“The most irresponsible kind of censorship: That based on the denial of some vital area of human experience, and in this case, resulting often in the black child’s total eclipse or his total misrepresentation.” ~Nina Mikkelson Source
Depictions of African American children have evolved from delightful pickaninnies speaking heavily accented Black dialect dominating the characterization of black children in the 1930s to a high representation of servants, slaves and sharecroppers in the 1960s. While Blacks were writing books for children since the 1880s, books featuring black children were written mostly by white writers. This trend continues today with the CCBC reporting that of the 3400 children’s books written in 2016, 93 were written by African Americans and 286 about. There is not one year that the number of books ‘by’ exceeded those ‘about’; the closest it came was in 2013 with 68 books ‘by’ and 93 ‘about’. This same disparity in representation exists for all People of Color and Native Americans as documented by the CCBC. There are numerous reasons why this discrepancy exists from the predominantly white publishing houses’ unwillingness to work with POC/NFN people to other more egregiously racist practices. The result? Censorship of black writers in youth literature.
While those empowered view censorship as the heavy hand that denies their freedom of speech, others view it as the quiet acceptance of the denial of the presence of the oppressed. For those who are privileged and telling the story, it’s a matter of how well they tell the African American or Asian American story. But for that African American or Asian American writer it’s a matter of getting to tell a story. This censorship results in the oppression of their creative voice and misrepresentation of the Black experience. Is there another way to perceive the cry to protect the privileged voices on behalf of white writers and their creativity other than colonization and oppression?
The censorship of the childhood of our black girls and boys happens when these children as young as 5 are seen 4-7 years older than their actual age. The irony here is that though they’re expected to read and compute at lower rates, they’re also supposed to be mature enough to be sexualized and criminalized beyond their years.
The censorship of our black boys and girls on the streets of our cities happens when they are physically eliminated from our presence. #blacklivesmatter
The censorship that happens when low income black and brown boys and girls are prevented from quality education; that lets funding and top teachers and administrators be placed in wealthy suburban districts, censoring these students from one of the most important tools in building a future rich with possibilities.
The censorship of libraries and certified librarians from these same schools.
But, the privileged choose to censor these conversations in lieu of creativity.
The back and forth over picture books almost, almost feels petty when you look at these other censorships except it’s here on these black and white pages where children are socialized; where they learn the behavior of citizens, learn who is us and who is them. Consequently, the constant monitoring of what is presented to children—all our children—is a must simply for survival.
I don’t want to understand why there continues to be so much demand for how white writers can write outside their experience or how we can produce more culturally neutral books or why white writers can’t write whatever they want. No one catches on that that if black writers were better represented in the numbers of books produced, white authors would be paid less attention. Realize the insidious nature of censorship that begins with deciding what to publish and what not to publish. #equity
Where are the the young adult books with Native American, Latinx, African American and Asian LGBTQ+ characters? #censored
Where are all the authors with disabilities? #censored
Where are all the POC, N/FN speculative fiction? graphic novels? horror? #censored
Where are all the books written by POC, N/FN, LFBTA+ or disabled authors? #censored
Are there any African American lesbians writing youth literature? #censored
When I and others doing the work for better representation in children’s literature are called “censors” I cannot help but feel empowered as this makes it obvious that the work we are doing is shaking things up. I know most people don’t like change, particularly if they feel they’ll be giving up too much. Past generations were raised on the concept of scarcity, that there are finite limits of things seen and unseen in this universe. I don’t believe that. I believe in the abundance that surrounds us, that there is enough space and time and imagination for all of our stories to be told.
5 thoughts on “Censor This!”
I appreciate these points and agree completely. The We Need Diverse Books movement did not intend to encourage bestselling white authors to write protagonists of color, but that happened far too often in typical colonialist fashion. Your point about people seeing black children as 4-7 years older than their actual age calls for publishers to produce more Own Voices middle grade books with black protagonists. So far, MG, even more than YA, suffers from the problem of no representation, inadequate representation, and representation by outsiders.
As I said half a year ago at Monica Edinger’s blog, begging big publishers to bend to what we see as social and publishing justice always seems bizarre, almost like NWA or Sugarhill Gang hypothetically blowing gaskets over Atlantic or Capitol Records not producing their earliest records. Let’s face it. The earliest hip hop groups didn’t beg and chide, they just did their own thing with their own labels or smaller labels like Sugar Hill, Profile, and Tommy Boy, and proved there was a huge, enduring market for their music.That is, they were not one-hit wonders. Once the economics were clearly in front of them, the big labels swooped in. If hip hop could reach a market of pent-up demand and fans through small record labels, diverse books can do it too through small, culture-targeted presses.
It is amazing how powerful word of mouth is among the kids when they read something that simply must be shared, hear something that must be heard, or see something that must be seen. It’s amazing too how fast a tiny company with a hot product can become a big company with a lot of power. Simon & Schuster started out as a crossword puzzle press. It can happen. Small presses can turn into big presses. How great would that be?
I completely agree
The fastest way that will happen is if powerful and successful POC and Native nations authors like Angie Thomas, Jackie Woodson, Jason Reynolds, Matt de la Pena, Cynthia L. Smith, and others wielded their considerable power and decided as a group that their next books will be only with small, socially conscious presses like Lee and Low. Imagine what a revolution could result. Those presses could not pay as big advances as the Big 5, but there could be much larger participation than usual in royalties as an inducement to the authors. How great would that be?
Thank you, as always, Edi for your excellent blog.
In the Margins is looking for new committee members. This committee searches for self published and small press published books by and about those living in the margins. There may be significant changes to this committee and charge this year, and we’d love to have more people with time to devote to this most important project. https://inthemarginssite.wordpress.com/
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