative era, threats to books like that will be forthcoming.

To Kill a Mockingbird and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were immediately taken from the shelves because the rule in Accomack County is that a challenged book must disappear until there is a review. But then there was an outcry in support of the First Amendment, with advocates pointing out the books’ positive values of teaching history and racism for generations. The books were quickly reviewed and put back.

I was one of about a dozen black youths in a school of 900 whites in the 1960s. Books by authors of all races buffered me. They were especially helpful if they were set in another time. From The Three Musketeers to Oliver Twist to Black Boy, books gave me the tools to view injustice from a safe distance. Literature from the past does the same thing now. Kids can read about struggles in other eras and contextualize their daily outrage. Books can show them that the human condition is often tumultuous and unpredictable.

Literature also offers tools to see the gray areas of ethics, so necessary at this point in our history. Classic books with well-drawn characters may let our kids step back from the Machiavellian rhetoric in our environment to a more thoughtful place where they can understand the differences between well-meaning people and just plain mean ones.

In our electronically saturated society, young people read headlines much more than a whole story, and they frequently hear outcries without any historical background. They need books that show them the kinds of societies in which racism flourished in as much complexity and reality as an author can muster.

Good books don’t inflict the wounds; they provide the balms. Just consider the words, “Once upon a time … ” It is the beginning of every fairy tale. There are bad guys and good guys. A child identifies with the hero, the good person.

And we, parents and teachers, reinforce that. We tell our children that they, too, have courage and resilience inside themselves, just like the main character. They will rise above their difficulties and surroundings, we predict. And if we live without fear of words, ideas or racism itself, our children will believe us. Then we will have our happy ending. Our children will be able to recognize the difference between right and wrong. And they will grow into the heroes of their families and communities and our nation.  Read More 

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Books Like These Are Meant to be Troubling Published on website

This is an era of toxic rhetoric. But we cannot shy away from words. For that reason, the decision of a Accomack County, Virginia, to remove To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum because of a parent complaint is more than troubling. It doesn’t even get to troubling because it is a knee-jerk reaction to racist language in an attempt to kick it out of the minds of young readers like a computer program that blocks harmful content but won’t allow a kid to research a science project.

But let’s not be afraid. The difference between humans and computers is considerable. Technology tries to replicate thinking. People actually do it, and literature is one of the building blocks of this process. Literature offers moral values, presents historical time frames, and provides context to promote civil discussions among classmates under the guidance of their teachers. That way students won’t grow up to be trolls and name-callers without knowing the weight of their words

The well-meaning parent who sought removal of these books was concerned about the stress of racist language on her child as well she should be. She might live in a culture where this language is commonplace and approved. But she shouldn’t stop there. Books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird let us all know that some people use racist words casually, act on them righteously, and even join in communities to persecute others because of the racist beliefs that these words connote. The popularity of these books should let her know that the rest of the world knows this is wrong.

Books like these are meant to be troubling because that is a type of deep, personal thinking about a word, an issue, or a social more. The two classics that are being removed have been challenging injustice in our society for generations.

I hope our children will be troubled by racist words, bad ideas, and society’s injustice. And I hope they will read about them before they experience them, so that they will have a good retort. May literature continue to point out society’s failures. And may we not become the automatons of parenting and teaching. We can explain to our kids what these words meant back in the day, and also what they mean right now. Read More 

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Unabridged Remarks from "Who Are You to Say" Bank Street College of Education Conference on Censorship

For the sake of time, I shortened these remarks when I spoke at the Bank Street College of Education's Conference on Censorship called "Who Are You to Say." I'm putting them unabridged on this blog so that readers can connect one idea to another, which may not have been apparent at the April 16, 2016 panel.

When I became the co-chair of the Children’s Committee at the PEN American Center about a year ago, it seemed that books were being challenged about every two weeks. That may have slowed a bit — perhaps due to the election. But we’ve recently had some of the biggest controversies — the Texas textbooks and A Birthday Cake for George Washington. They have both given us pause as to what is good sense and what is too much sensitivity with regard to writing and speaking out about children’s publishing. Both are difficult subjects in this new age of diversity. I want us to look at the long view right now about sense and sensitivity when it comes to race.

When I was thinking about my presentation this morning, I wondered about what I be able to say to the people at Bank Street. You see hundreds of children’s books, and give awards and recognitions (among them was one of my picture books many years ago). So I thought I would speak not only as a co-chair at PEN but as a person who grew up in segregation, attended segregated schools, and traveled from New Orleans to Ottawa as a child so that my father could earn his Ph.D. at a place where his race didn’t matter. This was 50 years ago and now we are still returning to the subject of race (putting it now under the category of diversity). So I’d also like to address the questions “What is race?” and “What role does it play in the minds of all of us?” '

1. So what is race? Race is a social construction, a straw man created to be embellished. Its existence serves the economic and cultural purposes of the status quo.

Race is the creation of the black stranger – with glaring examples across the ages from the Hottentot Venus to Willie Horton to Trayvon Martin. Race reframes people not as individuals but icons of sex, fear, and crime.
Race means nothing without these definitions. We’re not talking about color (as any child will tell you peach, tan, brown, pink) DNA, traditions and culture — which make up ethnicity. We are talking about something that exists because we give it certain qualities — which in our culture for African-Americans has traditionally meant stereotypes of inferiority of otherness.

So when we talk about African-American children in books and we seek redefinition, we must understand we are seeking to redefine something that has been made up to begin with.

