365 Black: Celebrating African-America History and Culture All Year Long
As an African-American author and publisher of children’s books I am delighted when the month of February arrives. February is a short and usually cold month, but in publishing it’s also arguably the best time of the year for exploring and celebrating Black history and culture through books. For writers of African descent, Black History Month means higher visibility in bookstores and in school libraries. It means more author visits. It means an increase in book sales. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, to have this kind of interest and excitement about Black history, culture, and experiences throughout the year?
When I attended segregated schools in the mid-’50s and early ’60s, Negro History Week (which became Black History Month in 1976) was the most exciting time of the school year for me. I was inspired by the school-sponsored Black history essay and oratory contests, by classrooms competing to display the most creative Black history bulletin boards, and by teachers who decorated classrooms and hallways with photographs of distinguished Black heroes and sheroes. I marveled as the names of leaders like Carter G. Woodson, Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E. B. DuBois, Toussaint L’Ouverture, George Washington Carver, and Marian Anderson and their achievements were announced over the PA system. I recited poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes. And I beamed with pride when the entire school stood and sang in loud, proud voices “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” There were very few books and other resources for our teachers back then, but for us Negro History Week was an exciting time of true cultural reflection, appreciation, and celebration.
Many changes have occurred in our country since the early sixties. Not only is there a Black History Month, but the birthday of an outstanding Black leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a national holiday. And our country is led by Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president. During February, documentaries, commercials, and print ads spotlight aspects of Black history. Bookstore shelves are stocked with picture books, novels, biographies, and materials that reflect and celebrate Black history and culture more than at any other time of the year. The spirit of celebration, I believe, is and should be high.
But as soon as February ends, so do most of the documentaries, commercials, and print ads. The books quickly disappear from shelves. And too often, Black authors and artists and their stories are forgotten or marginalized, that is, until the next February. Adding insult to injury, there are also some disturbing rumblings in the world of children’s literature and in the publishing community. Bloggers are buzzing about what I call the marketing madness of whitewashing covers of some children’s books. Whitewashing in publishing is the practice of marginalizing, misrepresenting, and/or distorting the racial identity of central characters (particularly Black characters) in stories by masking or representing their identity as White on the covers.) It’s bad enough to be underrepresented in the industry as a whole, but making the representation of characters on the covers White while inside the book those same characters are Blacks and other people of color!? How could this happen in 2010?
Ironically, in 1970 when I began my career in publishing, art departments were trying to paint people of color into their books rather than to bleach color out. One of my earliest responsibilities as an art editor was to help adjust the all-White images of boys and girls rendered in school text books by coloring them with tints, gray screens, or a percentage of Pantone 485. This practice transformed a small percentage of the children pictured into people of color that more accurately matched that of the population of the U.S.A. This was many publishers’ initial but half-hearted attempt at representing the Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native Americans who were previously completely missing from the pages. Public pressure was “on”.
After all, by 1970 we had progressed a distance from 1965 when Nancy Larrick’s essay “The All-White World of Children’s Books” forced publishers to begin taking stock of their acquisitions and hiring policies and portrayals of people of color in books. In her essay Larrick said in part:
Across the country, (6,340,000) nonwhite children are learning to read and to understand the American way of life in books which either omit them entirely or scarcely mention them. There is no need to elaborate upon the damage, much of it irreparable, to the Negro child’s personality. But the impact of all-white books upon (39,600,000) white children is probably even worse. Although his light skin makes him one of the world’s minorities, the white child learns from his books that he is the kingfish.
What does whitewashing of children’s and YA book covers say about publishers and the American reading public today? Are marketing and art departments so convinced of the perceived negative impact of using Black images on book covers that they purposely de-color them in an attempt to assure book sales? I submit that in 2010 we are far from declaring our era a post-racial one. Ours is not a color-blind society. We are still weighted down by real but unnecessary racial baggage. With less than 6% of the children’s trade books published in the United States each year authored and/or illustrated by people of color, quite a number of stereotypes, inequalities, and distortions still must be addressed in our minds and in our books.
So what should we do? Through our work as children’s book authors and as publishers of Just Us and Marimba Books, my husband Wade Hudson and I celebrate Black history all year long. And a growing body of writers and illustrators do so as well. We want parents and children to know how important it is that we learn about each other on an ongoing basis. We want parents, teachers, and children to embrace diversity as a given and not relegate Black history to the back of the bus as an afterthought or sidebar of American life and history. Yes, we want to share the stories of ordinary, contemporary boys and girls who are Black and American all throughout the year. What child would not want to see himself or herself reflected realistically and positively in the pages of a book?
In my latest picture book, for example, My Friend Maya Loves to Dance, the narrator of the story admires the grace, energy, and determination of a young Black girl who has a typical childhood dream of becoming a dancer. The narrator, however, is not Black. In addition she has a disability that doesn’t allow her to dance with her friend. Yet, through her joy and appreciation of Maya’s gifts, the narrator exhibits her talents in an interesting twist that shows she has strong ownership of her own special gifts, no matter her race or “otherness.”
Friendship and joy in dance are central themes of this book—not race relations. Because it is a picture book, Maya’s story unfolds in multiple layers. We hear the rhythm of the narrator’s voice and page after page we experience the visual impact of Maya’s dancing. We also feel the narrator’s appreciation of Maya’s skills, but we are not actually aware of the narrator’s physical presence, race, or gender until the very end of the book. My intention and that of the illustrator, Eric Velasquez, was to make the story celebratory and inclusive—one that any reader, girl or boy, African-American or otherwise, could identify with. The story was structured so that the reader could put himself in the narrator’s shoes. An interesting question arises, however. Would the effectiveness of the story be any different if Maya were White instead of Black? Does it matter? Should it matter?
I’m curious about what the bloggers and reviewers will say. Would more librarians buy and display the book if Maya were White? Would I be invited to give more book talks at schools? Would more little want-to-be ballerinas reach for the book on the shelves and want to share it with their friends? Will the story appeal to boys and girls across perceived cultural boundaries? What kind of message does this book give about children with disabilities? These are not easy questions to ask. Nor are truthful answers easy to give. But what is important for me is telling an authentic story to the children for whom My Friend Maya Loves to Dancewas created.
Strength of character, resilience, perseverance, fortitude, self-esteem—these are recurring themes stressed during Black History Month, but they apply to stories for children everywhere, all year long, no matter what their, color, creed, or national origin. Carter G. Woodson knew that when he founded Negro History Week in 1926. And for a great many Americans, Black History Month has grown to celebrate those ideals. To those for whom Black History Month is an uncomfortable reminder of ugly truths about our country’s history, I propose that they take a second look at their assumptions about the make up of the United States of America—a nation of immigrants, native peoples, former slaves, and former slave-holders. For all of us, the month should continue to be a time of reflection and dialog about diversity.
As a writer and a publisher, I’m committed to sharing stories of liberation, like Maya’s—stories that may in fact be very culturally specific yet complete and universal in appeal. I urge librarians and booksellers and parents to support independent presses and larger, more commercial publishers that publish authentic African-American and multicultural books all through the year. I urge editors to acquire more works by people of color. I urge publishers to hire more editors from diverse backgrounds. I urge readers to buy more books by people of color. Let’s stop whitewashing, bleaching, and racebending, whatever the intent. Let’s make more books on Black history and culture available beyond the month of February. I say let’s keep Black History Month, but use it as a starting point not only to celebrate African-American culture but to also introduce children to more books that reflect the diversity of other cultures and ethnicities. As for me and my publishing house, we’ll continue to celebrate Black history all year long!