Reading While White is pleased to host occasional guest bloggers who offer their own perspectives on race and books for children and teens.
READING WHILE BLACK
Or, For Colored Children Who Considered Literary Suicide
When the Rainbow Wasn’t Enough
by Ibi Zoboi
“I don’t like to read” is a something I hear very often in New York City public schools, which I’ve learned to translate as, “I don’t like to read what my teachers make me read.” Which, in fact, does not always mean, “I don’t like to read books that don’t reflect my experiences.”
I once asked a class of Brooklyn ninth graders, many of whom were avid readers, if they’d like to see a Twilight or Harry Potter set in the ‘hood. They all shouted no. I didn’t ask them why. I already knew the answer.
My children’s school has an annual book fair. I have a hand in selecting the titles sold there, and of course, I pick out a wide range of diverse books that reflect the school’s demographic (which isn’t very many). I handed a copy of Christopher Grant’s Teenie, with a beautiful black girl on the cover, to a beautiful black girl. She scrunched up her face and shook her head, as if I’d just handed her a plate of chocolate-covered Brussels sprouts. She’d already bought two John Green novels—neither of which had any black girls on the cover, or in them.
As I’m writing this, my almost 11-year-old comes over to announce that she’s just finished reading Edwidge Danticat’s new YA novel, Untwine. She tells me to read it soon so we can discuss. Yesterday, my almost 13-year-old returned Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ to me. “How was it?” I asked. “It was interesting,” she said. “It’s not as vanilla as the other book. It’s not vanilla at all.”
By vanilla, she means white. Not just white people, but a white feel, a white tone. A book can have only white characters and feel very much not-vanilla—there’s something universal about the voice, the characters, and the themes. She’s probably heard me say this about books. And maybe, in some indirect way, I’ve taught my daughters how to read like this. Because their mother is a children’s book writer, and has to read the canon as part of her job, my daughters are privy to most of the award-winning, bestselling, and even some of the obscure, and under-the-radar children’s books. This sets them apart from their peers, and maybe their ELA teachers, too. I tell them they’re privileged in this sense. They’re little black girls who love to read, and own books, and have parents and grandparents who read. This is their black privilege.
Black privilege includes the art of biculturalism. The very nature of being black and consuming media inundated with the white experience warrants biculturalism. Our Friday Family TV night line-up confirms the range in what we can appreciate—from Blackish (a hit or miss in our house), Fresh off the Boat, and even The Goldbergs (with its many references to black music) to the very vanilla The Middle.
This is how we read. My daughters and I can enjoy Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap for its voice and setting and characters, as much as we can find truth in Renee Watson’s This Side of Home. I’ve been trained to do this all my life as a student, though, without having a Renee Watson or Jackie Woodson to balance out the Shakespeare, William Golding, Stephen Crane, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The very first black author I read was Alex Haley. I read Queen in the eleventh grade because Halle Berry starred in the TV adaptation. I discovered the mirror in Alex Haley’s books in a roundabout way—through a Hollywood movie star who looked like me (according to the cute boys in high school). As a result, I discovered a whole world of slave narratives that provided mirrors within mirrors which allowed me to see the full trajectory of my existence. They were the history lessons I’d never learned in school. Because of Alex Haley, I was able to contextualize nineteenth century feminism via the Bronte sisters and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Edgar Allan Poe stories paled in comparison to my understanding of the horrors of slavery. Later in college, while working in bookstore, I sought out black women poets to better appreciate Emily Dickinson. Not the other way around.
Now, as an adult and a children’s book writer, I can immerse myself in Laini Taylor’s books knowing that while this sort of grandiose mythological world-building is virtually absent in books featuring characters of color, there are still the magical worlds of Wole Sonyika, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Toni Morrison that have yet to make their way into YA novels.
YA author Meg Rosoff recently stated that every single book out there in the world can provide narrative context for all marginalized readers. This has been the thinking since the advent of the written mode, and it’s why Beowulf is still taught in high school English classes, even in predominantly black schools. Whiteness and Western mythology as a default narrative was the only way in which colonialism was allowed to take root and spread throughout the world—beginning with, what some could consider, the holiest of all books.
My mother-in-law was an English professor and I once asked her what she read as a child growing up in Trinidad. She read British classics way before she read any Harlem Renaissance writers. My husband is, and has always been, an avid reader. He actually owned books and made frequent trips to the library growing up in Trinidad and Liberia. He’d never read a book about black boys. Yet, he discovered the magic of story in Frank Herbert’s Dune and in the works of Marion Zimmer Bradley, Isaac Asimov, and Phillip K. Dick. He’d read Octavia Butler without knowing that she was a black woman.
What specificity in diversity or literal diversity does is sharpen that reflection. Indeed, every book can and should be a window. This is how we learn about the world. But we are not houses unto ourselves. What exists for my public school students who are reluctant readers or who read below grade level, are only mirrors. They look to each other for validations of themselves. They find it in music mostly. Yet, if whiteness remains the default narrative, I can’t help to think that white supremacy has a hand in deciding which mirrors they see. Like a house of mirrors, their reflections can be distorted in order to suit the whims of institutional racism. I think they know this instinctively. Maybe they don’t trust books like they don’t trust standardized tests to accurately measure their brilliance.
