Sunday, March 16, 2014

Where Are the People of Color in Children's Books?

MARCH 15, 2014--

Credit Christopher Myers

Of 3,200 children's books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, according to a study by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin.

Reading came early to me, but I didn't think of the words as anything special. I don't think my stepmom thought of what she was doing as more than spending time with me in our small Harlem apartment. From my comfortable perch on her lap I watched as she moved her finger slowly across the page. She probably read at about the third grade level, but that was good enough for the True Romance magazines she read. I didn't understand what the stories were about, what "bosom" meant or how someone's heart could be "broken." To me it was just the comfort of leaning against Mama and imagining the characters and what they were doing.

Later, when my sisters brought home comic books, I got Mama to read them to me, too. The magazines and comics pushed me along the road of the imaginative process. When I got my first books — "The Little Engine That Could," "Bible Stories for Every Day," and "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" — I used them on the same journeys. In the landscape of my mind I labored as hard as I could to get up the hill. I stood on the plain next to David as he fought Goliath, and tasted the porridge with Goldilocks.

As a teenager I romped the forests with Robin Hood, and trembled to the sound of gunfire with Henry in "The Red Badge of Courage." Later, when Mama's problems began to overwhelm her, I wrestled with the demons of dealing with one's mother with Stephen Dedalus in "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." But by then I was beginning the quest for my own identity. To an extent I found who I was in the books I read. I was a person who felt the drama of great pain and greater joys, whose emotions could soar within the five-act structure of a Shakespearean play, or find quiet comfort in the poems of Gabriela Mistral. Every book was a landscape upon which I was free to wander.

In the dark times, when my uncle was murdered, when my family became dysfunctional with alcohol and grief, or when I realized that our economics would not allow me to go to college, I began to despair. I read voraciously, spending days in Central Park reading when I should have been going to school.

But there was something missing. I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller's plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn't want to become the "black" representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.

WEB DuBois Understood the need for Black Children's book way back in the early 20th Century... and proceeded to
do something about it thru the NAACP's publishing arm.

Books did not become my enemies. They were more like friends with whom I no longer felt comfortable. I stopped reading. I stopped going to school. On my 17th birthday, I joined the Army. In retrospect I see that I had lost the potential person I would become — an odd idea that I could not have articulated at the time, but that seems so clear today.

My post-Army days became dreadful, a drunken stumble through life, with me holding on just enough to survive. Fueled by the shortest and most meaningful conversation I had ever had in a school hallway, with the one English teacher in my high school, Stuyvesant, who knew I was going to drop out, I began to write short columns for a local tabloid, and racy stories for men's magazines. Seeing my name in print helped. A little.

Then I read a story by James Baldwin: "Sonny's Blues." I didn't love the story, but I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin's story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn't know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.

During my only meeting with Baldwin, at City College, I blurted out to him what his story had done for me. "I know exactly what you mean," he said. "I had to leave Harlem and the United States to search for who I was. Isn't that a shame?"

When I left Baldwin that day I felt elated that I had met a writer I had so admired, and that we had had a shared experience. But later I realized how much more meaningful it would have been to have known Baldwin's story at 15, or at 14. Perhaps even younger, before I had started my subconscious quest for identity.

TODAY I am a writer, but I also see myself as something of a landscape artist. I paint pictures of scenes for inner-city youth that are familiar, and I people the scenes with brothers and aunts and friends they all have met. Thousands of young people have come to me saying that they love my books for some reason or the other, but I strongly suspect that what they have found in my pages is the same thing I found in "Sonny's Blues." They have been struck by the recognition of themselves in the story, a validation of their existence as human beings, an acknowledgment of their value by someone who understands who they are. It is the shock of recognition at its highest level.

Yes. There are still a few Black Children's books available. And Sheila Foster's guide is a very helpful start in finding them.

I've reached an age at which I find myself not only examining and weighing my life's work, but thinking about how I will pass the baton so that those things I find important will continue. In 1969, when I first entered the world of writing children's literature, the field was nearly empty. Children of color were not represented, nor were children from the lower economic classes. Today, when about 40 percent of public school students nationwide are black and Latino, the disparity of representation is even more egregious. In the middle of the night I ask myself if anyone really cares.

When I was doing research for my book "Monster," I approached a white lawyer doing pro bono work in the courts defending poor clients. I said that it must be difficult to get witnesses to court to testify on behalf of an inner-city client, and he replied that getting witnesses was not as difficult as it sometimes appeared on television. "The trouble," he said, "is to humanize my clients in the eyes of a jury. To make them think of this defendant as a human being and not just one of 'them.' "

I realized that this was exactly what I wanted to do when I wrote about poor inner-city children — to make them human in the eyes of readers and, especially, in their own eyes. I need to make them feel as if they are part of America's dream, that all the rhetoric is meant for them, and that they are wanted in this country.

