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.