Posts Tagged ‘literature’

Sharing a little Sunday video action to hold y’all until tomorrow’s Derailment Monday.  For the transcript of Chimamanda Adichie’s talk, visit Restructure! here.

Vodpod videos no longer available.


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Many people are familiar with the story of the “flesh” colored crayon.  Part of Crayola’s second wave of color creation and from 1949-1962, the “flesh” crayon was a peachy-pink indicative of the white supremacist culture of the day.  There is no way of knowing how many children of color told their stories with colors deemed less-than-flesh:  goldenrod, sepia, raw sienna, raw umber.  Many of us even remember the “indian red” crayon that was only recently renamed in 1999 for obvious reasons.

Flesh-colored crayons

Crayola’s chronology website is open about its shady past, and while this particular staple of American childhood has grown up, many of the tools parents trust in their attempts to raise well-rounded, confident kids remain problematic.

Since the inception of Irene’s Daughters a few months ago, Nikki, Kate and I have all been talking about “bookshelf diversity.”  In case you are just getting to know us, I highly recommend our Reading List tab where you can find great resources for a beginning or veteran anti-racist that might serve to balance your bookshelves.

Tilted Bookshelf
Over the last week or so, we’ve been having an off-blog e-mail discussion about kids’ books.  Kate has a young niece and Nikki and I both have children, so the topic is important to each of us.  As a parent, I am always on the lookout for books that feature situations, themes, and topics that will help my kids learn about their world and themselves.  These books can vary from those that teach about colors, to those that teach about family, to those that teach about feelings and friends, and some that teach about all of that.

While we three could all spend countless hours crawling the internet for helpful articles, bookstores or websites, we decided that we’d let our readers in on the fun and create a new tab just for Children’s Books.  We will continue to add to the current list, but we wanted to open the floor to you folks and see what books you recommend.

We are also trying to provide information about the books, such as:

  • Reading Level: what age group is this book intended for? (these numbers indicate reading skill level, not necessarily age-appropriateness; many of these books could be read aloud to younger children)
  • Time Setting: is the story contemporary, historical (e.g. historical: 19th century; historical: Civil Rights movement), or myth/folktale/fantasy?
  • Place Setting: what country (e.g. United States) or region (e.g. New England, Southwest) is the book set in? is the setting urban/suburban/small town/rural/ambiguous?
  • Characters: are the main characters multiracial/multiethnic or predominantly one race/ethnicity?
  • Theme: is race or racism a theme?
  • Author(s)/Illustrator(s): what race or ethnicity are they?

At this point, we haven’t grouped the books by any sort of category.  We’re still debating the best way to organize it, but our main goal is to present works that promote bookshelf diversity.  We are looking for authors of color, characters of color or multiracial storytelling, contemporary and historic depictions of anti-racism, and anything that almost fits or fits all of the above criteria. We’re going for quality here, though quantity is also welcome.

We may also periodically offer our own reading lists and reviews in the form of blog posts, just as we do from time to time about reading material for grown-ups.  As we’ve discussed before, the world of publishing is tricky to navigate when it comes to these issues.  Many books about African Americans are set during the time of slavery.  Many books about Asians are set in foreign countries or ancient times.  Books about Native Americans often focus on folklore only.

We will undoubtedly talk about all of these subjects at various points, but know that we are not going into this endeavor “colorblind” to the tendency of the publishing world to stereotype or ignore authors and characters of color, and cater to certain “desirable” market demographics in discussions about race and prejudice.

We hope you’ll join us.  As we’ve said before and as we will continue to say, we’re all learning here.  Feel free to pick up a crayon (or more helpful, put your hands on the keyboard) and share a story or two with us.

Cave Bookshelf

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Between 1882 and 1968, mobs lynched 4,743 people in a campaign of racist terror across the United States. Over 70 percent of the victims were African Americans.

“Strange Fruit” is a anti-racist protest song written by Abel Meeropol and most famously performed and recorded by Billie Holiday.

Meeropol, a Jewish high-school teacher from the Bronx, originally wrote “Strange Fruit” as a poem about the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana, in 1930. He published the poem under the name Lewis Allan in 1936 in The New York Teacher, and later set “Strange Fruit” to music.

