Over the summer I read a New Yorker article about the paintings of British-Ghanian artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (“A Bird of Few Words,” June 19, 2017). In it, Zadie Smith discusses the response of critics to Yiadom-Boakye’s work, including the commentary of Robert Storr in the catalogue accompanying the exhibit of Yiadom-Baokye’s work at the New Museum in New York.
She quotes Storr as follows:
“The impact of her [Yiadom-Baokye’s] pictures is of encountering people ‘we’—the general North American art audience—have never met, coming from a world with which ‘we’ are unfamiliar. One that we have no basis for generalizing about or projecting our fantasies onto.’”
In responding to Storr’s commentary, Zadie Smith writes: “There is a respectful caution in this kind of critique which, though undoubtedly well intended in theory, in practice throws a patronizing chill over such work. Yiadom-Boakye is doing more than exploring the supposedly uncharted territory of black selfhood, making—in that hackneyed phrase—the invisible visible. (Black selfhood has always existed and is not invisible to black people.)”
As I read these words they struck me deeply, because it resonated with a lot of what I’ve been thinking about, and trying to articulate, in terms of children’s and young adult literature criticism.
“Black selfhood has always existed and is not invisible to black people.”
Of course the same is true for any group of people historically marginalized and dehumanized by the mainstream narrative: their selfhood has never been in doubt--except by those of us (read mainstream society if you must, read White critics and readers if you’re feeling less threatened and more courageous about looking our profession and ourselves in the eye) who, in reading a work by an African American author or Mexican American author or Korean American author or Choctaw author, try to fit into the framework we’ve constructed to understand their experience, rather than letting the experience and selfhood that exists on the page—and in the real world—speak for itself.
There’s a genuine tension here, I know. Isn’t the whole point of being a critic to say what we think about the book? How can we do our jobs if we don’t?
Well, to begin with, we can ask ourselves what we should constantly be asking ourselves: What assumptions are we making about the lives of people of color and from First/Native Nations in the real world that influence our response to the book?
And what assumptions are we making about readers—is our idea of audience expansive and inclusive?
“Black selfhood has always existed and is not invisible to black people.”
Writers who are cultural insiders understand this innately and it shows in their writing. Critics/reviewers who are cultural insiders know it, too. And so, of course, do readers who see dimensions of their own experiences and identities fully realized on the page.
Sometimes, though, I think the rest of us don’t take this selfhood on faith. So we look for clues, and we don’t always see them, even when they’re right in front of us, in characters who laugh and cry and argue and make amends and annoy and get annoyed and have quirks and contradictions in the way every living, breathing human does. Instead we see the struggle. Or the violence. Or the streets. Or the outsider.
I worry we see the context but not the characters and by extension the lives those characters represent, or we do see them and they are held up as something exceptional. Either way, they are othered.
Perhaps this is also why we have too often admired inaccurate books by writers who are outside an experience--they fit our perceptions of that experience but not the reality.
“Patronizing chill,” to quote Smith, is a real danger in our field, too.
Because publishing for children and teens has always to some extent responded to the world as it is (along with imagining the world that we want), it’s not surprising that we’re seeing a number of books in which racism and police violence plays a role or is a theme. The high profile cases in the news in recent years, and the Black Lives Matter movement in response, have raised our social consciousness. And by “our,” I mean mainstream society’s, and I mean White people’s. Because racist police violence targeting Black and brown-skinned people, if I can use Zadie Smith’s words in a different context, “has always existed and is not invisible to Black people.”
All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely has become a deservedly popular choice for all-school reads.The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas topped The New York Times bestseller list for months. A number of other books exploring and reflecting dimensions of police violence against Black and brown-skinned people are also coming out this year. It seems we (read those of us who aren’t Black and brown-skinned) are finally seeing what has been visible and known but went unseen by us for for decades. (Remember the ending of If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson, published way back in 1998?) The new graphic novel I Am Alfonso Jones, written by Tony Medina and illustrated by Stacey Robinson and John Jennings, offers a more expansive look at this painful history too many of us haven’t seen.
We need to own our ignorance. But we also need to be careful how we use our newfound understanding.
I haven’t read all of the new books out this year addressing or even touching on this reality of life in our country. I have read some of them, and one of the things I’m aware of is not wanting to fall into the trap of easily summarizing them as being “about” police violence or racism. Once they get into readers’ hands, I believe a deeper truth becomes obvious: what they are about is people’s lives. The ones I have read, anyway, are about contemporary teens laughing and crying and arguing and annoying and being annoyed. They’re about kids trying to figure things out, and what those things are changes from book to book, character to character, life to life. But all of it--the living, the learning--ends up being violently disrupted by the reality of racist violence.
For me, this is not a subtle difference, because these stories--these characters’ lives--don’t matter because of the violence that happens in them. They simply matter.
Here’s something else I think we who are White librarians and teachers need to also keep in mind: What message are we sending to children and teens if the only books we ask or demand White kids read about children of color or from First/Native Nations speak to the violent disruption of their lives?
It’s wonderful seeing All American Boys as an all-school read. It’s wonderful seeing The Hate U Give being so widely talked about and shared. But please, let’s not stop there. Black selfhood is complex in both those stories, but no single book is ever enough, however important the story it tells of and to the world we live in.
In her novel Piecing Me Together, Renée Watson’s main character, Jade, is an African American scholarship student from a poor neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, attending a predominantly White private high school. After Jade is chosen by her guidance counselor to be part of a mentoring program, she is paired with an upper middle class African American alum of the school. Jade did not ask to be part of the mentoring program, it’s just assumed she’ll find it useful. Then Jade is NOT chosen to participate in an international volunteer trip her school sponsors, despite having tutored some of the students chosen to go. The volunteer program is the reason Jade was willing to leave her neighborhood high school and make the long bus trip every day. When she asks her teacher why she wasn’t chosen, he explains it’s because she has already been given the opportunity to participate in the mentoring program. Why, she challenges--her teacher, her guidance counselor, her mentor--does everyone assume that because she's young and Black and poor she only needs help, and "opportunities," but has nothing to offer, anything to give?
Jade’s story is no less important for White readers than All American Boys, or The Hate U Give, or The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds, or Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. These and other works--by Jason Reynolds and Jacqueline Woodson, by Renée Watson and Nikki Grimes and Rita Williams-Garcia and Varian Johnson and Walter Dean Myers and Virginia Hamilton and so many other Black authors, and other writers of color and from First/Native Nations--need to be shared widely.
Yes, many of us all say that all the time. But how do we act on it? And in what way are assumptions we make about or labels we attach to books, and readers, and the lives of children and teens, getting in our way?
Sharing stories is powerful. We all believe that or we wouldn’t be doing the work we do. And we absolutely need to be intentional about diversity in selecting and in reading, but we also need to give readers diverse stories without limiting either the stories or the readers by labels of our own making.
Beauty and pain, joy and challenge, humor and heartache, injustice and kindness. None of these things is mutually exclusive in selfhood, in stories, or the lives of children and teens.