Years ago, I worked in the personnel office for a transformer firm. We needed to hire a chemist, and two candidates stood out, in my mind, for the position. One was a young white man with a degree from St. John's University and the other an equally qualified black man from Grambling College (now Grambling State University) in Louisiana. I proposed to the department head that we send them both to the lab and let the chief chemist make the final decision. He looked at me as if I had said something so remarkable that he was having a hard time understanding me. "You're kidding me," he said. "That black guy's no chemist."

I pointed out the degrees on the résumé that suggested otherwise, and the tension between us soared. When I confronted my superior and demanded to know what about the candidate from Grambling made him not a chemist, he grumbled something under his breath, and reluctantly sent both candidates for an interview with the chief chemist.

Simple racism, I thought. On reflection, though, I understood that I was wrong. It was racism, but not simple racism. My white co-worker had simply never encountered a black chemist before. Or a black engineer. Or a black doctor. I realized that we hired people not so much on their résumés, but rather on our preconceived notions of what the successful candidate should be like. And where was my boss going to get the notion that a chemist should be black?

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?

And what are the books that are being published about blacks? Joe Morton, the actor who starred in "The Brother From Another Planet," has said that all but a few motion pictures being made about blacks are about blacks as victims. In them, we are always struggling to overcome either slavery or racism. Book publishing is little better. Black history is usually depicted as folklore about slavery, and then a fast-forward to the civil rights movement. Then I'm told that black children, and boys in particular, don't read. Small wonder.

There is work to be done.

Walter Dean Myers is an author of books for children and young adults including "Monster," and the previous Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People's Literature.


The Apartheid of Children’s Literature
Credit Christopher Myers
Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin.

I’M talking with a boy. He’s at that age when the edges of the man he will become are just starting to press against his baby-round face. He’s got his first opinions and ideas and jokes, which are horrible, because there is nothing that boys his age love more than corny jokes. There is a whole industry of knock-knock-joke books for boys this age. Everything about him is gangly; his voice and his limbs fit awkwardly, like hand-me-downs. He’s young enough that his smile is easy, and he is the kind of boy who finds reasons to smile in everything: the cracking of his voice, a fire-engine siren, the fact that a grown-up is talking to him and listening to what he says. When I talk with kids like this, our conversations always seem to go the same way:

“So you’re telling me these are all the books published last year for kids?” they ask me. “That’s a lot of books. That’s more books than I could read in a year.”
“Yep, it’s a few thousand.”
“And in all of those thousands of books, I’m just not in them?”
“Are there books about talking animals?”
“Oh, sure.”
“And crazy magical futures?”
“And superpowers? And the olden days when people dressed funny? And all the combinations of those things? Like talking animals with superpowers in magical futures ... but no me?”
“No you.”
“Because you’re brown.”

I would like to have a proper enemy in this story — preferably a snide villain with a cape and a British accent and a posh cat or a ferret. With my unique history — two generations in the business of caring for kids with words and pictures — I would be the James Bond/Black Dynamite of children’s literature and foil this nefarious conspiracy. But, unfortunately, this story is more truth than fiction, and the villain here is elusive.

The mission statements of major publishers are littered with intentions, with their commitments to diversity, to imagination, to multiculturalism, ostensibly to create opportunities for children to learn about and understand their importance in their respective worlds. During my years of making children’s books, I’ve heard editors and publishers bemoan the dismal statistics, and promote this or that program that demonstrates their company’s “commitment to diversity.” With so much reassurance, it is hard to point fingers, but there are numbers and truths that stand in stark contrast to the reassurances. The business of children’s literature enjoys ever more success, sparking multiple movie franchises and crossover readership, even as representations of young people of color are harder and harder to find.

This apartheid of literature — in which characters of color are limited to the townships of occasional historical books that concern themselves with the legacies of civil rights and slavery but are never given a pass card to traverse the lands of adventure, curiosity, imagination or personal growth — has two effects.