The song gained success as a protest song in and around New York and became a regular part of Billie Holiday’s live performances. Her label, Columbia, refused to record the song. Instead, Columbia allowed Holiday a one-session release from her contract in order to record “Strange Fruit” with Vocalion Records. Over time, it became Holiday’s biggest seller.

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I’m a bibliophile. I read lots of different kinds of books, both fiction and nonfiction, on a variety of subjects. But this year I’ve been thinking more about the books that I read, and I find that my bookshelf doesn’t yet include very many authors of color.

Like Lisa Kenney, “It wasn’t that I was consciously reading only white American authors, but … I was missing out on a lot of great work I hadn’t heard of.”

There are many contributing factors in play, and one of them is marketing. Justine Larbalestier, a white Australian author who writes young adult novels in which most of the protagonists are people of color, has been told by editors, sales reps, and booksellers that “black covers don’t sell.” (You can read about the controversy over her most recent book at Racialicious.) Can all the blame be laid at the feet of consumers? Larbalestier does not think so.

The notion that “black books” don’t sell is pervasive at every level of publishing. Yet I have found few examples of books with a person of colour on the cover that have had the full weight of a publishing house behind them. Until that happens more often we can’t know if it’s true that white people won’t buy books about people of colour. All we can say is that poorly publicised books with “black covers” don’t sell. The same is usually true of poorly publicised books with “white covers”.… Perhaps the whole “black books don’t sell” thing is a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Malaika Adero, a senior editor at Atria Books, suggests the same:

Literary African-American writers have difficulty getting publicity. The retailers then don’t order great quantities of the books. Readers don’t know what books are available and therefore don’t ask for them. It’s a vicious cycle.

So part of the reason “I was missing out on a lot of great work I hadn’t heard of” is that publishers and booksellers are doing very little to tell me about these books they claim “don’t sell.”

Consider also the way bookstores and libraries shelve books. For example, if you go into a bookstore just to browse mysteries or Christian fiction, you may not find books by the African American authors writing those genres. Some bookstores put books by African American authors in an “African American fiction” section. This means I may need to visit the African American section to find a book by Claudia Mair Burney.

So another reason “I was missing out on a lot of great work I hadn’t heard of” is that I didn’t know where to look for a book I might want.

One of the editorials at the Inkwell Bookstore blog laments, “More often than not, White customers buy books by White authors. While this in no way makes them racist, their unwillingness to explore something outside their comfort zone does make them dull.”

Yes, another reason “I was missing out on a lot of great work I hadn’t heard of” is that I need to make the effort to throw off that dullness and broaden my reading horizons. The publishers and bookstores may not be helping me, but that’s no excuse. “It wasn’t that I was consciously reading only white American authors,” but neither was I taking off the blinders of whiteness.  Larbalestier asks:

Consumers need to do what they can. When was the last time you bought a book with a person of colour on the front cover or asked your library to order one for you?

Good question. I need to examine my choices.

Novelist Tayari Jones shares an insight: “The ugly truth is that stories by writers of color are thought to be of interest only to readers of that community.” I think this is a factor in all the points mentioned above:

  • publishers tend to think writers (and characters) of color will only interest readers of color,
  • booksellers tend to think writers (and characters) of color will only interest readers of color,
  • we white consumers tend to think writers (and characters) of color will only interest readers of color.

The good news is that if we discover that we’re not reading enough books by writers of color, we can change our reading habits!

Author Carleen Brice is inviting white (and other) readers to read black authors at White Readers Meet Black Authors. I love her video proposing that December should be celebrated as “National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give It to Somebody Not Black Month”:

But don’t stop there. Look for Latino authors, Asian American authors, and Native American authors, too. If your bookshelf, like mine, is wanting in diversity, please start making an extra effort to seek out authors of color.

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A Single Step

I suppose it falls to me to be the first to introduce Irene’s Daughters to the blogosphere.  Let me say that this blog begins as an experiment in faith.  Lately our little circle of friends has been talking an awful lot about race and how the dynamics of race in America affect our lives.  We came to our conversations from different parts of the country, from different ethnic contexts, and with different agendas.

