Publishing’s Bondage and Freedom

breaking-chains

With the announcement of “When We Was Fierce” being pulled just days before publication for revision, the YA twitter sphere has been having some deep, profound, and insightful conversations about positive representations and how meaningful they are to People of Color. E.E. Charlton-Trujillo and her publisher’s decision to pull the book highlights that all the conversations had offline and online, all the conference panels, research done by Lee & Low, and all the good work done by WNDB is having an effect. I applaud Charlton-Trujillo and her publishers willingness to listen to the voices of those who were hurt by the book and decided to take positive action.

All of these conversations were in the back of my mind as I attended a panel about the past, present and future of African-American publishing the other night. The moderator decided to frame the panel conversation around a quote from Fredrick Douglass, which also got me thinking about why the types of conversations we’ve been having, and all the work to diversify YA literature is important, and not a trend.

From his autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, the quote essentially states (and I’m paraphrasing*), “Reading and writing can move Black folk from bondage to freedom.” Douglass’s quote is powerful and stepped in truth because slaves were purposefully prevented from learning to read and write in order for the slave masters to control them, because an educated slave is a dangerous slave.

As that quote rolled around in my brain, I thought of the very fight that is happening in our industry right now. Authors of color are literally fighting their bondage (lack of representation) to their freedom (inclusiveness in the publishing industry). Reading and writing does not only move Black folk out of bondage but it moves us all. When we have accurate portrayals of the different voices of our world, we all become enlightened to the lives of people who are not like us and become more empathetic people. Our imaginations are powerful and literature is the door that can literally open new worlds.

That can only happen if our literature reflects the wide and diverse experiences of the people living in our beautiful world. That is why #ownvoices is important, why #DVpit is important, and why we need to continue to push the publishing industry to not just say it’s going to make change, but hold publishing houses accountable. It is also why teachers and librarians need to continue to teach and push diverse texts in the classroom.

Those members of the publishing industry who have privilege need to stop putting their heads in the sand and listen to People of Color when we say a book hurts us, when we say that bad representation is worse than no representation, and not claim that we are “censoring” them. They need to stop making it all about themselves and their writing, and actually think about who their audience is. Understand that their audience includes children of color who are learning to fight the mental bondage of living in an oppressed society and are desiring to see positive, accurate representation of themselves. Those of us adults who are fighting for the kids know firsthand what that bondage feels like, and while we have survived it, that hurt child that still lives in our hearts is why we fight so hard. Why we fight for our children’s freedom.

One of the speakers on the panel, Adilifu Nama, one of the members behind the Afrofuturism movement, said, “One of the ways we are able to dismantle ill conceived notions of ourselves is through literature, through the power of our imagination.” This exact reason is why children of color need to see positive representations of themselves in their literature and the way to do that is to make sure that the books that are released do not have demeaning and racists depictions. It is why the publishing industry needs to be as sensitive as Charlton-Trujillo and her publishers were and take the steps to correct their mistakes. There is nothing wrong with admitting you made a mistake as long as you take the proper steps to correct it.

Institutional racism has held us all in bondage for a long time that fighting for our freedom is hard and hurtful, but it is a fight that we must take in order for all of us to truly be free. And if we continue on the path we are walking, correcting our mistakes, putting action behind our words, then we’ll get there.

*I paraphrased because I couldn’t find my book, and what I wrote in my notes from the panel. No shade to Mr. Douglass.

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5 Comments on “Publishing’s Bondage and Freedom
  1. I am sorry, but I disagree. You are playing respectability politics. So only books displaying blacks in a positive light are worthy of publication? This censorship and it’s worst because you’re using the dangerous what offends me rule. This reminds of the black poet Countee Cullins whose career was ruined because he wrote a play that African Americans felt put them in a bad light. Don’t all stories have a right to be told or only those that show the positivity of black life worthy? As a black author, this why I hate this misguided view of diversity. I will no longer visit your site. As an artist, I will not support censorship now matter how well intentioned it is.

    • You have every right to your opinion, however racist and demeaning representations of children of all colors do hurt them and perpetuate harmful stereotypes that show up in ways such as 12 year old boys playing with a toy gun not being seen as a child and gunned down. Americans are greatly influenced by our media, which includes literature, therefore it is up to authors, publishers, editors, etc. to work to make sure that the different types of living in America (shoot, our world) is presented instead of just one type of story. If you don’t know about the novel in question, I suggest you read all about it, then decide if it was truly an act of censorship. I also suggest that you listen to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s classic TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, and understand why it is imperative that our literature be full of diverse and accurate portrayals of the different voices of our world.

