What’s the state of Black children’s literature? Please note that this is a commentary, not a research article. Let it provide you food for thought as we prepare to move into the third decade of the 21st century and much of this conversation is nearing 100 years old. For a thorough look at this history, I’d suggest White Supremacy in Children’s Literature (MacCann, 1997), Brown Gold: Milestones of African American Children’s Picture Books, 1845-2002 (Martin, 2004) or Shadow and Substance : Afro-American Experience in Contemporary Children’s Fiction (Bishop, 1982).
While it seems that the discussion about Blacks in children’s literature has remained stagnant over the years, I do think the paradigm has shifted. Awareness of that is necessary so that progress is not lost. For me, following the works of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop can display the foundation for this progress. She’s not a radical who espouses decolonization, anti-Imperialism or anti-Whiteness, but her work doesn’t contradict these stances.
Back around the turn of the century, what we call ‘#ownvoices’ or ‘representation’ in children’s literature was referred to as ‘cultural authenticity’. In the same edited volume where Jacqueline Woodson wrote the “Who Can Tell My Story?”, Sims wrote “Reframing the Debate About Cultural Authenticity”. In it, she critiques examples of problematic ‘outsider’ writers. My summary is doing her work no justice here, but let’s just skip to the part where she states, “In fact, much of the authenticity debate seems to be oversimplified, ignoring or downplaying both history and the complexities of the ways race, power, and privilege operate in this society and in the field of children’s literature. Too often it becomes simply fodder for provocative journal articles that generate much heat and little light.” (p.29)
Doesn’t this still hold true, today? I know I find that in books that are #ownBlackvoices I still find vestiges of whiteness where the story brings to agency to Black characters, relies on colorism, or equates power with wealth. Writers build a world in their writing (whether fiction or nonfiction) that is based in the truth that they know. I like critical literacy reviewing because it uncovers the complexities of race, power and privilege. We cannot assume authors write in the US Black culture traditions just because they are black, nor can we assume that non Black authors always miss the mark. What matters is how well power and privilege are portrayed as well as how characters, language, setting and tone relate that power and privilege.
Bishop continued to wrote that “In today’s critical climate, it is possible to have more than one valid reading of a text. It should not be surprising that critics who read a text from within one cultural context might discover that, from their perspective, that cultural context is misrepresented in the text. That is not a matter of political correctness, it is a matter of bringing differing perspectives to both the reading and writing of the text.” (p. 31) If a story is being written about a Black child, should not the Black perspective be the one that matters?
Without a doubt there is more than one racial narrative in this country. Awareness is the first step in finding a cure.
When Sims was writing in 2003, she noted that calling for cultural authenticity was a call from Blacks about what Blacks wanted to create, not for Whites to feel the need to take up the pen and write for us. We’ve been patient a long time. And, during that expectant time, other areas of society have changed, including technology. This has become a tool that provides a wider communication network, newer modes of creating, storing and sharing information and better transparency. And a sense of urgency.
“Asserting the need to “tell our own stories” is not the same as censoring or restricting the freedom of writers to choose their own topics. It does mean, however, that writers need to recognize that, when they try to cross cultural gaps to write about a cultural experience different from their own, they must find a way to deal effectively with the limitations of their experience and knowledge.” (p. 36) Even then, there was the need to contend with those in positions of power claiming ‘censorship’ with those just trying be heard were claiming a voice. There is no equity in that.
Bishop’s work reflected on children’s literature and I wonder how to transition her guidelines for Black children’s literature (Sims, 2012) and her insights about changes in representation to the world of young adult literature. Teens are not nurtured in the same way as children but, they are not yet adults. Where she could list developments, I only have questions. But then, she’s a true scholar.
But, what do I see in 2019 with regards to Black literature in the US? I don’t predict much of an increase in the number of books written by Black authors in the US (so far, I’ve only identified 76) and I would image there still to be a greater number written about Black children. I wish there were more people critically reviewing these books to really look at this representation, to enrich the conversation and ultimately the representation. If we’re going to play a numbers game though, I would expect diversity to continue to increase in youth literature, but it will not include a growth in books from Black authors. I say this because I believe the growth is diverse books doesn’t come from a sense of moral purpose or social justice. If it did, the books would be better and they movement would be in all areas of publishing–there would be more diversity among editors and art director. As the numbers of books sold is decreasing, publishers see IPOC, and LGBT+ youth as well as those with disabilities as an untapped market to increase sales. (A similar ploy is used by professional organizations who want to keep up the membership numbers.) With the population of Blacks decreasing over time (with no increase in economic power) there is no economic reason for capitalists to publish more books by black authors.
And on a lighter note…
More books are being published in the US that have been written by 1st or 2nd generation African and Caribbean immigrants bringing with them more Black Muslim and AfroLatinx voices. Their stories enrich the offerings of Black literature in the United States.
2019 brings the release of books from two new imprints headed by Black men. Kwame Alexander’s Versify and Christopher Myer’s Make Me A World will deliver a diverse (as in not all Black) selection of highly anticipated books.
Will there be a re-birth in urban lit? Will the popularity of books like those by Tiffany Jackson (Allegedly; Monday’s Not Coming; Let Me Hear a Rhyme), Angie Thomas (The Hate You Give; On the Come Up), Elizabeth Aceveda (Poet X; With the Fire on High) and even Nonieqe Ramos’ Disturbed Girls Dictionary usher in a new era of books dubbed urban or hip-hop lit? And, how will these books be received? No doubt, there will be a market among teens who see themselves in these books, but I’ve also heard them referred to as ‘black pain books’; those that feed the deficit-based thinking than many outside the Black community maintain. I’m curious to see how scholars and academics embrace these books on many levels. I’m interested not only in how well the books are accepted throughout the Black community but, what the conversation looks like. While there was a time that disagreement within the community only happened behind closed doors after company was gone, that seems to have changed. How transformative will this conversation be? ’cause remember, we’re all here for the children, right?
I’ve been pointed toward a growing number of Black comics and I think the number of Black comic-cons is a testament to this growth. And graphic novels?
There are more SFF books being published this year however, there are still few series by Black authors in any genre. More LGBT+ books but a negligible amount of characters with disabilities. As the number of books about mindfulness and environmental issues increased from non Black authors, it might be good for publishers to realize that Black children do read about astrophysics, environmental justice, urban gardening and a variety of spiritual practices. These highly relevant topics can be woven into fiction as easily as they can be written into nonfiction.
I think some of the Black authors to really watch this year are Kosovo Jackson, Daniel Barnes, Claire Kann and… I haven’t read enough advance copies! While I could put every single Black author in the US except 3 on this next list, I’d say the authors that are continuously underrated, rarely promoted and probably underpaid are Tonya Bolden, Tracey Baptiste, Kekla Magoon, Nnedi Okorafor, Ronald L. Smith, Nikki Grimes, Sharon Flake, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovitch, and Veronica Chambers.
There’s so much going on that I want to start paying attention to because I want to note the Black presence in all these areas such as online writing platforms (Smashwords) and story apps. I think we do a disservice to young people not to recognize where they are creating and sharing content. These new platforms may be what gives way to revolutionizing the presence of #ownvoices literature.
There are still monkey books being published. No, they’re not YA but the continued of those anthropomorphic apes destroy any semblance of righteousness in youth literature as they perpetuate the dehumanization of Blacks.
This is not a scholarly piece. I hope I’ve given you something to consider when it comes to Black youth literature in 2019.