2. Know our African-American writers as early as Jupiter Hammon (born 1711) and Phyllis Wheatley (born 1753) were fighting the perception of race centuries ago. “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train” (Wheatley) or Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” or Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery and W. E. B. Dubois’ Souls of Black Folk and Lucille Clifton’s “Homage to My Hips” through Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming.

In sum, the process across the centuries has been to show our humanity, to show a good image, to expose intellect, and to speak boldly of self in relation to culture.

In all cases, the goal has been to write for oneself and not be defined by anyone else (because those negative definitions have been all around us).

Of course, in my life the children’s book which spoke to me was Black Sambo. That was the only book I saw with a dark-skinned character. Then, a decade ago, I was going through the library at my daughter’s school with my fellow PEN members for our first venture to New Orleans after Katrina. I found a book called Beloved Belindy. She was the Mammy of Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy. That book had stayed around until 1950, according to author Kimberly Wallace-Sanders. It was in my children’s school library in 2010. The book upheld the idea that plantation life was not that bad — an idea that is returning in publishing. I thought we should not send it to New Orleans to children who had gone through the trauma of Katrina already. Was that sense or sensitivity or censorship?

The author’s intention with Belindy was no doubt to open paths to other experiences for young readers. But the book was obviously not written in accordance with the actual history of plantation wet-nurses or with the thought lines of African American literature. Its inauthenticity (even for its time) made it was clear because it did not work through or acknowledge the past as all good art does.

3. In children’s literature — all publishing — two factors are at work: one is authenticity and one is market. Authenticity is a given. We ask our children’s writers to be accurate.

The second factor is market. So we must understand that when we write about race we offering a social construction of race for the marketplace. We must also understand the content that we are bringing to the table — as supportive of a racist economic system, or contrary to it, or to attempt to make some revisions. If we don't think deeply about our charge then we have abdicated our responsibility obviously to our readers and the culture.

3. Law alone is not enough as the Civil Rights legislation has shown us. There must be action. Today, sometimes there is. Yes someone writes a bad book. Yes there is an outcry. Yes the publisher takes it back. This is the dialogue in a nutshell that may have taken decades to come – certainly for Belindy -- now brought to us in the 24 hour news cycle.

And sometimes we keep a book to show the thinking it displays, to use it as research, and we let it die a natural death.
Why don’t we ban it? We support the First Amendment because we know that publication puts all ideas before individuals who can choose their positions for themselves. As a supporter of the First Amendment, I don’t always take pleasure in this. It doesn’t always feel like a victory.  Read More 

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Birds Nests and Books PEN American Center blog


PEN joined a coalition of advocacy groups, led by Free Press, on Monday to advocate for the Open Net and preserve net neutrality. Author Fatima Shaik, a member of PEN's Children's and Young Adult Committee, participated in the rally and gave this fiery speech below.

Writers use the internet like birds build nests. We search all over for strong material to construct literature that will support the next generation.

We also communicate over the airwaves to readers. You have all heard the excitement once a few of us start chirping.

Writers communicate with readers now more than ever because of the internet, and we need the FCC to maintain these relationships. For children’s literacy, for adult intellectual engagement, and for democracy—we don't want our ideas and values controlled by commercial interests.

I am particularly concerned with children as a member of the Children’s and Young Adult Committee of PEN. We have seen children’s excitement about learning grow when they have personal contact with the authors of their books. Now, because of the internet, children communicate freely in group chats to authors, in video school visits, on authors’ websites and even from home. We have the technology and it’s affordable. We ask the FCC to not allow a distinction between rich children and poor children for information.

Adult readers, as well, are intellectually engaged now over the internet. They are learning about their health and finances, having their favorite authors visit their book clubs via the internet, and realizing the depth of their rights and responsibilities through social media. We see one another's actions raw and unfiltered. We clarify our values. We speak out. That’s the definition of democracy.
Writers believed John Milton when he wrote, in essence, that people who have all the information will make good and rational decisions.

Literacy is the great equalizer. In the past, literature brought together people of all classes and countries of origin into a national flock. Now we need media literacy. We read books over the internet. We search libraries across the world. We carry electronic readers with millions of ideas. We come together because of our values. One that we still hold is equality.

But people cannot be media literate without enough access. And they cannot be equal without equal access—what we call net neutrality. So we need the FCC to protect net neutrality.

The airwaves are pathways to our nests. Writers and readers need to nest, rest and think. We ask the FCC to strongly regulate commercial interests for the good of all of us. Read More 
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The Great Migration and the New Orleans Diaspora: A Review and Reflection (appeared in the New Orleans Tribune)

Isabel Wilkerson’s first book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, couldn’t have come out at a better time for black New Orleanians, who as 2010 statistics confirmed but our own hearts knew lost more than a third of our community in the last decade. As we  Read More 
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A Historical Play with Modern Significance (appeared in the New Orleans Tribune)

One of the biggest challenges for modern people trying to understand history is to conceive of the past beyond stereotypes. When we use Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of Civil Rights resistance, we must also consider the troops of housecleaners, preachers, construction workers, teachers and others earlier in the 20th century whose  Read More 
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Capturing Race

Fatima Shaik: Writing Melitte

In my young adult novel Melitte, I did not let readers know that she was a slave until the third chapter. I wanted them first to identify with the soft-spoken, intelligent narrator.

Readers first learn that Melitte is running away with her sister, that the Chaouachas men are hiding them  Read More 
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