In my essay earlier this month, “Combating Racism Through Literature,” I described how reading diverse literature can actually make children (and adults) become more empathetic to others, hence literature could help bring an end to racism. It was a few days later, in a conversation with Debbie Reese of the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog that I realized I wasn’t quite finished with my essay. Writing an essay explaining how creating empathetic readers can help change our world in theoretical sense is good, but it is worthless without the back up of action. Hence, this second part of the essay.
Ms. Reese pointed out to me that while reading can help, we still laud classics such as Gone with the Wind, that has very racist depictions of characters. She also pointed out to me that in a number of contemporary novels, Gone with the Wind is revered by the characters and held as an epitome of classic literature, but is not critiqued by those characters for its troublesome elements. Ms. Reese is extremely correct in her assertion that while we cannot forget these horrible and racist literary depictions in our past, we do have the ability, nay responsibility, to critique them and point out to readers how harmful those depictions are.
While we not only have the responsibility of pointing out inaccurate representations, we each also have different responsibilities, things we can actually do to help combat racism through literature. And each of us, depending on how and what way we are involved in the literary world, have different responsibilities – tasks that we can start doing today. Because, like I said earlier, just talking about a problem, without doing action, never resolves anything.
1. Publishers/Agents/Editors: Hire more People of Color. One way to have more diverse books published is to have more people in positions of power be diverse themselves. I know through WNDB of the intern program, which is great and a step forward, but do better. Don’t rely on People of Color to come searching for a job, seek them out. Visit college campuses and create relationships with minority organizations to extend a hand. I guarantee you people of color want to work in the industry, and by hiring them, your company will only benefit. Also, sign contracts with more authors of color. We are out there, sending queries, pitching at conferences, etc. Come find us. And, once you do sign an author of color, promote the mess out of that author. Give them a big push like Hunger Games received, or other big name YA authors. Don’t regale them to the “______-American section”. Give them exposure and I guarantee the readers will be there. Which leads directly to Group #2
2. Parents: Specifically parents from the dominate culture – do not censor your children’s reading habits. Trust your child to make the right decisions, to know where their interest lies and choose books accordingly. I say this from experience as my mother did not censor my reading choices at all. When I was 10 years old I read Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple”. My parents had taken my sister and I to see the movie, and shortly after I saw the novel in the store. I asked my mother if I could read it, and instead of saying “you’re too young,” she grabbed the book off the shelf and handed it to me. Listen parents, I was 10! Yes, I might have been too young to read the book, and some of it I really didn’t understand, but my mother trusted my judgement. Because of many instances where I asked for a book and my mother’s trust in me, I know that is the reason why I have such a diverse literary sense. I’ve read all genres, all types of novels, simply because my parents never said, “this book isn’t for you.” Parents, when you tell your children that and take a book that might have a person of color on the cover, you are telling them that that person’s story doesn’t matter and that you do not trust their own reading habits. Encourage your child to read widely and diversely. When you do that, you have a child who will become more empathetic and more in charge of their own mind.
3. Teachers: We are in charge of educating the future and helping them find their own minds and one of the ways we accomplish this is through literature. Now, I know the Common Core states that our curriculum should be 70% non-fiction and 30% fiction, which is the antithesis of creating thinking empathic students, but as I stated in my essay a few months back titled “Teachers! Choose Diverse Books,” there is a way to still have students read fiction and still read non-fiction texts. The key is to tie the fiction with the non-fiction, and you will expand the themes presented in the novels the students read. Second, DO NOT STICK TO THE WESTERN CANON! When you choose to share “classic” literature with students, you automatically exclude a number of voices and reinforce many troublesome depictions of people of color. An idea would be to create a balance of books, create your own canon, to provide both windows and mirrors for your students. You can also include numerous contemporary literary texts that will engage students on a personal level, as well as include classical translated texts from non-Western countries to give historical perspectives of life outside the United States.
4. Librarians: Keep doing what you’re doing. I was floored by the push for diversity at the MidWinter ALA meeting and the results of all the awards given to diverse books at the end of the meeting. If any advice I could give, would be to continue to promote diverse books, continue to order diverse books for all kids, and continue to give awards to diverse books.
Change doesn’t happen overnight and it sometimes is messy, and is always hard, however, if we don’t try, don’t fight, then change will never come. The same authors will continue to get published, the same stories told, and true equality for our world will not exist. I, for one, do not want to live in that world. I want a different world for my students, for my godson, for my niece and nephew. I want them to be able to have more books that are mirrors instead of windows into a world that must learn in order to survive in. I want their future to be one in which all people are seen as equal and that all stories are valid. Literature is one way we can achieve that world, if only we all do our part.