There’s a certain truth that only a writer telling her own story can bring. From that deep place of lived experience comes validation—a clear, sharpened focus on the specificity of human existence. What reading widely in children’s and YA literature has taught me is that there is indeed specificity in the white experience. Some of my favorite books are about incest in rural Australia, fairy wars in a modern-day industrial town, a time-traveling homeless man in 1970s Manhattan, and a personified pagoda. With over three-thousand children’s books published each year by white authors, there is room for specificity. My children and I absolutely have to read widely to understand the full spectrum of the human experience. And within the books that feature children and teens of color, we’ll hopefully find validation.
While they were reading Renee Watson’s This Side of Home, my daughters would shout out, “Facts!” As in, Renee was laying down some real truth in that story. Now they can understand how gentrification further marginalizes the people in our neighborhood. And because we’ve read and loved The Hunger Games, we can contextualize how there is a larger system at play—how The Capitol reinforces institutional oppression. Maybe we live in District 11 or 12 and fertile farm land or coal are now hot commodities, so the Capitol residents want to move in.
Bicultural literacy needs to be intentional. It’s intellectual survival, especially in this age of Common Core and high stakes testing. A queer black boy absolutely needs to see himself within the pages of an empowering picture book, while also making personal connections to Where the Wild Things Are. And hopefully, with some sharp critical thinking skills, he will gain a better understanding of how and why he is marginalized as a queer black boy in the first place. This is what the Common Core proponents are asking of our students: text-to-self and text-to-world connections.
But when there’s no reflection of the self within any text, then there’s no understanding of the world as a truly validating and safe place. The world becomes cold and dangerous, and readers who don’t see themselves reflected in anything around them imagine themselves to be monsters. So they become apprehensive. They don’t try, they don’t push. And this sort of unrealized potential fails us all.
“…If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” -Junot Diaz
Ibi Zoboi holds an MFA in Writing for Children from VCFA. Her debut middle grade novel My Life As An Ice Cream Sandwich is forthcoming from Dutton Young Readers.
© Ibi Zoboi
Glad to have stumbled on to this blog really interesting content :)
Thanks for this essay -- and I'm always showing up here in my blogspot persona (and in my Chinese name) but I'm also known as fairrosa and Roxanne Feldman who lives in NYC. :)
My recent trip to China made me once again realize that, yes, although I, like your husband, read many many many western canons as a child, I was still surrounded in media and daily life with people who were just like me. All my teachers were Taiwanese Chinese; all the Taiwanese Opera actors on TV were Taiwanese Chinese; all the TV commercials featured those who looked and talked like me. Thus, I never had a sense of "not belonging" because of my book choices and the lack of Taiwanese characters in my reading (from Greek Mythology to U.S. Romance novels.)
Journeying through Alice's Wonderland, or the Black Forest with the Brothers Grimm, or the turn-of-century Paris with Arsen Lupine was all simply fun and world-opening for me -- there was no threat in my own self being erased by the literature I encountered. However -- if a child reader in the U.S. cannot see herself ANYwhere (positively) represented, I imagine that being quite a different experience.
So, yes, let's continue to make sure that great literature made by white people and non-white people continues to be shared by the multitude, but also make sure that the need to have a strong identity continues to be fed by more literary nourishment cooked up and served by many authors from many different backgrounds.
Very nicely articulated. I've often asked publishers why they are so willing to accept a multicultural voice from a white author but not a similarly wide voice from a person of color - most of whom are required as part of their existence to be culturally multi-lingual. It all comes down to breaking old stereotypes of who is allowed to write what - and stereotypes as to who the buyers really are.
Thanks for your perspective.
I am not sure that I understand this, "a multicultural voice from a white author but not a similarly wide voice from a person of color": wide-voice=multicultural voice?
Thank you Ibi.
I read the dead-white-guy list in high school and it didn't serve me well either. It was so off-puttingly narrow that I decided not to study literature even though I've always loved books. And now that I'm writing myself I keenly feel the lack of academic background.
But I've been delighted to see my own kids read a very diverse cannon of literature in high school. Though they still get a Shakespeare every year and at least one other "traditional" title, they get at least one South or Central American writer every single year, usually two books from Africa or the Caribbean every year, and something written by an Asian writer every year. It's greatly expanded my own reading and helped me find authors I might not encounter on my own.
I wonder if our experience here in Oregon is unusual. Is there a survey anywhere of the most commonly assigned books in American high schools. I'd love to see it.
Wonderful piece - measured and kind and insightful. Loving your term literary biculturalism - very useful. Thanks
I am loving this sentence and turning it over in my head: "There’s a certain truth that only a writer telling her own story can bring. From that deep place of lived experience comes validation—a clear, sharpened focus on the specificity of human existence."
I don't know why my entire name doesn't appear, and so here I'll add "Bartoletti."
Thank you for your insight - as a parent as well as a writer and teacher. It made me sad to read the 'chocolate-covered Brussels sprout' episode... Sharing!
The chocolate covered Brussels sprout episode hurt me to read too. I'll leave it at that.
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