  2. To not involve yourself in dialogue whether you agree or not is to deny yourself knowledge and insight. I have read E. E. Carlton-Trujillo’s book and the issues are authentic and relavant. They were however being portrayed through extremely stereotypic one dimensional characters, which in my opinion, fed the media’s decades old portrayal of urban POC. In a society where a Donald character can trumpet out to masses of white Americans that most black Americans are poor and with little hope to succeed, and need to vote for him; where young Olympian Danielle Douglas was lambasted across the Internet because the media caught her in melancholy post-competitive performance moments accusing her of being nonAmerican thus bringing her to tears in an interview, while no one has attacked the white swimmers that lied about being robbed by black guys with guns as being nonAmerican…I’m finding it incredible that anyone cannot see this blatant double standard.

    The narrative that cries out for writers to be more responsible when they write language for our youth of color to read is nothing new! In contemporary times, about 51 years old Nancy Larrick brought this issue to national attention when she looked at 5000+ books published between 1962 and 1963 to seek positive portrayals of black Americans. She found with the exception of one book, blacks portrayed as buffoons, servants, and Africans in their traditional indigenous bush settings…in other words wild heathens. There was no excuse then and today there still is no excuse for the lack of people of hues, but to purposely make an effort to promote a blanketed misrepresentation of urban POC is irresponsible.

    Freedom of expression is an inherent right to our country’s citizenry, but equitable and authentic accuracy should be the responsibility of children and young adult authors in their expression. To have to consistently keep this narrative alive against pub-houses, as well as authors with their heads in the sand, school district curriculum planners, as well as the general public who have never participated in dialogue with the counter narratives that are supportive of POC in YA and children’s books…the repetitiveness over the generations is at ad nauseum level.

    The above response to this much needed article is yet another example of someone who walks with eyes wide shut. To deny the consistent outcries that say something is wrong with the portrayal of youth in literature OR the absence of youth of color, is an act to maintain the marginalized status and relevancy for the culture and lived experiences for well more than half of the American population. As K. Imani has said it is not just about one group of color…when one group wins we all win: Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, white, and black. Also, To compare the critical feedback on “When We Were Fierce” to the works of Countee Cullen is not an accurate analogy of the assault on this great writer. He was not irresponsible in his authenticity of lived experiences or language. Beyond the cardboard pigeonholed characterizations, the vernacular in “When We Were Fierce” was made up and reinforced widely preconceived notions for blackness in urban settings.

    Larrick’s Research Article: http://www.longwood.edu/staff/miskecjm/384larrick.pdf

  3. To not involve yourself in dialogue whether you agree or not is to deny yourself knowledge and insight. I have read E. E. Carlton-Trujillo’s book and the issues are authentic and relavant. They were however being portrayed through extremely stereotypic one dimensional characters, which in my opinion, fed the media’s decades old portrayal of urban POC. In a society where a Donald character can trumpet out to masses of white Americans that most black Americans are poor and with little hope to succeed, and need to vote for him; where young Olympian Danielle Douglas was lambasted across the Internet because the media caught her in melancholy post-competitive performance moments accusing her of being nonAmerican thus bringing her to tears in an interview, while no one has attacked the white swimmers that lied about being robbed by black guys with guns as being nonAmerican…I’m finding it incredible that anyone cannot see this blatant double standard.

    The narrative that cries out for writers to be more responsible when they write language for our youth of color to read is nothing new! In contemporary times, about 51 years old Nancy Larrick brought this issue to national attention when she looked at 5000+ books published between 1962 and 1963 to seek positive portrayals of black Americans. She found with the exception of one book, blacks portrayed as buffoons, servants, and Africans in their traditional indigenous bush settings…in other words wild heathens. There was no excuse then and today there still is no excuse for the lack of people of hues, but to purposely make an effort to promote a blanketed misrepresentation of urban POC is irresponsible.

    Freedom of expression is an inherent right to our country’s citizenry, but equitable and authentic accuracy should be the responsibility of children and young adult authors in their expression. To have to consistently keep this narrative alive against pub-houses, as well as authors with their heads in the sand, school district curriculum planners, as well as the general public who have never participated in dialogue with the counter narratives that are supportive of POC in YA and children’s books…the repetitiveness over the generations is at ad nauseum level.

    The above response to this much needed article is yet another example of someone who walks with eyes wide shut. To deny the consistent outcries that say something is wrong with the portrayal of youth in literature OR the absence of youth of color, is an act to maintain the marginalized status and relevancy for the culture and lived experiences for well more than half of the American population. As K. Imani has said it is not just about one group of color…when one group wins we all win: Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, white, and black. Also, To compare the critical feedback on “When We Were Fierce” to the works of Countee Cullen is not an accurate analogy of the assault on this great writer. He was not irresponsible in his authenticity of lived experiences or language. Beyond the cardboard pigeonholed characterizations, the vernacular in “When We Were Fierce” was made up and reinforced widely preconceived notions for blackness in urban settings.

    Larrick’s Research Article: http://www.longwood.edu/staff/miskecjm/384larrick.pdf

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