Children are precious. While I do not believe they are little adults, I also do not believe they are blank slates. I believe that while they have numerous gifts and talents to share with the world, that all children maintain an innocence regarding the world that surrounds them. I believe this for all children. Unfortunately, Black and Brown children are not always afforded the luxury of this assumption. Brown children are locked in cages. Black boys are shot by police after buying Skittles. Black girls are thrown from their desk chairs by adult school security officers. Black and brown girls are neither believed nor protected when they report physical or sexual abuse.
My awareness of that is a large part of why I continue to protest images in picture books that perpetuate the equate between Blacks and apes, monkeys and gorillas. This equation denies Black children a full realization of joy and wonder. These are not the only dehumanizing practices in children’s books, but this is one of the areas where I’m focusing my attention now.
Many talk about the comforting experience of getting lost in stories, but these are the same books that deny Black children that opportunity to be comforted, not just while reading the books, but in their future lives because other children have read these books and learned the dehumanizing messages presented.
Of course, I would like these monkeys to disappear from children’s books as long the whole of society continues to think of Black people in this way. I’d like to wrap stories by Renée Watson, Lamar Giles, Tiffany Jackson, Shannon Gibney, Jerry Craft, Olugbemisola Amusashonubi-Perkovich, L. L. McKinney and Jacqueline Woodson around them to give them space to breathe. I’d like to give them a day with Jason Reynolds, Cornelius Minor, Dr. Ebony Thomas and Dr. Kim Parker to provide them with tools for what lays ahead; to prepare them to read the world.
And, while I’m dreaming, I’d get funding to build a community library with Sujei Lugo, Alia Jones, Julia Torres, Breanna McDaniels and Marilsa Jimenez that would be a safe space in every way possible.
But, here, in the real world… there is so much work to do to simply convey the message that Black lives are human lives. Our children matter. Dear publishers, our children matter!
There’s this bit of work I’ve been able to be part of in my library that gives me some hope. We’re a university library and although most of our collection is meant more for adults and young adults, we do still have a responsibility to those who choose to use our services.
My library didn’t issue a response to the killing of George Floyd, but the campus as a whole did. We did have a small discussion in email that moved beyond just talking to the creation of a task force to write a diversity statement. As many libraries have done, we’ve decided to create a strategic action plan that moves beyond idealizing equity, diversity and inclusion. It has forced us to define each of these concepts and then we’ll work outwards to develop actionable and measurable goals. (example)
Being part of such a committed team makes me question even further the lackluster statements posted on social media by those who publish children’s literature. What indeed do they plan to do for children?
It is obvious that the dedication they have to their stockholders outweighs their commitment to young readers, but, they still have access to our children and must be held accountable. They still produce material that is embedded with racist ideology regardless of intentionality. Whiteness is layered in the language, images, tropes and themes as well as in the marketing, employment and recruitment structures.
Tales of the oppression that exist throughout publishing are classic.
Classics that exist are tales of oppression.
This discussion of representation is well over 100 years old. I’m working on my action plan.