Two of us are, by our society’s definition: white.  As one of the two, it has been a thrilling opportunity to talk frankly and openly about race among people of color.  It has been especially comforting to explore this issues with women I know to be sisters in the faith—a faith characterized by confession and forgiveness.  I know as I’ve entered this conversation, I have been grateful at several points for the grace given me by women who see me earnestly stumbling my way along in a search for truth and understanding about these issues.

It would be easy for a woman like me to be intimidated in this community.  I was born and raised in the American south (which in itself has an airport carousel or three full of baggage).  I came up in a white, upper-middle class family and was educated in essentially segregated schools (with the exception of two years in a middle school where the ratio was roughly 55-45, with whites retaining the smallest majority that I had ever known).

I was also a child of the 80’s and many of my favorite TV shows involved black characters.  While I had friends of different races in school, sadly, sitcoms were often my only source of information about African-American people.  I remember getting up early, before my parents’ alarm went off to watch reruns of Julia with Diahann Carroll.  She was beautiful and loving, and much like my own mom, a working mother.  I saw every episode of Good Times and The Jeffersons, along with all the shows that were making (occasionally overtly romanticized or stereotypical) “progressive” attempts at integration: i.e. Gimme a Break, Webster, Benson.  I left with Denise to go to college in A Different World, and like most kids my age of any race, was regularly addicted to The Cosby Show.

In high school, our junior English teacher gave my homogeneously white class Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, as if any of us had the intellectual or moral tools at the time to understand such a tome.  A friend told me that she told her college professor about reading the book in high school and the professor openly laughed at the idea of high schoolers dissecting Ellison’s work.  Still, my curiosity about that one novel led me to seek out an African-American literature class  my senior year that would expose me to the genius of Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Jean Toomer.

I was able to meet these writers again when I got to college, and by that point, I became even less confident about engaging in racial dialogue (particularly in classes where I was one of the only white students).  I wanted to talk about what I was learning, but feared that I would be viewed as a usurper or someone who was clumsy and incapable of connecting in any meaningful way to the texts we were reading.  In one of my courses, there were two black women who gave me the courage to get involved in the conversation.  The first was herself, a minister who had returned to school later in life, who spoke with such love and admiration for anyone who contributed to the discussion in class that I felt safe expressing my new found understanding.  I didn’t deserve that measure of grace, but it was gratuitously demonstrated to me time and again.

The other woman was much younger, probably my age at the time.  She was a strong Christian woman who was able to connect every injury and every triumph we explored in class to her faith in God and her knowledge of Scripture. In listening to her, I realized I wanted my own faith to permeate every aspect of my human understanding.  We didn’t always agree in class, and many times I or another classmate spoke she would have some hard questions for us.  Our relationship was not an easy one, nor was it a close one, but her decisiveness and confidence dismantled some of the expectations and thought patterns that had me locked up in a misguided sense of ethnocentrism.

Both of these women taught me that while getting in the fray will be messy (even ugly at times) and it will involve suffering the loss of my sense of entitlement, ultimately if I persevere, I can become part of a community that is honest yet forgiving.  As I have learned more about the systemic problems we will be diving into on this blog, I am both angered and brought to my knees by the indignities all of us have suffered and continued to suffer in our nation.  As dehumanizing as racism is for people of color, it does not come without serious consequences for white folks.  I am discovering that even more as a mother struggling against the forces of privilege that seek to raise my children as racists by default.

I am beginning to see that any attempt at reconciliation over these issues will come at the cost of my own pride and ignorance.  But with that loss comes the opportunity for real change, friendship and healing; and, perhaps one day, victory over the evils that have pursued us through the generations.

The only way to exonerate myself from the white guilt that plagues so many of my like-minded white liberal friends is to begin to act on what I know.  To speak out in the face of denial and the “all that’s over now”/post-racial mentality.  So with my sisters, other daughters of peace, I start my walk down this new road.  Even though our journey will involve a thorough recounting of our shared history, I march ahead with the hope that sometime soon, by moving forward together, we can shake some of that old dust of off our feet.

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