As a teenager of the 70s, I really enjoyed buttons and bumper stickers and posters. I was attracted to cute, clever posters such one with a quote that read something like “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no one because I am the baddest (ass??) in this valley”. I cut out the image of the poster and placed it in the back of one of my notebooks. When one of my friends saw it, she gave me this weird, blank, stunned look but said nothing. Her response surprised me, and I really didn’t understand it until a few years later when I read the real quote in the Bible and realized I should “fear no evil because Thou art with me”. What can I say? I grew up Catholic and Catholics did not read the Bible. To this day, I do not understand why my Pentecostal friend never bothered to enlighten me. I imagine her still praying for my misguided soul.
Speaking up makes a difference. It seems easier with strangers and with true friends, but not so much with acquaintances, work friends or associates with whom we have rather tenuous relationships. I think it seems easier after 5o, too. After 50 we know ourselves and have confidence in our convictions, a confidence similar to what we have with those we know best. With strangers, we think we have little to lose.
Speaking up about When We Was Fierce required absolutely no forethought or discussion between any of us who have recently written about this issue. We did it on the heels of discussion regarding Lane Smith’s There is a Tribe of Kids and we did it not knowing what the backlash might be. We did it because we have to. Who else would have done it?
So many have openly discussed their initial love (yes, love) of the book and eagerness to share it with their students until they were walked through some the flaws. Speaking up changes minds. I hope conversations have continued among those who select and promote books on how they’ll read a book in the feature as well as how they’ll read book reviews. I hope the conversation continues.
This is very much a process. I know if anyone took the time to scour through this blog, they could find several reviews I’ve written that are just wrong. People of color and Native Americans are on this journey as much as white people are. Living on the butt end of white supremacy tends to make us a bit more aware of how things play out and makes us want to understand the nature of, deconstruct, name and create mechanisms to overcome it. But, not all people of color are at the same point on this learning curve, no more so than all whites. Most of us have had to learn quicker for our survival. It’s weary wearing the yokes of colonialism and it’s frightful to daily proclaim our humanity, to have to state that black lives matter. Should we have to be the ones expected to speak out every time? Oh, we will but we get sick. and. tired.
My call for more diverse books has always been to get more books published by authors of color and yet I know there are many interpretations of what other people want in terms of diversifying children’s literature.
The call came out for more diverse books and white authors asked ‘how can I write diverse characters’ when they should have asked how can I support authors of color. Native Americans and people of color are not always heard when we speak out on issues; speaking out doesn’t always work when your voice is marginalized. And, we don’t always have access to the networks that get us in the door.
It seems publishers want to have heard that we simply want more books with characters of color and they’re disregarding any sense of integrity in how they portray diversity, in the authenticity of these characters. Books now being called to question include Cloudwish by Fiona Wood and Truman and Nell by Greg Neri. I know there are others. Please, speak up!
Several have asked me what I expect from the publisher. None have asked what to expect from the author and I’m not sure why. Perhaps because she maintains so little web presence? Or, perhaps because she’s with Candlewick, a publisher known for nurturing their talent. No, I don’t expect them to stop the release of the book, but I will not be disappointed if they prove me wrong. I’d like to see them enter this open and honest conversation and simply admit they published a book that was offensively racist and they’re also learning. I’d like to see them make a firm commitment, a specific commitment to diversify their staff, from adding people of color to staff diversity training similar to what Lee & Low did in 2015. And, I’d like to see them work with librarians or educators to develop curriculum material that uses this book as a tool to help young readers to identify stereotypes. One print of the book would be enough! We all have our fantasies.
Publishers have direct access to our children through what they print. I believe that in knowing this, they’ve held whiteness as something very precious. The new majority will no longer accept the status quo. We speak up with our voices and with our dollars. While it seems things are slow to change, in the 21st century, we can speak up. And when we do, our true friends are with us and some of those strangers come on board, too.
Additional posts relating to When We Was Fierce include:
Zetta Elliott Black Voices Matter “There’s the actual annihilation of Black bodies that’s reported on the nightly news, and then there’s the symbolic annihilation where White editors and agents show preference for non-Black writers and their narratives that distort our image/voice.”
Ibi Zoboi The Rocky Unpaved Roads of Good Intentions “There is a self-perceived burden of doing something, making it right, and fixing things for the Other—that this Other cannot help themselves, even if this help comes from members of their own community.”
Laura Pohl Bad Representation is Bad Writing: “When someone calls you out on bad representation, it means you’re a bad writer because you HAVEN’T DONE ENOUGH RESEARCH.”
Pernille Ripp Review: When We Was Fierce: “And I have been ashamed. Ashamed at my own idiocy. Ashamed at how little I know. Ashamed at how quickly I bought into the same tragic story as a way to make my students think, where instead I should be looking for stories that combat this one-track narrative.”