On Saturday April 13th I attended the 2019 Arbuthnot Honor Lecture delivered by Dr. Debbie Reese. It was clarifying and motivating, and I have since been thinking more about the way the work of Dr. Reese and other BIPOC colleagues is framed within the field of youth literature.
In her April 4th column at Kirkus Reviews that looked forward to the lecture, Children’s Editor Vicky Smith provided a much-needed counterpoint to the wave of attacks on “Toxic Twitter” and the marginalizing of bloggers within the youth literature industry. In it, I see her deliberately using language of active change-making often used to defame women of color and Native women, and instead praising it (emphases added):
“I celebrate the Diversity Jedi who have seized the children’s-literature conversation from those who’ve controlled it and forced it to open up.”
“Reese’s is one voice among many that have been raised in sustained, earned rage over the past several years, demanding that the industry do better in its representation of marginalized identities.”
“The methods of the Diversity Jedi are often not gentle. I know this from personal experience. But (if you permit the extension of the metaphor) it takes concerted, violent effort to take out the Death Star.”
She defends the use of “rage” and “violent effort” to make needed positive change against a force that is in itself violent, as she alludes through her “Death Star” metaphor, and that is an appropriate argument. But I am also concerned that without understanding why and how these kinds of words have been used to denounce Dr. Reese and BIPOC Diversity Jedi, this argument might play into the hands of those who condemn anger when it comes from a BIPOC community—most frequently women of color and Native women—as a way of shoring up the status quo of White supremacy.
We all get angry, but only some of us are allowed to express it “righteously.” I emailed briefly with Vicky Smith this week regarding her editorial and the issues it brought up for me, and she pointed out: "I figure if people are mad, it’s a good idea to try to understand why." So I’d like to think about other ways to describe what we are doing when we engage in these critical spaces, and how to recognize what we each bring with us to that space.
What others have called “angry” I have understood to be raising one’s voice to be heard because White people are not listening.
What others have condemned as “violent” I see as activism that threatens the status quo, to which the status quo reacts.
What others have called “unprofessional” I see as colleagues disrupting an unspoken code of Whiteness that has nothing to do with our work, and in fact prevents us from doing our work by preventing us from questioning.
Here are other words to describe the work of the Dr. Reese and many of the Diversity Jedi:
- Inquisitiveness. Seeing something not right—Whiteness’s refusal to admit the stranglehold it has on children’s literature—Dr. Reese asks questions. She has dedicated her career to it, and her critical analyses are based in questions. By asking a question, she asks us to engage in a different perspective, which is surely the point of critical analysis, but may not be where Whiteness was trying to keep the conversation. I think this is what is perceived of as “seizing the conversation.”
- Persistence. Undoing the hold of White supremacy on our professional discourse and the creative process of writing and illustrating books and media for youth is the work of generations. Racism is persistent, so only by exposing and pressing against it persistently can we make any change. I think this is what is perceived of as “demanding.”
- Intrepidness. Every time I see Dr. Reese speak, I am amazed at how undaunted she appears. Not fearless, perhaps, but working with clear sight of the threats facing her. I think this is what is perceived of as “not gentle.” What does being gentle with racism get anyone?
I don’t want to suggest that we shouldn’t use the right word, or seek to reclaim the right to “earned rage,” but I do want White people to recognize the work that our BIPOC colleagues do to engage in our common critical spaces, and the rhetorical tactics that are frequently used against them and are designed to elude the White gaze.
It means so much to the future of our field that Dr. Reese was selected to give the 2019 Arbuthnot Lecture, and that the video of this lecture was recorded and archived. There is much to take away from this talk, and I encourage you to watch the whole thing…even if you already saw it live. For my own work, the main takeaway was a line of inquiry that Dr. Reese posited about half way through, in regards to what makes an award-winning book. It’s a segment that typifies what I would call Dr. Reese’s intrepid, persistent inquisitiveness. She is talking about the fact that there “is no neutrality” in books centered in a nostalgia for colonized Native land (transcription, and errors, my own):
“In fact, if you think about it, every children’s book that is set on this continent—that book is set on what used to be Native lands. If we could hold that fact front and center, every time we pick up a children’s book that is set on this continent, how might that change how we view children’s literature? How might that shape that literature as we move into the future? I don’t know—it’s hard to think about it…but I want to think about it. I think we should think about it.”