One is a gap in the much-written-about sense of self-love that comes from recognizing oneself in a text, from the understanding that your life and lives of people like you are worthy of being told, thought about, discussed and even celebrated. Academics and educators talk about self-esteem and self-worth when they think of books in this way, as mirrors that affirm readers’ own identities. I believe that this is important, but I wonder if this idea is too adult and self-concerned, imagining young readers as legions of wicked queens asking magic mirrors to affirm that they are indeed “the fairest of them all.”
The children I know, the ones I meet in school visits, in juvenile detention facilities like the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Maryland, in ritzy private schools in Connecticut, in cobbled-together learning centers like the Red Rose School in Kibera, Nairobi — these children are much more outward looking. They see books less as mirrors and more as maps. They are indeed searching for their place in the world, but they are also deciding where they want to go. They create, through the stories they’re given, an atlas of their world, of their relationships to others, of their possible destinations.

We adults — parents, authors, illustrators and publishers — give them in each book a world of supposedly boundless imagination that can delineate the most ornate geographies, and yet too often today’s books remain blind to the everyday reality of thousands of children. Children of color remain outside the boundaries of imagination. The cartography we create with this literature is flawed.

Perhaps this exclusivity, in which children of color are at best background characters, and more often than not absent, is in fact part of the imaginative aspect of these books.

But what it means is that when kids today face the realities of our world, our global economies, our integrations and overlappings, they all do so without a proper map. They are navigating the streets and avenues of their lives with an inadequate, outdated chart, and we wonder why they feel lost. They are threatened by difference, and desperately try to wish the world into some more familiar form. As for children of color, they recognize the boundaries being imposed upon their imaginations, and are certain to imagine themselves well within the borders they are offered, to color themselves inside the lines.

AT a public school in Southeast Washington, D.C., I ask a fifth grader what he wants to do with his life, what the map is that he has drawn for himself. He is talkative and smart, and his high-top fade adds a few extra inches to his height, so that he is almost as tall as his classmates, and far more stylish. He tells me that he will join the N.B.A., and use that money to buy a recording studio and record his first rap album. Looking at him, I think that these are not necessarily his dreams; they are just the dreams that have been offered him, the places he can go in the narrow geography that has been delineated for him, strung along in a surreal and improbable sequence.

As much as I hope that I’m wrong, that in several years the Brooklyn Nets sign a 5-foot-8 point guard with amazing flow, who raps and hoops in the same arenas, I think it’s necessary to provide for boys and girls like him a more expansive landscape upon which to dream.

“Who would stand in the way of such a thing?” I’ve asked this question of industry folks, of booksellers, of my father, who’s been fighting this battle since before I picked up my first words. The closest I can get to the orchestrator of the plot — my villain with his ferret — is The Market. Which I think is what they all point to because The Market is so comfortably intangible that no one is worried I will go knocking down any doors. The Market, I am told, just doesn’t demand this kind of book, doesn’t want book covers to look this or that way, and so the representative from (insert major bookselling company here) has asked that we have only text on the book cover because white kids won’t buy a book with a black kid on the cover — or so The Market says, despite millions of music albums that are sold in just that way.
I remember my first encounter with The Market when I was a kid. My father once wrote a story about Dr. Cosmos, a talking chimpanzee who wore a sequined turban, and some kids from Harlem who were matching pets to people by their astrological signs. I remember Pop coming home disappointed after he was told that the story would not be published, because astrology, the occult, witchcraft and the like would not sell — or so The Market had dictated. You could draw a map of the places around the country where they said such a book would languish on the shelves and even incur protests and boycotts.

This injunction against the occult in children’s literature was presented as an unwritten rule for quite some time. That is, until a number of years later, when a certain wizard came along, and vampires, witches, werewolves and Greek gods, and all manner of magical beings soon followed. Perhaps the wizard and all his supernatural kin were able to elude the dictates of The Market because they had magic wands and powers. Or perhaps the imagination of publishers, parents, teachers, editors, librarians and book buyers, these people who care so much for children and literature and believe in good stories told well, in cartographies that have no blind spots, was much more important, in the end, than that unwritten rule put forth by The Market, that backward segregated map that has led us to this dismal place.

So now to do my part — because I can draw a map as well as anybody. I’m talking with a girl. She’s at that age where the edges of the woman she will become are just starting to press against her baby-round face, and I will make a fantastic world, a cartography of all the places a girl like her can go, and put it in a book. The rest of the work lies in the imagination of everyone else along the way, the publishers, librarians, teachers, parents, and all of us, to put that book in her hands.

Christopher Myers is an author and illustrator of books for children and young adults, including “Harlem” and other collaborations with his father.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

You are Beautiful Inside & Outside: Lupita Nyong'o's Open Letter to Black Girls Everywhere

A speech given at the seventh annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon hosted by Essence magazine on February 27, 2014.