Sunday Morning Reads

Can we talk about censorship of the Black child?

We can count the books, crunch the data, make comparisons and projections and what we’ll end up with is a narrative based in the principle of scarcity, the principle that leads us to believe that printing one book denies the possibility for another to exist. This thinking leads to equality rather than equity. Rather than having tables of various shapes and sizes brought into the room, one person is asked to leave the table so that there can be a space for one Black child. They’re given a seat at the Big White Table, but that seat still had the indentations of its previous occupant and the Black child is expect to make the adjustments to become more comfortable.  They sit in a seat that isn’t tall enough to see across the oversize arrangement in the center of the table. The irony of not being given a book to sit upon! Rather than being given a microphone, they have to shout. Here, the Black child will be seen with his head just above the table, but will not be heard.

But, the Black child wants to be heard and does indeed shout. While the manner of this yelling has changed over time, the perspective of those who have always had a seat at the Big White Table is that this shouting is impertinent. But, how else can the Child be heard?

Those at the Big White Table think the Black child doesn’t read, so they limit the presence of the child in books (that scarcity thing again). They think that to make the Black child’s story worth telling, that it must be told for them. They think that whether a child or adult, Black people can neither write nor speak in proper American English (because that’s the only way to speak). It’s believed their grammar and syntax is always wrong, thus another reason to limit their presence. But you know, we could also call this censoring.

About 80 years ago, there was a book called Epaminondas and His Auntie (Sara Cone Bryant; Houghton) that garnered much objection because of its presentation of barefooted, Black children who were lazy and foolish. I’ve read several accounts mentioning opposition to the book, but little detail about who said what or even how they communicated. Was it through letters? Telegraphs? Phone calls? Would someone dare to picket or demonstrate publicly? Imagine the reputation and strength of character a Black person would need to have in the 1930s to speak out against a book. Unfortunately, this book went on to have many, many more printings. White writers went on to populate children’s literature with books about Black children, often based in who they believed them to be, not who they were and again, censoring the Black child in literature. Telling my story for me, not letting me tell my story, is censorship.

What’s happening here then is the perpetuation of the White voice in children’s literature. We hear and see what it means to be Black through the pen of White writers. Sure, sometimes these writers actually read books by Black authors and talk to them at conferences, but many don’t. They censor Blackness from their lives as much as possible, but feel they have the right to tell their story for them.

But, the Black child, Black people, aren’t only censored in children’s literature. There’s an overall denial of the meaningful and significant presence of Black people in the political, economic and social history of this country. We don’t learn the trauma embedded into Black people’s DNA in the United States that began with bondage and continued through every form of enslavement in the US. And, we assume that the trauma dealt to Whites in the history was guilt, but it has to be more than that. But, we don’t talk about that. We censor a true understanding of the founding of this country, from the imperialistic land stealing to the concentration of power by these land owners who became people owners from our history books. Rather, “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

We censor what we tell the Black child about herself and in doing so, we censor what we tell others about the Black child. How are Whites, Latinos or Asian Americans to learn beyond the stereotypes?

Over the 80 years, the misrepresentations have continued. There have been monkeys, pickaninnies, apes, smiling slaves, minstrels, comic reliefs, mammies and watermelon eating and so much more in children’s books. And there still is.

Over the 80 years, both technology and society has changed giving way to new methods to resist what is written for Black children. Even Black children are reading about metaphysical concepts and questioning this scarcity stuff. Even Blacks are taking to the Internet, mastering coding, social networking and fanfiction. As we find ways to tell our own stories, the unacceptability of the old models is magnified.

So much has changed so fast! There’s a confluence of things that lead to an awareness in marginalized groups calling for a public disrupt of the system, to demand better representation in children’s books. I do wonder how much longer it will take for that Uber-type disrupter to hit children’s publishing and provide IPOC their own true voice, but until then, until that ultimate form of disruption happens, I predict there will be continue to be resistive actions to demand better for our children.

Many will claim these actions to be censorship, but here we are again trying to provide equality when equity is the word of the day. Realize, the Black child has been censured from children’s books for at least 80 years. Right now, only 29% of the 340 books with Black characters are written by Black people. Whiteness dominates the stories being told about Black people, and no one is crying out about this tragic, debilitating censorship.

So, we turn to Twitter so we can shout and be heard. Now, not all that happens on Twitter is good and right and true. Shocking, I know but, there are those who criticize books they have not read, who attack individuals rather than their work (often threatening their lives and livelihoods), who speak in petty and mean-spirited ways but there are those who take to Twitter to address a concern with a publisher, to discuss the merits of what they see in a book, to use the most recent debacle as a teaching moment or to let others know not to waste their library’s money on a particular book. And, it grows from there.

One thing I’ve learned from these campaigns is that the social networking activity isn’t always what shuts a book down. An author may independently decide to pull a book, but a publisher’s decision in more nuanced. Walk through all the details of A Birthday Cake for George Washington (Scholastic) and see what I mean. While Scholastic did report that they were pulling the book, publishers rarely communicate changes to a book or its status. People just find out. I know there are emails, phone calls and meetings that carry much more weight than voices on Twitter. I can document the public conversations that were had about We Was Fierce, but not the private ones that really changed the course for that book. Publishers lack the transparency and open dialog that the 21st century demands. It seems they’re hearing us, but we want to hear more directly from them.

How can social networking approach issues of social justice, representation, accountability, privilege and equity in ways to better disrupt the censorship of the Black child? I’d like to see more IPOC youth actually brought into our fold, more groups like Children of the Glades (@ofglades) and like Project LIT Community (@ProjectLITComm). More networking across areas of concentration, such as librarians mixing with parents, community leaders and educators through Twitter and FB chats to build relationships that lead to other collaborations. I like following #educhat and joining their conversations whenever possible.

How else?

The transparency, immediacy and accessibility of these platforms are game changes when it comes to preventing the censorship of the Black child.

Watchout. We’re bringing our own table into the room.

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